Digital Dialogue 15: Plato’s Analogical Thinking

Holly Moore, who defended her dissertation, entitled “Plato’s Analogical Thought” at DePaul University on October 12th, 2009, joins me for episode 15 of the Digital Dialogue. Dr. Moore is a graduate of Penn State’s Undergraduate Program in Philosophy. She did her honors thesis with Professor Mark Munn, who joined me for episode 12 of the Digital Dialogue in which we discussed his project on the relationship between eros and democracy.

Holly is currently a faculty fellow at Colby College.
Her dissertation argues for the intimate connection between Plato’s use of images and his ultimate philosophical teaching. More specifically, she insists that the images Plato articulates and the story his philosophy has to tell about images are inextricably connected. For Holly, Plato is an analogical thinker because the self-reflection and relational structure of analogies expresses something decisive about Platonic thinking.

Digital Dialogue 15 with Holly Moore: Plato’s Analogical Thinking


To subscribe to the Digital Dialogue via iTunesU, click here.

Related Resources

  • The Sun-Good analogy and divided line: Republic, Book VI, 505a-511e
  • The Third Kind and “Chorology”: Timaeus, 48e-53c
  • Division and Definition of Weaving: Statesman, 279c-283a
  • Application of weaving as a mode for statescraft: Statesman, 305e-311c

Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Steph Fernandes says:

    I really liked how Dr. Moore emphasized that analogies are showing similarities and differences at the same time, whereas similes etc. just stress similarities. I didn't quite get how an analogy, though, was supposed to be philosophical, not just rhetorical. I guess I was struck that more than 2,000 years later after Plato's writings, there is still dialogue concerning distinguishing rhetoric from philosophy.

  • Thanks for responding to this, Steph. I will leave it to Dr. Moore to respond in more detail as it is her project. I understand her to be suggesting, however, that a philosophical reflection on the nature of images and their ability to point beyond beyond themselves in determinate ways is made possible by attending to the analogies we find in Plato. I think she is trying to show how analogies can draw us into relation with that which is not fully grasped by conceptual reason. From our conversation, I understood her as trying to undermine a rigid distinction between rhetoric and philosophy.

  • Marina McCoy says:

    Just a reminder to my class that this is the spot to post any comments about Dr Moore's podcast, which is part of the class assignment for Monday. Thanks!

  • Thanks for your question, Steph. I'm really glad you find my work relevant to your own thinking about the relation of philosophy and rhetoric. The reason that I claim that analogy is philosophical is because of its structure. As you mentioned, since analogy is more complicated than imaging and allows for a relation of relations (that is, of one set of relations to another–in my example, Richard the king to the lion of the Sahara), it is able to do something that imaging cannot. And I argue that this structure of analogy is itself an image of the way that philosophy attempts to provide accounts of things, that is, how it reflects upon relations (whether conceptual, physical, etc.). So, analogy, then, is the most philosophical of images, in so far as it acts like a reflection upon the very structure of imaging and as a reflection upon philosophical reflection. Analogy is a philosophical mimesis.
    As a result, while Plato is using specific analogies rhetorically, he is also employing the structure of analogy in order to reflect upon mimesis philosophically.
    What do you think? I'd love to know if you think there's anything wrong with my definitions of rhetoric or philosophy.
    And, to Marina, I'm glad to know you've got your students involved here. I'll be having mine do the same soon! I look forward to more dialogue…

  • SamMacDonald says:

    I think I understand, an analogy is effective because it 'reflects on reflecting itself'. Therefore, an analogy is most philosophical of images? But, is it as effective in relation to rhetoric? Or in other words, what is its place in the hierarchy of rhetorical topoi? It certainly has its limits.

  • chris collins says:

    I am curious about Moore's conception of all images, not just explicit analogies, in plato's dialogues as implying a structure of analogy. I find it a bit difficult to… picture this. I have difficulty conceiving the overall function of this structure. is all philosophical discourse based in analogy? or am I just confused as to her meaning.
    More graspable are her statements regarding analogy as as tool to reach towards, catch a glimpse of, abstract topics that are inaccessisble through plain, direct logical statements. finally, her application of this structure of analysis in Socrates' ultimate pursuit of self knowledge is very intriguing. It seems almost plainly self evident that self knowledge can only be attained through ones reflection in the eye of another. Direct self-comprehension is impossible, but another's image, or conception, of one's identity is the most effective, if inescapably limited, route to a greater understanding of one's self. thank you Dr. Moore, im curious to see where this exploration of the broader function of analogy in Plato's dialogue leads you.

