Without concepts there can be no thought, and without analogies there can be no concepts. —Hofstadter and Sander

Part of the creative process of a sculpter is to visualize a shape within a stone and then create an analogue of that shape from the stone. Or simply look at a stone and visualize all the analogues that can be created from the stone. Is this a form of analogy? Is creativity possible without analogy? Is it correct to claim that the product of true creativity has no analogy?

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    What is creativity? Is creativity based on analogy more like a weak form of copying than really creating? To really create something new, shouldn't the creation be without prior images? In what ways?
    – Frank
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:24
  • @Frank I soooo did not want to go down that avenue. 😀😉 I'm asking about the product of creativity. Is that product always an analogy to another previous product?
    – user64314
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:28
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    That's what I'm suggesting: if there is an analogy to something already existing, is it really "creative"? To me, it seems reasonable to argue that something really creative has to be never seen before in any way, shape or form... Of course, now we can debate to what extent that is true or not.
    – Frank
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:38
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    Analogy is an easier read that GEB, but still unnecessarily prolix!
    – J D
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 20:33
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    I can think of no analogy for Schoenberg's atonal chromaticism.
    – nwr
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 22:12

3 Answers 3


Creativity is possible without analogy.

Analogy and analogical reasoning (SEP) require a certain element that is arguably missing in some acts of creativity:

An analogy is a comparison between two objects, or systems of objects, that highlights respects in which they are thought to be similar. Analogical reasoning is any type of thinking that relies upon an analogy. An analogical argument is an explicit representation of a form of analogical reasoning that cites accepted similarities between two systems to support the conclusion that some further similarity exists.

Implicit in this definition, is the idea that there are objects among whom structures exist and have similarity. Thus, an engineer may create a glider by analogy with a bird. Here, the design is an act of creation that relies on analogy. Wings to wings, beak to nosecone, movement style to movement style, and so on. Yet, there are some acts of creativity (SEP) that neither register nor require an analogy or analogical thinking. Let's draw from the fine arts. From the SEP:

Now suppose you are looking at a creative product, like a painting or sculpture. The philosophy of art may ask, “What makes this a work of art?” and aesthetics may ask, “What makes this beautiful?”. By contrast, the philosophy of creativity asks, “What makes this creative? Is it just that it’s new, or must it meet further conditions?”

Some proposed conditions of creativity listed in the article are:

2.2.1 Surprise
2.2.2 Originality
2.2.3 Spontaneity
2.2.4 Agency

Thus, one may create a product such a plane by looking at a bird and meet these criteria. Certainly, many people were astonished when seeing the Wright Brothers' plane for the first time. As it was the first plane to function, certainly it was the original plane in some sense of the word. The individual steps to design and engineer the plane was probably composed of one or more Eureka! moments. And of course, humans were involved in the design and implementation at Kittyhawk, NC. Therefore, if analogies were used to create the first functional plane, it should come as no surprise that all told, the first plane was an act of creativity.

But what should we make of Jackson Pollock's art? Should we conclude the his works were done by some sort of analogical reasoning? I would say no. How can we argue that The She Wolf (1943) (MOMA) is derived from analogy? Perhaps something like "Blind Variation" is the explanation:

Psychologist Donald T. Campbell (1960, 1965) proposed that creative thought proceeds through “blind variation and selective retention (BVSR)”. The “variations” he refers to are the various ideas that might occur to a creator, and the process of generating them is “blind” to the extent that it is not guided or directed by prior knowledge of how valuable or useful they will be: “Real gains must have been the products of explorations going beyond the limits of foresight or prescience, and in this sense blind” (Campbell 1960: 92, emphasis added).

So unlike the creative act of formulating a creative legal argument, or a novel algorithm, or creating a new technology de novo, there are some creative acts that seem to rely heavily on spontaneity without teleological preoccupation. In this sense, they are much more expressive, and any analysis that occurs after the fact, may not have actually played a role in the creative act itself. Thus, we can remind ourselves that not all actions are deliberately driven to achieve or attain, but are often done with non-cognitive emotions, like the dance of a strange girl at a school function (YT).

