Peter Middleton Lectures on the “Dragons of Analogy”

By Abby Kosisko

Visiting English Professor Peter Middleton delivered a First Wednesday Lecture at the English Department’s Event Space on November 30, 2016. Middleton titled his lecture “Dragons of Analogy: Literary Knowledge and Scientific Rhetoric” because, in his words, “like dragons, in modern times, analogies have become more like folk explanations than serious tools of understanding.” Drawn from his book Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After (Chicago 2015), Middleton’s lecture sought to defend contemporary poets’ importance in the fields of physics and literary theory, even though they are often dismissed by practitioners in those very fields. The lecture was structured around thought-provoking questions: can physics really express poetry? why did the analogy go out of style in the twentieth century? The lecture was also guided by a slideshow with quotations from a range of thinkers including the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, physicist Thomas Kuhn, and literary critic Gillian Beer.


Middleton started by explaining the history of analogical thought in physics. In physics and other scientific fields, the use of analogy led to understanding and explaining difficult theories to the public. For example, atoms were compared to planets, and DNA sequences compared to alphabetical lettering. However, the analogy died out in the twentieth century, Middleton pointed out, because physicists and historians alike started to see it as “untrustworthy.” Middleton quoted J. Robert Oppenheimer, who famously said physics and poetics were in opposition, as well as Fredric Jameson, whose book The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism shunned analogy as a tool of propaganda rather than of critical analysis. Nevertheless, Middleton argued, analogy was integral to the development of science. Analogy has a long history of use by philosophers of science, from Kant to Deleuze, which has turned it into a sort of black box of symbolic experience for the sciences. The analogy was similarly important as a methodological tool in literary theory because of this rich background. Poetics are thus closer to the fields of science and literary criticism than one might suppose.



Middleton went on to note that nineteenth-century scientific analogizing forever changed the way contemporary thinkers understand and utilize analogies. Although nineteenth-century biologists saw analogy as an important, highly self-conscious analytical tool, many twentieth-century thinkers conflated analogies with reality and forgot their purpose as figurative. “When analogy became ontology,” Middleton explained, “it changed scale.” Twentieth-century thinkers mistook analogy for ontology and, as a result, began to distrust it. Analogy, according to Middleton, has taken on the role of allegory and is often called a “conceptual scheme” by contemporary thinkers. Middleton’s succinct conclusion was that analogies have become dragons so large that they are accepted as universal truths. Drawing on the work of Kuhn and Beer, Middleton noted that it is important to distinguish allegory and analogy. For Kuhn, analogy is a “predictive metaphor” (a similarity that allows one to draw inferences) while allegory is derived from a positive and neutral analogy combined into a theory. For Beer, mistaking analogy for allegory leads to epistemological confusion, something that can be avoided by the use of proper analogy instead.


Professor Middleton ended with a discussion of race science and its tendencies to conflate analogy and ontology with far-reaching effects on society up to the present day. Nineteenth-century race science cemented scientific or biological differences of races through analogies that negatively informed the public’s perception of races. Middleton sadly points out that the idea of inescapable genetic determinants fueled the flames of racism, as seen in the rise of eugenics during World War II, and has to this day never fully left our subconscious. Middleton thus ended the lecture with the questions: will the wounded dragons of false science, such as race science, be finished off? and will the dragons of analogy ride the waves of contemporary analytical essays? Either way, for Middleton, poems are not epistemologically inferior to the sciences or literary theory, and only the rise of proper analogy again will tell whether these fields agree.