The Gesture of Explanation Without Intelligibility: Ronald Schleifer's Analogical Thinking

The Gesture of Explanation Without Intelligibility: Ronald Schleifer's Analogical Thinking

Analogical Thinking: Post-Enlightenment Understanding in Language,Collaboration, and Interpretation.
Ronald Schleifer
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Stephen Hawkins reviews Ronald Schleifer’s Analogical Thinking, arguing that despite Schleifer’s attempts at interdisciplinarity, his book falls short of a truly collaborative approach.

The phrase “The Gesture of Explanation Without Intelligibility” in the title of this essay is taken from p. 163 of Analogical Thinking, where Schleifer uses it in an account of Theodore Dreiser. The thesis of Ronald Schleifer’s Analogical Thinking is brave. Schleifer claims for the post-Enlightenment period in human history a remarkable achievement. It seems we learned to think differently - very differently. Defending a thesis of such broad scope requires Schleifer to ignore the great differences between such diverse thinkers as Quine, Saussure, Adorno, Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Ricoeur. By skimming quickly across commonalities in the theories they defend, Schleifer attempts to practice the very kind of ‘analogical thinking’ he claims he has recognized. Because distinctions like ‘form and content’ and ‘theory and practice’ are, according to the theory of analogical thinking, no longer useful, the task of communicating ideas becomes extremely difficult. For philosophers who are skeptical of the notion that truth is a matter of the isomorphic correspondence of bits of language to bits of reality, saying anything at all is a painfully difficult task. We experience the powerlessness of words everywhere in our lives, and not least when it comes to trying to speak of what is and what is not. Not for nothing did Parmenides [born 515 BCE] think nothing more could be truly said than the modest claim that “It is.” Saying anything beyond that seems to get us into trouble.

So if the problem of the fit of language to being was taken seriously by the earliest Ancient Greek philosophers, and certainly by the best of them (Plato and Aristotle), we may be surprised to learn that “sometime around the turn of the twentieth century a new mode of comprehension arose supplementing received Enlightenment ideas concerning the nature of understanding and explanation” (Analogical Thinking, 1). Indeed, the emergence of this new kind of thinking will seem even more surprising if we are familiar with medieval philosophy, and specifically the importance of the concept of analogy in the Thomist tradition. Schleifer seems aware that there exists a tradition of thinking about analogy, since he acknowledges it (footnote 3 to page 17). He seems not to take that tradition too seriously. This missed opportunity is of considerable significance for any writer claiming to deal with analogical thinking, but it is particularly unfortunate in Schleifer’s case, since it undermines his thesis regarding the novelty of ‘analogical thinking.’ Citing repeatedly a line from Paul Ricoeur (13, 31, 121, 151), Schleifer distinguishes analogical thinking from the alternative: analogical thinking is a matter of the relation between relations, and not of the relation between terms. But this is simply the Thomist distinction between the analogy of proportion and the analogy of attribution (Bradley, “Transcendental and Speculative Realism in Whitehead,” 159-60). Ricoeur, we can safely presume, was consciously drawing on the resources offered by an old tradition. But Schleifer’s citing of Ricoeur here is equivalent to claiming Thomas Aquinas as an example of a novel post-1900 thinker.

Is it possible that the Ricoeur citation is just one example of this new kind of thinking - that if we could hold all of the various examples together in our mind, we would be forced to acknowledge that something new has indeed come onto the scene? If that were so, Schleifer’s discovery would indeed be remarkable. It would explain a lot about the current state of philosophical inquiry, split as it continues to be into any number of schools and traditions and methods. How would we set about showing that our way of thinking had changed? Schleifer’s method is to overwhelm the reader with the concepts and names of thinkers practicing this new kind of thought. Since ‘analogical thinking’ seems to be a matter of recognizing the ‘similarity’ of disparate elements, this method seems appropriate - certainly far more so than an Enlightenment-style cold and sober consideration of the ideas of any one of these thinkers, for instance. In his introduction, Schleifer promises connections across a large number of fields in the humanities. But the introduction reads like an advertisement for an all-purpose cleaner. Here is what Schleifer promises analogical thinking is or what it can do. (In the interest of fidelity to the original, I will not treat ‘analogical thinking,’ ‘analogy,’ and ‘analogical knowledge’ as though they were interchangeable terms, although Schleifer nowhere effectively distinguishes them. When we read that analogical knowledge is like problem-solving (15), or that analogical thinking is ‘cultural knowledge’ (15-6), we are justified in wondering whether Schleifer is employing these terms with any precision.)

