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Why Historical Analogy Matters

January 7, 2020

Why Historical Analogy Matters

January 7, 2020
Peter E. Gordon in New York Review of Books

(Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 24, 2019, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a formal statement that it “unequivocally rejects the efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” The statement came in response to a video posted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, in which she had referred to detention centers for migrants on the US southern border as “concentration camps.” If the historical allusion wasn’t already apparent, she added a phrase typically used in reference to the genocide of European Jewry: “Never Again.” Always a favorite target of right-wing politicians, Ocasio-Cortez drew a scolding retort from Liz Cheney, the Republican Congresswoman from Wyoming, who wrote on Twitter: “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” In the ensuing social media storm, the statement by the Holocaust Memorial Museum against historical analogies gave the unfortunate appearance of partisanship, as though its directors meant to suggest that Cheney was right and Ocasio-Cortez was wrong.

Much of this might have been a tempest in the tweet-pot were it not for the fact that, on July 1, 2019, an international group of scholars published an open letter on The New York Review of Books website expressing their dismay at the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s statement and urging its director to issue a retraction. “The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical,” they wrote. “Scholars in the humanities and social sciences rely on careful and responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison, and argumentation to answer questions about the past and the present.” Signed by nearly 600 scholars, many working in fields related to Jewish studies, the letter was restrained but forthright. “The very core of Holocaust education,” it said, “is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering.” The museum’s categorical dismissal of the legitimacy of analogies to other events was not only ahistorical, it also inhibited the public at large from considering the moral relevance of what had occurred in the past. Granting the possibility of historical analogies and “pointing to similarities across time and space,” they warned, “is essential for this task.”

I was neither an author of this letter nor an original signatory, but like many others, I later added my name, as I felt the issues it raised were of great importance. The debate involves an enormous tangle of philosophical and ethical questions that are not easily resolved: What does it mean when scholars entertain analogies between different events? How is it even possible to compare events that occurred in widely different circumstances? The signatories of the open letter to the USHMM were entirely right to say that analogical reasoning is indispensable to the human sciences. But it’s worth turning over the deeper, more philosophical question of how analogies guide us in social inquiry, and why they cannot be dismissed even when some comparisons may strike critics as politically motivated and illegitimate.

Joseph Priestly, the eighteenth-century chemist and theologian, once observed that “analogy is our best guide in all philosophical investigations; and all discoveries, which were not made by mere accident, have been made by the help of it.” While it seems improbable that all scientific inquiry must rely on analogy, analogical reasoning does play a central role in much empirical inquiry, in both the natural and the social sciences. (There’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.) The philosopher Paul Bartha has written that analogy is “fundamental to human thought and, arguably, to some non-human animals as well.” Indeed, chimpanzees that learn to associate a certain sound with a particular reward are making analogical inferences: if a sound at time X announces food, then a comparable sound at time Y should also announce food. This same logical structure recurs throughout the empirical sciences. Bartha, citing the philosopher of science Cameron Shelly, offers the example of analogical reasoning among archaeologists in the Peruvian Andes. Unusual markings that were found on old clay pots remained mysterious until researchers noticed that contemporary potters used similar marks to identify the ownership of vessels baked in a communal kiln: they inferred that the old markings had a similar purpose. Similar habits of analogical inference guide scientists in their speculations about features of the cosmos. Even if they cannot empirically verify that a remote corner of the universe exhibits a certain pattern of astronomical phenomena, analogy permits them to infer that the laws that obtain in our galaxy most likely obtain elsewhere, too.

People holding a banner reading “Never Again” with images of Hitler and Donald Trump, during a protest against the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, Warsaw, October 11, 2019 (Photo Credit: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The first thing to note about such analogical inferences is that they commit us to a basic view that the two distinct phenomena in question belong to the same world. Famously, the first line of British novelist L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between declared that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” And historians, along with anthropologists, are often eager to say that humanity exhibits an astonishing variety of habits and moral codes, and that the standards that apply in one case may not apply in another. Historians are especially keen to argue that historical inquiry alerts us to difference: things that we might have assumed were eternal features of the human condition are in fact specific to their time and may have changed, sometimes in drastic ways, over the course of history.

But claims about difference should not be confused with claims about incommensurability. When I say that A is like B, I presume that there is a common standard (or language or culture) by which I could legitimately raise the matter of similarities or differences at all, since otherwise the task of comparison could not even get off the ground. Just because A is dissimilar to B in certain respects does not imply that there can be no common measure by which they might be compared. When applied to the human sciences, the incommensurability thesis—the claim that discrete phenomena are unique in themselves and cannot be compared to anything else—has some very odd consequences, since it leaves us with a picture of human society as shattered into discrete spheres of time or space, as if A belonged to one world and B to another.

Notwithstanding its manifold difficulties, this picture still enjoys some popularity in the human sciences. It has gained a special authority in anthropology, a discipline that has been seized by the anxiety that it had imposed patronizing or distorting standards on other cultures and had made false assumptions about what a given cultural practice meant. Tied to this methodological anxiety was the more explicitly political concern that anthropology had not rid itself of its imperialist origins. The incommensurability thesis offers a welcome release from this problem as it enables the anthropologist to reject all claims of Western supremacy.

The incommensurability thesis also enjoyed a particular prestige among scholars in the Anglophone world, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when French post-structuralist ideas were ascendant in the human sciences and in some precincts of philosophy. Michel Foucault believed that notions of rupture or discontinuity would eventually displace conventional themes of linear progress. Following philosophers of science such as Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhelm, Foucault argued that one could properly understand modern science only if one abandoned the commitment to “great continuities” in thought or culture and turned instead to “interruptions” or “thresholds” that “suspend the continuous accumulation of knowledge.” He admitted that the notion of discontinuity was riven by paradox, since it “enables the historian to individualize different domains but can only be established by comparing those domains.” But he was tempted to defend a theory of “epistemes” (or frameworks of knowledge) as radically distinct.

About the Author

Peter E. Gordon

Peter E. Gordon

Resident Faculty & Seminar Co-chair

Peter Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University and resident faculty at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES), where he co-chairs the Harvard Colloquium for ...