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    Wednesday's dance put me in mind of Black Swan, and how going beyond the perfection of form often involves a little madness. Synaesthesia may seem like our neurology doing analogies between the senses. But apophenia like the disturbing room of animated paintings & their eyes, can arrive as intrusion rather than an invited analogy. When artists voluntarily push into madness to go beyond the perfection of craft, it's more like an invocation than a making..
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 21:14
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    @StevanV.Saban I see you are liking my idea of cataloguing "creativities" depending on how much copying or pure novelty there is :-)
    – Frank
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 22:04
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    @CriglCragl Very articulate, good sir. I've heard artists claim they weren't responsible for the creativity they usher into the world. Philosophy and logic are largely the process of appropriating intuition and binding it to the domain of language. One can argue that even the strength of the Viking beserker lies in the creative act of violence.
    – J D
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 22:23
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    @StevanV.Saban I would say that if analogy is part of the metric, than it's the systematic framework for decomposing an act of creativity into subacts of creativity. If a novel work has some resemblances, those resemblances each can be analyzed systematically by moving through the partial order of correspondences.
    – J D
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 22:25
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    "The She Wolf" would not have been possible without an analogy between the painting and the appearance of a wolf. Pollock's drip painting would not have been possible without an analogy between painting and dance. Every time you create something, you are applying cognitive functions that you developed from different subjects.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 23:03

Creativity is not possible without analogy. Hardly any thought is possible without analogy.

From a cognitive standpoint, what is analogy? Analogy is when you apply cognitive functions that are associated with one kind of object to a different kind of object. For example, you have cognitive functions that help you imagine the rolling sea. When you consider the analogical phrase, a "sea of wheat," you are applying the cognitive functions that help you imagine the ocean, to help you imagine the wheat swaying in the wind like waves.

Speaking very broadly this underlies all of cognition. All of cognition is about applying the right cognitive functions for the current situation. The only way we have to know which are the right cognitive functions for the current situation is by analogy to similar situations.

To be creative means to produce a new kind of object. To do this we have to apply cognitive functions to decide the shape and properties of the new object. Where did we develop these cognitive functions? We developed them from learning how to think about other objects. To be creative, therefore, means to apply cognitive functions developed for other objects, to the new object. That's analogy.

  • From a design perspective, how is analogy incorporated into overall intelligence design? Is it an add-on or a base to build on? From an AI perspective, I can see both analogy processors and analogy-based memory addressing. It seems analogy is a base to build on.
    – user64314
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:21
  • Maybe there is an analogical phase when a sculptor goes from one sculpture to another, but maybe there is also a purely creative phase, which produces a sculpture different from the prior one, a sculpture that has something new and never seen before.
    – Frank
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:51
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    @StevanV.Saban Not true. Contrast is where things are not equal.
    – J D
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 23:01
  • Okay. Purvis's Brains as Engines of Associations and computationalism for intuition I have no problem with, so I have no problem with calling faculties of intuition association. And analogy is a type of association. And most of analogical reasoning is intuitive. But not all intuitive faculties are analogical. Dancing a new dance is not analogical nor is it reasoning. After using intuition to create a new dance, one can even apply analysis. But, the act of creating a new dance analogizes what? Spontaneous physical movements and the art they might create aren't rooted in what analogy means...
    – J D
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 21:49
  • etymonline.com/search?q=analogy The origin is to pick out with words, and that's what analogy means. From WP: "Analogy (from Greek analogia, "proportion", from ana- "upon, according to" [also "against", "anew"] + logos "ratio" [also "word, speech, reckoning"][1][2]) is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analog, or source) to another (the target), or a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process."
    – J D
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 21:50

The subtitle of their book is 'Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking' - now, are fuel and fire the whole constituents of doing mechanical work? Even extending to the most generous interpretation, we can get the general physics from heat-engines, but there is more to what we can do, and how we can do it.