Analogical thinking:

  1. is opposed to Enlightenment thinking, and is consequently not concerned with such Enlightenment preoccupations as accuracy, simplicity, generalizability, reduction, synecdochical hierarchies, equation, and cause and effect (1-3, 8);
  2. is constrained by purpose, structure, and similarity (10);
  3. encompasses the general quest identified by Klee - ‘to discover the essential nature of the accidental’ (11);
  4. “superimposes” readings on other readings, contexts on other contexts (6);
  5. accomplishes the “ ‘work’ of the negative” (11);
  6. is Ricoeur’s “synthesis of the heterogeneous” (13);
  7. is the “ ‘networking’of the understanding” (13);
  8. is the resemblance between relations rather than terms (13);
  9. is “cultural knowledge that brings together complementary parts and wholes, individuals and collectives, moments and sequences, in order to make provisional sense and achieve constellations of ideas and what Donna Harraway calls ‘situated knowledges’ ” (15-6);
  10. is knowledge conceived as event (23);
  11. “suggests trajectories to pursue rather than resting places to inhabit” (24);
  12. has “contradiction” as one of its properties (24);
  13. “is not reductive, or at least not reductive once and for all” (24).


  1. never “ ‘forgets’ its linguistic nature” (3);
  2. marks both difference and likeness (4);
  3. “stands between language (conceived as systematic semiotics) and the world (conceived in terms of more or less collaborative action)” (4);
  4. “traffics in constellations of wholeness” (4);
  5. is, or is comparable to, paraphrase (8), complementarity (9);
  6. has as its chief “features”: “presentation of alternatives,” “plurality and redundancy,” and “repeated, if momentary, apprehension of wholes” (9);
  7. “gathers together scattered factors and, to one degree or another, judges the importance of its gathering” (15);
  8. “calls for a content of apprehended configurations and a method of multiplied narratives” (15);
  9. is somehow distinguished from metaphor (16-7);
  10. does not present positive entities, invariants, or essence, but “insight” and “frameworks of understanding” (24);
  11. is a “species of semantic formalism” (25);
  12. operates as “meaning” and “event” (25).

Analogical knowledge:

  1. “does not reduce difference to the same, nor does it satisfy itself with the contingency and accident of arbitrary likeness” (14);
  2. suspends the law of the excluded middle (15);
  3. is “irreducibly complex” (14);
  4. is not knowledge about reality but “has to do” with reality, acts within reality (14);
  5. is a new historicism (15);
  6. is like problem solving in that it is “timely, purposeful, and local” (15).

It may appear unfair of me to rip from their original context these thirty-one definitions from Schleifer’s introduction. I can only report that it is no easy task to tell from Schleifer’s own glosses what exactly is meant by “trafficking in constellations of wholeness” or “calling for a content of apprehended configurations.” Schleifer never seems to feel any obligation to his reader to sit and analyze his own claims regarding analogical thinking - to draw them together as I have done here and consider what essential claims are hinted at by these expressions. I presume he considers this work similar to the dreaded ‘Enlightenment’ urge that some philosophers continue to have - namely, the urge to push the limits as far as they go, to press on for precision and accuracy where possible. Schleifer’s position is that there are good reasons why we can never hope finally to encapsulate our world in a list of clearly stated propositions. I share this view. Charles Saunders Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead, two thinkers deeply influenced by the Enlightenment thought of writers such as Kant and Leibniz, share this view. We should never forget that we are using language, that the use of language complicates our encounter with the non-linguistic world. But this fact only means that we must be all the more suspicious when someone (ironically, in true Enlightenment spirit) professes to have discovered a new faculty of mind (analogical thinking) simply because, with a superficial glance, he has seen something in common between two philosophers’ projects or concepts.