  • Abigail Craycraft says:

    Dr. Moore, your explanation to Steph was very helpful. Now that I understand it better, I really like the idea that analogy can be an image itself–layers of meaning that just keep going! That is a very interesting concept and definitely something I will keep in mind when reading Plato, or really any philosophical or rhetorical work.

  • toy-anna says:

    so i was a little confused about what exactly Dr. Moore was trying to argue and i don't think there was a button to rewind the discussion, but what I think you were trying to argue was that Plato uses analogy as a means of trying to draw people closer to that which is "ungraspable."
    Plato discusses the idea of being and becoming in the Republic, describing it briefly in the cave allegory. To me, it seems to make sense that what is "good" is not tangible by means of imagery or words. We can describe good "things" and we can give examples of "beautiful" things but to actually grasp "good" or "beauty" itself is impossible. That is why he often uses analogies to help us better understand that which is "good" or "just"
    Would you say that your definition of analogy applies to other areas of life aside from philosophy/rhetoric? Take God for example. The Bible describes God in terms that we as humans can grasp. Holy, all-powerful, merciful, forgiving, the embodiment of love, etc… and even in describing the appearance of God- "His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. Hs feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water…His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance." Revelation 1:14-16. This description is only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to what God really looks like. As humans, our thinking is limited and so God uses these terms, because they are images that the human mind is able to grasp.
    Would you describe this as what you said a "relation of relations?" or was your argument only applicable to Platonic dialogue?

  • Chris Kirby says:

    Thank you Dr. Moore for your insights on Plato. While reading Plato I struggled to discover an underlying principle in his writing. Hearing you insights on his analogical thinking has helped me to look at his writings in a different light.
    The concept that analogy is an important philosophical tool (not just rhetorical) is quite interesting. Upon thinking about it, I couldn't agree more. By using analogies we are not just trying to win arguments, but rather we may be trying to engage others in discerning the real truth of a subject matter. So I appreciate that insight very much.
    My interpretation of both Dr. Moore's reflection and Plato's writings makes me deduce the following. Plato wants to effectively philosophize and inspire others to try to find the truths in their own lives. In order for philosophy to succeed in convincing the masses, it must have an element of rhetoric included. Plato, then, uses analogy as his form of rhetoric to convey his philosophical thoughts. Analogies seem to be the perfect combination of rhetoric and philosophy. Thanks Dr. Moore for having us reflect more deeply on this topic.

  • Steph Fernandes says:

    Thank you, Dr. Moore. So, you could say that similes and metaphors and other rhetorical techniques are philosophical, too, if they cause reflection, but because analogies provide the most information about similarities and differences and the like, they are, therefore, the most philosophical because they lead to the most accurate reflection possible. Is that right?

  • Matthew Vigliotta says:

    Thank you very much Dr. Moore for sharing with us. I thought that if was so insightful to point out that Plato uses analogies and images to talk about the forms. I agree with you that analogy is a philosophical concept and not just a rhetorical mode, especially because, as you pointed out, an analogy does not hide the differences between the relationships or "two ratios" compared. Whereas as a direct comparison seems to hide those differences.
    A question that came to mind for me is, would Plato consider an analogy used in a persuasive argument that is not completely necessary (meaning we do you have words that can describe the relationship or concept we are talking about unlike the forms or God) a good or moral thing to do? Or is that a way of convincing people without directly talking to them in a truthful way?

