I have never read a book written by committee, i.e., one that had more than one author, which was very good. This book, with two authors, is, by and large, no exception to the rule.
The writing isn’t atrocious, but it gets in the way. The authors routinely employ that most annoying of journalistic/literary tics—explaining things by referring to oneself in the third person as “one”. One doesn’t like reading a book written as if one had one in mind but one wasn’t quite sure about whether one did or not. Some writers can get away with such drivel—Albert Jay Nock, in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, often employed the tic, but his writing was so elegant and otherwise pleasing that one didn’t often notice, and one certainly never got exasperated for the trouble, as I did in reading this.
It’s sort of sad that the book wasn’t better because it started off with such promise, explaining in quite provocative terms of how the essence (but not the “essence” referred to in the title) of the manner with which we think is founded upon analogies. The premise of the book is that we make analogies about everything, profound and mundane, and constantly, in trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. Or, as the jacket blurb puts it, “Analogy is the core of all thinking.”
I haven’t much argument with the premise, depending on how analogy is defined. Analogies are to thinking what air is to breathing (is it punny to make an analogy to describe analogies?). But it took the authors seven laboriously long and repetitive chapters to explain and defend the premise, which is quite simple, actually. It might have been more enjoyable to learn from whence the premise arises, or to explore how the premise is revealed through real world examples. It wasn’t until the eighth chapter that they finally applied the premise to the process by which a well-known thinker (Albert Einstein) came to make his discoveries. If you want to save time, read the first chapter and the eighth, skipping everything in between. Chapters 2-7 are reiterative.
From whom, I wondered, might they be defending the premise? Does anyone really think that analogies aren’t critical to our thinking processes? The authors make a great show of distinguishing between analogy-making and categorization, and there are some superficial differences, which the authors point out, but there are more profound differences that are ignored, apparently to bolster the argument that analogy forms the basis for everyone’s thinking. In analogical thinking, X bears the same relationship to Y as A bears to B. In categorical thinking, XYAB are all the same things at some level, i.e., symbols representing a sound or, in the example, some variable.
The authors fail to get at the crux of what to me is a critical difference between thinking done by analogy and thinking done by categorization—that analogies are meant to find similarities, whereas categories are created by distinctions. Analogies connect one idea to another. Categories separate them. It can be imagined that the Oriental mind, from which pantheism and Buddha and the idea of the One arose, is steeped in analogical thinking, seeing connections where the Western mind, from which the idea arose, for example, of a trifurcated God (the Trinity) which is still somehow also one God, sees distinctions. This, to me, is the crux of the difference between analogical and categorical thinking, and the difference is profound enough to cast doubt on the central premise of the book. Perhaps it is the case that for some people and peoples, analogies are the “core of all thinking”. The idea seems most applicable to the Eastern thought processes and people. But in the Western world, where categorization abounds; where every little thing is named and described and distinguished by reference to its differences with other things, it seems that categorization comes first, after which analogies might follow. Thus the premise that analogy is the core of all thinking appears false, upon simply a cursory examination of the differences between thinking in the East and in the West.
The title of the book has little to do with the basic premise. In Chapter 6, in what amounts to a bullet section in a chapter on the manner with which analogies are manipulated, the authors make the observation that superficial thinking, i.e., the view at the surface of an object, or of just one attribute it carries, often yields, through categorization and/or analogizing (take your pick), a much deeper and thorough-going understanding of the object. For example, if all that is known about a creature is that it has feathers, quite a bit might be legitimately inferred through either categorization or analogy—that it perhaps flies; that it is a bird; that it lays eggs; that it is an evolutionary descendant of the dinosaurs—all this about its essence can be deduced by simply knowing the one attribute, feathers, revealed at its surface. It might be pointed out, though the author’s didn’t (though they did use the bird analogy), that the type reasoning that follows from knowing a creature has feathers, or any other specific attribute revealed by millennia-old fossil relics, is exactly how paleontologists make deductions about creatures from the distant past. So the idea that the surface reveals, or at least provides clues, to the essence of a thing is hardly revolutionary. The art is in drawing intelligible and defensible conclusions about a thing’s essence from information revealed at the surface.
The book gets relatively more interesting and informative in the eighth chapter, when the authors turn their focus to Einstein’s thinking processes. Their claim, of course, is that Einstein analogized his way to discovering everything from the nature of black box radiation to his special theory of relativity, and especially in deriving perhaps the most famous formula in the world—that of E=mc2 (Energy equals mass divided by the speed of light squared).