We can learn physical tasks from mimicking others, because when we watch someone do a task the motor signals for us to do it respond. Is that an analogy? Maybe in a sense. But it isn't conceptual, it doesn't involve abstract thought - in fact that often gets in the way of this mode of learning.

A range of corvids who have never before seen the task, have been shown capable of improvising the behaviour Aesop described in The Crow And The Pitcher. Are they using analogy? Language? Abstraction? If so, it likely isn't with the normal meaning we have for those words, and not problem solving of the kind that involved tuition by a parent; it seems to linked to evolutionary drivers of brain structures. Hard to be sure though.

Octopuses are a clearer example. For most species, after they disperse from their eggs they only encounter other octopuses when breeding. But they have been shown to have behaviours that strongly suggest they understand things about the minds of their predators and prey, to develop complex learned hunting strategies, solve problems like using a key in a door or unscrewing a jar, and behaviours that seem to be creative play. Are they making analogies? It just becomes a meaningless term at this point if so, just meaning pattern recognition, and subsuming intersubjective capacities like mirror-neurons and theory-of-mind, which I don't think really fit.

I read an interesting study that I haven't been able to locate, that showed a 'noisy' mind is good for embellishing a core story idea, but a 'quiet' mind is very helpful for coming up with original story ideas. The latter mode makes me think of the Critical Brain Hypothesis, where we seem to find the brain working a bit like a Cloud Chamber that uses an unstable amount of humidity to amplify the small signal of a particle that triggers condensation by it's path. We can do a lot by conceptualising, discussing, elaborating, comparing. But there also seems to be a mode of just quietly contemplating, that we often find really original thinkers and problem solvers are good at. Long walks, hot baths, ideas that arrive in dreams, and the 'still quiet voice' of intuition, seem to arise from a different way of using I minds, I think.

look at a stone and visualize all the analogues that can be created from the stone

If you hear the story of Michaelangelo's David, the block was already part-carved, and considered very challenging in shape. It was the constraints, which made his vision all the more remarkable. Real creativity isn't imposed, it feels more like a discovery, something participatory between artist and medium.

It's interesting to consider the Japanese aesthetic Wabi Sabi, and the tea-ceremony idea of ichi-go-ichi-e. These focus on the unrepeatable, irreplcable qualities, the uniqueness in objects, and in life. I think we would do well to take inspiration from this. In an age where we feel anyone with enough currency could buy a perfect copy of anything, we have forgotten the real meaning of 'treasure': unique objects, uncopyable heights of craftmanship from past ages, and unique stories and histories embodied in objects we treasure. Most things come off the 'production lines of our minds', but don't forget truly new unique things are still possible.

  • If communication with an octopus is possible, isn't it conceivable that the communication would be via analogy? Does a human'-octopus interaction require creativity?
    – user64314
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 0:49
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    @StevanV.Saban: I argue base of common experience would be essential philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/77261/… The examples of relatively successful inter-species communication are raising apes like humans & teaching them sign language, & captive corvids & pet dogs. That builds intersubjectivity. Is that a kind of analogy? I think that stretches the meaning of the word beyond breaking. It certainly seems when we look they look back: youtu.be/GdCOYToDqfM
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 9:30
  • I agree that I'm stretching and challenging the use and meaning analogy. I find it interesting that AI has not yet mastered this task. From a intelligence design perspective, I would consider analogy a core function.
    – user64314
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 15:11
  • @StevanV.Saban: Don't evolutionary algorithms use analogy? Don't AI art programs?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 21:56
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    "what is meant by the term 'analogy'" That is indeed the crux of this biscuit. You can't very well expect to programme a computer to do a task that can't be clearly articulated. Wittgenstein identified that for the word 'game' we feel we know 1 when we see it, but struggle to produce a strict exhaustive definition. He uses that to point at how language is not simply in words, but how we live, in the modes-of-life words are taught in. If 'analogy' is like 'game', can we expect anything less than a sentient AGI, that has made the jump from syntax to semantics, to be capable of it even..?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 23:40

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