  • Derk Nolte says:

    Thank you Dr. Moore for your insights. Your thoughts will travel overseas to my home country, the Netherlands.
    An analogy in my mind seems to be stuck there forever. It appeals to me as I am a visual oriented person. A lot of times I have the opposite of words creating an image; I have an visual image in my mind, but not the words to express it.
    By setting relations with images, I interpret it as symbols that setting limits to the Form by enlighten the relations; in other words, you're reflecting or defining the Form. I hope that is what you meant.
    I think it is more powerful to words as it easier to grasp for the limited human mind, but I can imagine the analogy can be confusing too as they're more subject to multi-interpretation. The symbols are also, of course, depended of the culture. So, on the other hand, the images seems to need a lot of guiding through words to be effective?
    Defining relations of a construct.
    More memorize visual images (visual oriented)
    Reflective on reflecting on it –> enlighten certain relations.

  • Derk Nolte says:

    Please discard the last three sentences 🙂

  • Billy Cody says:

    Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Moore. I like what you said about analogies building upon and improving images. Every analogy needs an image as reference, and, as you said in the King Richard and the lion example, every image holds an analogy by engaging in relationships then transferring them somewhere else. Since these analogies are used to understand the Forms, I think it is more difficult to misuse and abuse them in bad rhetoric (attempting to answer Matt's question). Good analogies can only enhance a discussion since they seek that which is good, truthful, and just itself. Weak analogies are usually easier to pick out and harder to mask in Sophistry since analogies reflect upon relationships with reference to differences.

  • Matthew Charest says:

    Very insightful analysis. I found it particularly interesting how Dr. Moore points out how analogy not only draws parallels between similar concepts, but also highlights their differences. This explains the level of depth present in the dialogues. The analogies that Plato uses don't only present a single issue or view, they enhance the discussion of the topic by raising even more questions. I found the sun analogy particularly interesting, It doesn't only present the good as something which cannot be fully comprehended, just as the sun cannot be directly looked at it, but it also brings up the issue of the material versus the soul. What is the relation between the physical senses and true reality. This in turn raises another question, assuming we can not fully understand this reality, what consequences does this have for our communication of it to others.

  • Deirdre McCourt says:

    I found Dr. Moore’s ideas interesting, in addition to the questions that are raised. Moore explained the importance of analogy by saying that it helps us relate relations. It helps us to put into relationships things that are already in relationships. Analogy has a privileged position for philosophy because if philosophy needs to account for an image then, with analogy, one is in a sense reflecting on imaging; reflecting on a reflection. In this respect, Plato would take this form of analogy quite serious. Using analogy, you are able to reflect upon bigger concepts and so, I feel that using one that is ineffective or irrelevant would not be encouraged. On the other hand, maybe he would find that any analogy that invites us to reflect on something being articulated or expressed would be valuable to our growth in knowledge.

  • Ashirman87 says:

    Before I got started I just wanted to say Professor Long has a great radio voice, and sounds really similar to Peter Sagal on the trivia show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me". Also, I really like how rich the subject material is, and was particularly excited by the potential of studying how the use of all these analogies in philosophy has changed throughout history. I'm interested to see how that develops.
    I was satisfied by a lot of points made in this discussion, but wanted to hear a little bit more about the use of analogies and what can happen when they are misinterpreted or overextended. This actually just happened to me the other day in my film course when one of my classmates continually tried to pick apart the analogy my professor drew between the image of three trees captured in the movie *Shane* as analogous to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Signals were crossed when the professor suggested a loose interpretation but the student continually tried to refute the suggestion based on an overextension of the relationship. I think this shows how analogies can be weak when taken by themselves and emphasizes a point made in the podcast (implicitly or explicitly I can't remember), that philosophic analogies also require a human component so that they can be properly taught and applied. After all, these analogies always come to us through many filters: the analogy itself, what it points to, the philosopher that delivers us this analogy, and finally, depending, the professor or person that points us to and further illuminates the analogy for us.

  • MarinaMc says:

    Thanks, Holly! Always good to hear about your work! Thanks for responding to us!

