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Metaphors and Analogies: A Two-Edged Sword

Frequent commenter T. Greer had an outstanding post on historical analogies and cognition at Scholar’s Stage:

Musing – ‘Cognitive Consequences of Historical Metaphors’

You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page.* Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.

….The implications of this are worth contemplation.

The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, Yalta, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.

Most of these metaphors are misguided

Agreed. Read the rest here.

Actually, we have two cherished analogies: hawks look at a situation and see Munich, but doves see the same conflict and exclaim”Vietnam!”. Neither does much for recognizing unique circumstances or complexities. These analogies are political totems signifying group affinity; or are rhetorical weapons to bludgeon the opposition in debate.

Metaphors and analogies are extremely powerful cognitive tools. But like all forms of power, they can be used for good or ill, well or poorly. Those that capture the essence of previously unrecognized similarities are the basis for generating novel insights from which innovations are derived and problems are solved. Poorly constructed but attractive analogies or metaphors capitivate our attention and transmit misinformation that is efficiently remembered and stubbornly retained, at times in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

13 Responses to “Metaphors and Analogies: A Two-Edged Sword”

  1. toto Says:

    This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph.
    How about "Smouldering religious conflicts degenerating into free-for-all, self-perpetuating, living-off-the-land military adventures, with the French attempting a sneaky landgrab in the confusion – and failing miserably, but still causing enough damage to break the Habsburg’s longterm dominance"?
    Umberto Eco summarised it as "Richelieu playing Monopoly with half of Europe", but that might be a bit too terse (also, that might have been more apt for Mazarin).
    Of course your main point is right on. Afghanistan is looking a lot like Viet Nam these days (invading a foreign land full of folks who don’t like us, nominally  in support of democracy, but effectively propping up a corrupt, unpopular leadership), but then again, so did Iraq at some point. History, being made by actual people endowed with (some degree of) free will, is not bound to repeat itself.

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    Vietnam? Eh, Aghanistan is looking a lot like Afghanistan lately, would be my layperson take on it….
    Thinking about the major political issues I’ve changed my mind about (which is very, very hard to do) I’d say it took one of two things: a major sharp shock to the intellectual system, or getting continually beat over the head with the idea – supported by facts – that I was wrong, wrong, wrong!

    – Madhu

  3. Purpleslog Says:

    Any recommendations for a one volume work on the Thirty Years War?

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    C.V. Wedgewood, The Thirty Years War


  5. morgan Says:

    Purpleslog, try The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, by Peter H. Wilson. It’s a big one–over 800 pages, and a bit of a slog but covers it pretty thoroughly.

  6. T. Greer Says:

    @Toto: Ah, but look at what you have left out. It is not as if the Dutch Republic or the Swedes were important parts of the war, right? ^_~

    @Purpleslog: The book that prompted my post was Geoffrey Parker’s Europe in Crisis: 1598-1648. It is a "textbook", but you would not know this from reading it. I was quite lucky to find it at the library actually – it is a very good introduction to the times for those  (like me) who know little about it.

    But if that does not strike your fancy, I suggest C.V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Year’s War. I have not read it myself, but many a friend has recommended it. And it is 300 pages shorter than Wilson’s work.

  7. zen Says:

    Another blogfriend, Dan Nexon wrote a more theory driven work on the general era The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (yes, Dan is an IR prof).
    It’s on my list to read but have not gotten to it yet but my recollection is that Dan knows about tiny ecclesiastical principalities in the Holy Roman Empire.

  8. Purpleslog Says:

    Thanks for the recs.

  9. seydlitz89 Says:

    I go with Wedgewood, it’s an excellent read.

  10. seydlitz89 Says:

    . . . also Herfried Münkler has an excellent chapter on "Warfare, State Building and the Thitry Years’ War" in The New Wars . . .

  11. YT Says:

    Re: metaphors & analogies,

    I believe this sums it up pretty well —

    "Foreknowledge cannot be elicited from ghosts and spirits; it cannot be inferred from comparison of previous events, or from the calculations of the heavens, but must be obtained from people who have knowledge of the enemy’s situation.": Sun Tzu

    Funny how most of us view present events with a comparison of those in former times. F-Gani-Stan may not be Vietnam but it still is a f***hole.

  12. The Thirty Years’ War and Collective Memory « Automatic Ballpoint Says:

    […] Via zenpundit. […]

  13. Dan Nexon Says:

    Peter H. Wilson recently published his magnum opus account of the Thirty Years War <http://www.amazon.com/Thirty-Years-War-Europes-Tragedy/dp/0674036344/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275951656&sr=8-2&gt;.

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