Take, for example, Schleifer’s claim that analogical thinking is knowledge conceived as event. We have some sense of what might be meant by the term ‘event’ here: probably what Schleifer intends is to reject the Enlightenment notion of uncovering the real once and for all, such that ‘knowledge’ would be universal and impersonal, the sort of thing that could be stored, say, in a computer and accessed whenever one needed it. By contrast, knowledge conceived as event acknowledges that perspective is ineradicable, that truths are always attached to the time and place in which they emerge. Is knowledge as ‘event’ something new, then? Aristotle’s phronesis is a kind of practical knowing that takes place in the midst of a wealth of changing worldly phenomena when a human being recognizes instantaneously what action is best in unique and complex circumstances. While it might be so that words can be written down and mouthed by people in any number of situations, the act of speaking a particular group of words might constitute ‘knowing’ only in certain conditions. There might be no words that contain ‘eternal truths’ that would be true just anywhere. If Schleifer’s book is an attempt to show what accepting this thesis would mean for the way we practice ‘knowing’, then his project could be considered legitimate. But Schleifer presents no argument in favor of this thesis - and from the way he writes, one might be inclined to think that the matter was decided already. Is this foreclosure a necessary consequence of claiming that knowledge is event? Does holding this claim mean that we can never provide definitions, that our writing must be vague and unconvincing?

It may, but until we are convinced that knowledge should be “conceived as event” we should exercise some doubt. Toward the end of Analogical Thinking, Schleifer’s eye for similarities leads him to present Michel Foucault and Bertrand Russell as philosophers united in a vision of the world in terms of “events and power rather than things and knowledge” (197). This characterization is misleading. Both Russell and Foucault speak of ‘event,’ but they do not at all mean the same thing by the term. Foucault writes in the tradition of twentieth-century event-theorists like Gilles Deleuze and Martin Heidegger. Although these theorists disagree about details, they agree in conceiving of ‘event’ as a unique and unrepeatable actualization of a spatio-temporal situation. Each present moment is new in a radical sense. For Russell, by contrast, there is nothing ‘new.’ Events that form the timeline from the origin of the universe to the end of time sit there, never changing; nothing new ‘emerges’ in any sense whatsoever. To be is to have some presence somewhere in that massive and unchanging block universe of facts. For Russell, it was possible to have true propositions about the nature of the world, since the world is a static configuration of objects in relation to one another; even the future is already ‘there,’ though inaccessible to us. A proper analysis of propositions, he thought, would lead to the elimination of traditional metaphysical problems and speculation. But ‘event’ as understood by Foucault, Deleuze, Heidegger and others is an example of the kind of metaphysical speculation ruled out by Russell: it is the solution to the problem of conceptualizing active existence without reference to an ultimate condition or ground. For Russell the notion of ‘active’ existence is no more real than are unicorns; for there is nothing active or in motion in Russell’s universe at all: all the facts are already in place, nothing changes, nothing new ‘happens,’ whatever our feeling that the future is yet to be determined.

To present these philosophers as though they were ‘collaborating’ (a favorite term of Schleifer’s) in a special kind of thinking is to ignore the most significant differences between them. If Schleifer’s ‘analogical thinking’ fails to appreciate such important differences, one may rightly wonder whether it is thinking at all.

Schleifer would likely choose Foucault over Russell, if pressed, for Schleifer’s vision of what the humanities are about is premised on a notion of the event more likely to please Foucault: “The humanities - whether it studied literary texts, musical compositions, philosophical treatises, works of art - have always assumed that each object of study was a unique and unrepeatable event” (37). The work of art has indeed served as an exemplary case of the emergence of novelty in time for thinkers like Heidegger and Deleuze, and for such thinkers, the form of presentation becomes a matter of considerable interest. The difficulties one faces in reading Heidegger are well known, and students of such philosophy relax their habit of challenging the author at every turn: one hopes to grasp the meaning as one grasps the meaning of a poem. (There is nevertheless nothing to prevent rigorous second and third readings.) Indeed, the poetic/mystic vision of philosophy in Heidegger, retained by one of Schleifer’s obvious influences, Jacques Derrida, tends to invite a new kind of student to philosophical problems. Philosophers are not the only ones who work in pursuit of truth. By turning philosophy against itself, and showing the unstable nature of philosophical language, Derrida has perhaps failed to pass on to his disciples his discipline: one must respect the texts with which one works in order to learn, but the overriding victory of ‘deconstruction’ has been the loss of this respect for the work of others, and the exaggeration of the value of one’s own contribution.