  • Andrew Meigs says:

    I found this very interesting. The use of images, in the forms of metaphor and analogy has been something that always interested me, especially with regards to rhetoric or teaching. One understanding that i took away from my brief study of rhetoric in high school was that any use of metaphor or other imagery has the natural effect on any reader of understanding (the logical part, one that hopefully provides the reader with a new understanding of a certain relationship) and then the emotional part. The emotional part comes from what sort of emotional responses the particular images chosen evoke in the audience. For example, i once read a short story in which a commander before battle mused over describing a particular thing as being "as long as a rifle" or "as long as my leg", each would signify a similar length, but would evoke different emotional responses from his men.
    I bring this up because Plato seems to specifically use images that evoke few or no emotional responses. His image of the divided line, which is brought up in the podcast, is distinctly geometric in nature, and will hardly posit any emotional response in a reader. Similarly, the Cave allegory compares the escaped prisoner to the sun with the thinker to the form of the good. The image of a man looking at the sun is similarly informative but also distinctly free of emotional baggage. Plato does this, i believe, to act strictly as a teacher intent on delivering a specific logical view of the world. Plato is a master writer, but he uses discretion when in comes to emotion and rhetorical tricks.

  • First of all, thank you to all of you for your thoughtful questions and responses. I'm very happy for my work to be the source of such a rich conversation. There are a few themes I see running through these comments, so I hope to get at each response by addressing these themes.
    Analogy and the Problem of Interpretation
    It does seem to me that one of the weaknesses identified with imagistic thinking is that for all its ability to connect things that are otherwise unrelated, it lacks a certain precision and relies upon interpretation. Whereas a geometrical proof is static and universally recognizable, an image requires each person to draw the appropriate connections in order to learn what is intended. I think Andrew Meigs' point about Plato's choice of mathematical images is often aimed at just such a purification of imaging, but we can also recall many other images, like the chariot and horses of the Phaedrus, Aristophanes' fanciful myth of the origin of love in the Symposium, and even Socrates' likening himself to a gadfly on a lazy horse. These all seem like the more 'standard issue' images that, as you say, do carry affective weight, which differs depending on the associations each person's experience and her culture bring to it. However, to respond a bit to Ashirman87, the errors of over-analyzing an image are not the fault of the image but of the reader, and to a certain extent this may correspond to the errors one might make in following even a geometrical proof. There are perhaps some universal things that can be drawn from each of those images, which do not rely on affective content, and this is, I think, why Plato appreciates its usefulness.
    But this makes me think that I should explain why I think that no particular analogies are themselves philosophical. They can't be because they are indeed particular. However, the structure of analogy, which Matt V., Matt C, and Dierdre all articulated well, while shared with all particular analogies is itself a more universal thing, and it is this structure that I take to be philosophical and operative in Plato's very thinking of any of the things that he may go about using particular analogies to discuss. (To Chris C., yes, analogy is relevant to all forms of reflection, and this is what makes so many things the subject of philosophy, in my view.)
    Image vs. Word
    One of my broader claims that comes from this work on Plato is that logoi are images just as much as the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty. This makes us think a little differently already about the way that words or 'rational explanation' can help us to disambiguate the interpretation of images. I think that the reason we can interpret images with words is because logoi are themselves kinds of images. This also leads me to believe that the forms are also images, but that's a pretty out-there claim (one I think I can argue, but one most people do not like). In short, it's images all the way down. And this is why Plato's most rational theories are themselves structured by imaging.
    Analogy and the Ineffable
    Some of your responses concerned the way that analogy allows us to grasp what cannot be attained by rational thought alone, and some of you specifically asked if this has relevance to discussions of the attempt to contemplate the divine, or god. Yes, yes, yes. It has a lot of relevance to that discussion, and in fact, a lot of the reason why I wanted to do this analysis of Plato (and later Aristotle) is to develop a kind of conceptual history of analogy, since it ends up taking a really important role in NeoPlatonist (think Plotinus) and later medieval (Aquinas) accounts of how to bridge the gap between the mortal and the divine. If philosophy is to account for everything, it is going to have to account for the fact that all of this stuff, as I said above, is an image. So, what's the source of all this mimetic mischief? Well, Plato says the Good, and the monotheistic West says it's God. In either case, neither of these is itself an image but is instead the cause of and ground for the possibility (this is the transcendental claim I shied away from in my conversation with Chris) of imaging. How can we understand/articulate this relation between the ground of imaging and imaging? With the logic of analogy *because* it allows for a relation of relations, a reflection upon the relation of imaging.
    I know that's a lot, but I hoped to get at a majority of the interests and questions you all offered so generously. Thanks again to you all, and I look forward to hearing your responses.

Leave a Reply