It should be readily apparent that Einstein’s notion of energy and mass being equivalent, i.e., of being two forms of the same thing, i.e., of being analogous–was as profound an insight as anything ever contemplated by Eastern mystics, and in some respects, more so, because it employed a reasoned, meticulous view of things categorized as mass and energy to arrive at the conclusion they were actually the same. It is often said that Einstein was a mystic. I would add that though he saw the world through a visceral mysticism founded upon analogical thinking, his reasoning mind was developed and trained in the classical Newtonian thinking of the West, where the universe was populated by discrete and identifiable things whose behavior it was thought could be understood through examinations of cause and effect relationships of discrete and measurable forces. To me, Einstein was as much a bridge between analogical and categorical thinking as he was between Western and Eastern modes of thought. Einstein’s thought processes are what the authors would describe as meta-analogy—analogies connecting analogies. Einstein was a metaphysical philosopher, in the Enlightenment sense, but one who had far greater empirical tools at his disposal than did Galileo, Newton, Descartes, et al.
And the notion that Einstein was much more than just a physicist reveals something (analogously, no less) about why this book and the theory it propounds is much less than it should and could be. The book takes a very narrow view of human thought and perception—a categorical view, if you will, while Einstein could see through categories to arrive at analogies. He was able to see that Galileo’s principle of relevance, which was applicable to physical bodies, also applied to electromagnetic bodies, i.e., to all the material world, leading to his Theory of Special Relativity.
Galileo observed that it was impossible to sense movement in a body traveling at a steady speed or velocity. We know the principle well—it is why we can drink coffee in the car on the interstate once we’ve merged into traffic, at least until we have to apply the negative accelerators (i.e., the brakes) because of a crash up ahead. If we hadn’t the ability to see out of the windows, there is no way we would know we are moving. The same principle applies to the outlandish velocities with which the earth is spinning on its axis and around the sun. We don’t feel it because the rate of travel is more or less steady. From our frame of reference, it appears we are standing still, which is precisely how Aristotle saw things, and it was Aristotle’s ghost with whom Galileo wrestled in order to prove to the Catholics that indeed, “it [the Earth] moves”.
But these profound analogies—this cross hybridization of mental acuity represented by Galileo and Einstein’s thinking—seems lost on the book. Can the authors not see that proving their premise requires a wider perspective, i.e., a broader analogical capacity, than just proposing a few examples? The book tarries down a categorical trail that I am sure is of great interest to the psychology community, but really doesn’t reach past its own discipline to build connections (analogies) between the sciences in providing argumentative support.
This is the age of neuroscience. Where is the neuroscience on analogical thinking? You won’t find it here.
The question of how one acquires and categorizes knowledge is an epistemological question that has perplexed philosophers for millennia. Is there any mention of the wrangling over whether the mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa), or if it possesses knowledge a priori? No, but it would seem that for analogical thinking to be the “core of thinking”, there must necessarily be some a priori knowledge, else what is the mind analogizing to its newly acquired information? Taking account of these sorts of philosophical questions in the pursuit of their psychological answer might have served the authors well. It certainly would have represented a tunneling astride the jargon-laced categories of their field that could have yielded some profitable analogies.
For all their faults, the authors do provide some insights. And even humor. Their description of fauthenticity, i.e., of things that are made to appear authentic but aren’t, is funny and insightful. And their observation of how limited we are by our language when we begin to build categories and bridge them with analogies was revealing. Until reading the book, I hadn’t really considered how many phenomena (like fauthenticity) are experienced on an everyday basis that haven’t a good name. Just today, I experienced a moment of disappointment when I was snacking on some chips and I drew a tiny chip out of the (opaque) bag, hoping for a bigger one. Shouldn’t there be a word that describes my pain? “Chipappointment” perhaps? Or, how about dyschipsia? I had a bad run of dyschipsia the other day when every chip I pulled out of the bag was either broken or small.
A bit of Hegel and Schopenhauer might have done the authors some good. You might recall that Hegel believed in the dialectic as the pathway to truth. Hegel was a categorizer, but his meandering, dialectic path to truth always ended in a whole he called “the Absolute”, i.e., the dialectic based on categorization always yielded to analogy. Schopenhauer was a European mystic (mostly German, though Germany, per se, had not yet coalesced as a distinct nation at the time of his mysticism, and he was quite indifferent as to nationalities) who proposed that the world was simply will and idea. To Schopenhauer, will is timeless and connected to all other wills, and is not subject to the “principle of individuation” as he scholastically put it. What is Schopenhauer’s will except a grand analogy? What is Hegel’s Absolute except much of the same? I know that nobody pays good money to read a book which could be understood as simply an extension of old ways of thinking, but couldn’t the authors have at least tried to make a meta-analogy of their premise to the thinking processes of philosophers who had at least indirectly considered the question?
Even with its problems, I ploughed through and read the whole book. I found a precious few gleaming nuggets of insight through all the panning, but such is the way in this post-modern era. Everything new is something ancient that has been rediscovered for the modern age. The problem is finding new things that haven’t already been rediscovered, and the authors weren’t sufficiently analogous in their thinking that they could find much. I’d give the book a three out of five.