Schleifer speaks of ‘postmodernism’ as though from a critical distance, but his style shows that he has abandoned the responsibility to be clear, to work hard to express an idea effectively - and it is this irresponsibility that has earned ‘postmodernism’ its poor reputation in some circles. Schleifer writes as though he is interested in collaboration: “[I]t seems to me that our task, in recovering or constructing the intelligibility of our time, is to discover ways of valuing collaborative enterprise” (146). Since Schleifer’s own work is expressly interdisciplinary, and since we can assume from the impressive number of texts he has published that he must value his own work, he can be taken to suggest that our task is to value work like his. But Schleifer fails to be collaborative in two ways: (1) Since he does not work to understand the claims and theories of the philosophers of whom he writes, Schleifer winds up generating his own meaning without their help; and (2) Schleifer’s writing is replete with unnecessary difficulties, and needlessly excludes readers who might be interested in the subjects of which he writes. Concepts are poorly explained. Conclusions are regularly drawn where there are no arguments. It is often difficult to see exactly what is at stake. And it is often obvious that Schleifer cannot make up his mind about what he wants to say: “Information theory encompasses and, from time to time, articulates this situation - our postmodern situation, which is also modern and premodern” (92). We could perhaps forgive Schleifer for wanting to say that we are premodern, modern, and postmodern, if he could (1) make clear the sense he intends for each of these terms, and (2) say why the ‘situation’ we are in should be considered a mix of all three. Nor is this the only time Schleifer entangles himself:

Such superimposition is a nice alternative to the impermeable divides between science and literature that are often posited, the insurmountable differences between modes of knowledge that Davidson and Beneviste describe. It is, I think, a modified concept of Kuhn’s ‘translation.’ Moreover, it points to what I imagine that we, working in the humanities, can learn most from contemporary scientific disciplines. The structures of knowledge in the sciences, as I see it, are at once Kantian and post-Kantian; they might even be, in an important way, pre-Kantian as well (111).

Kantian, post-Kantian and “in an important way” pre-Kantian as well: What is a student to do with writing of this kind? Is the concept of superimposition a modified concept of Kuhn’s ‘translation’? What leads Schleifer to think it might be? How modified? There are no available answers to these questions; analogical thinking seems to recommend that we log our immediate responses to concepts we discover: this reminds me of that, this might be like that, but modified… What does it mean to be Kantian or pre-Kantian or post-Kantian? The problem here is not one of philosophical jargon, or not only. It is not that Schleifer unfairly expects his readers to be familiar with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It is, rather, that there is no canonical usage of the term ‘Kantian’ which would make the passage cited above accessible; even those of us who have done our philosophical homework are at a loss to say what Schleifer means. But the problem is worse again, for even if it were so that the term ‘Kantian’ meant something specific, it would be impossible to guess in what ways the structures of knowledge in the sciences might be Kantian and pre-Kantian and post-Kantian. Which parts of these structures are which? What those of us working in the humanities might learn from contemporary scientific disciplines is that knowledge can be collaborative even when a chemist works by himself in his laboratory, or when a philosopher reflects on the problem of time, if, after one has reflected, one assumes the responsibility of communicating what one has observed. It is sometimes necessary to introduce new terms, to employ figurative language, and to write in a way that is not immediately completely comprehensible to readers of any and all backgrounds. Readers must therefore be ready for the possibility that something at first foreign is in fact striking and new. It is a pity that certain authors abuse those of us who cultivate a humble and charitable attitude toward those who would teach us.


Bradley, James. “Transcendentalism and Speculative Realism in Whitehead.” Process Studies, V. 23, No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 155-90.

Schleifer, Ronald. Analogical Thinking: Post-Enlightenment Understanding in Language,Collaboration, and Interpretation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.