Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Should A Term Be Analyzed to Determine if It is an Analogy Before Attempting to Define It?

Much definitional work begins with terms.  However, it is surprising that analysts very often take a term on face value and do not try to analyze it further.  In particular, they do not try to determine if the term is an analogy.  There is value in recognizing if a term is an analogy because the analyst can be put on guard against making errors in the definition

An analogy seeks to explain a less familiar concept by some degree of resemblance to a more familiar concept.  By "explain" it is meant that there is an attempt to bring a mind to a better understanding of the less familiar concept (explanation being different to definition). 

There can be problems with analogies, e.g. a business concept explained by football analogies will be confusing to an individual with no interest in football.  Because of problems inherent in the use of analogies, the analyst must find out if the term requiring definition is an analogy.

It may be easy to detect an analogy in a term.  E.g. when it is said the economy will have a "soft landing", it is relatively easy to recognize "soft landing" as an analogy.  However, when we speak of "data ownership" (meaning responsibility for data management tasks), it is not so easy to recognize that "ownership" is an analogy (meaning possessing legal title to property).

The analyst must look at the term to be defined to see if it is entirely or partly composed of terms that signify concepts that are different to the candidate concept that the term to be defined is supposed to signify.  These analogous concepts will likely be more familiar.

A term that is an analogy may be trying to signify an empty concept.  What did Ben Bernanke mean by "green shoots".  If it was "economic improvement", why did he not use that term (which is still vague - increased productivity at the cost of job loss might not be "improvement").  "Green shoots" is probably just a term intended to provoke an emotional feeling of comfort rather than to signify an intelligible state of the economy.

Besides positing a null concept, an analogy may falsely suggest that an attribute in the more familiar concept must exist in the concept being defined.  This is not necessarily so (the fallacy of false analogy).

Because of these dangers, the analyst must detect if a term to be defined is an analogy.

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