Reasoning and analogies

Christian Baghai
7 min readJan 16, 2023
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Since February 24 and the second invasion of Ukraine by Russia, analyzes and commentaries addressing this or that aspect of the war or relations between the United States, Europe and Russia through reasoning by analogy are very common.

The amazement, despite the visible nature of the forces amassed by Russia on the borders of Ukraine and the repeated American warnings, the feeling of having to deal with a war whose characteristics are equivalent to a brutal rupture in European history, misunderstanding of the situation, all of this encouraged the search for analogies, especially historical ones, in an attempt to define the meaning and the probable evolution of the event by bringing it back to known situations. This is the great generic function of analogical reasoning, very present among our ordinary reasoning: to help us apprehend what surrounds us by bringing the novelty, the unknown, the strange, the surprise, to realities which are more familiar and then serve as models of interpretation.

Breaks and continuities

The whole question being of course to know if these analogies are founded or not, or more or less founded, because it is not enough to reassure oneself by transforming the unknown into the known, it is still necessary that this allows us to think as fairly as possible and then to act effectively. More precisely, analogy is a relationship of resemblance, of similarity, established by the mind between at least two different objects of thought. Reasoning by analogy refers to the process by which the mind establishes a correspondence between two situations, a base situation and a target situation. To be valid, it requires identifying and justifying, through a rational and conclusive approach, common elements, even a common structure between two situations, and showing how one set of relationships corresponds to another. This makes it possible to better understand the target domain or situation and to make inferences about its properties, its functioning and the probable results on the situation of possible interventions possessing such or such characteristics.

As it manifests itself in our ordinary mental life, without benefiting from a methodical and controlled approach, reasoning by analogy is thus both extremely useful — and commonly used –, sufficient to provide the benefits expected of it — reassure themselves and not find themselves completely helpless in the face of a disturbing situation — and often based on dubious, even objectively false analogies, likely to badly engage our actions or reactions. Moreover, in the very principle of the implementation of reasoning by analogy there is an important a priori, that is to say an implicit proposition of which we are often not aware, but which is likely to bias the whole process. It is about the idea that the target situation could obviously be brought back to another with which it would share structural similarities allowing us to apprehend it significantly. However, especially since situations inscribed in collective human history are manipulated by the mind, there are sometimes historical ruptures when social phenomena, under the impetus of various factors, are transformed considerably. It is therefore not always relevant to try to reduce the situations that emerge from these transformations to known situational patterns, since by definition these are prior and do not allow us to understand the novelties that have appeared. Reasoning by analogy therefore implicitly implies forms of historical continuity, even repetition, sometimes caught out by a reality that has been structurally transformed.

To what aim?

Beyond its uses in ordinary life, reasoning by analogy can be mobilized in the field of strategic thinking and action in two different ways. On the one hand by “strategizing” analogies for the purpose of legitimizing oneself, of one’s action, of one’s objectives with various audiences or, on the contrary, for the purpose of delegitimizing the adversary and his actions. In this case, the question of the validity of the reasoning by analogy mobilized does not arise for itself: the essential thing is to instrumentalize an analogy, sometimes with perfect lucidity concerning its falsity and great cynicism, because this brings a benefit in a confrontation. On the other hand, reasoning by analogy can be mobilized in a strategic context to help analyze a situation, to discern its major features as well as those of its probable evolution, and to try to define what are the attitudes and orientations of action to be taken taking into account the objectives pursued and the probable effects of the various possible options in absolute terms. In this configuration, we seek by analogy valid inferences, something that approaches the truth, helps us in the strategic analysis of a situation and on which we can rely to decide on the actions to be implemented. . The search for valid and effective reasoning by analogy does not imply that the established analogies are always solid: they may well be flawed, for many reasons, but the aim is the accuracy of the reasoning and the best possible understanding of the situation. target. Distinguishing these two major generic motivations for implementing reasoning by analogy is an important prerequisite for thinking about the uses of analogy in the context of strategic reasoning.

Strategic analog reasoning can be illustrated in many ways in the context of the war between Russia and Ukraine and the confrontation between Russia, Europe and the United States. The most obvious is that mobilized by the Kremlin between the Ukrainian authorities and the Nazis. It is, in the West at least, one of the least convincing elements of Russian discourse. Moreover, it seems to have above all a function of internal legitimization of Russian intervention and mobilization of society, by reference to the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941–1945. The Nazi analogy, when it works on the outside, is a bonus. Symmetrically and often in reaction to Russian propaganda, the analogy between Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin, from the point of view of the conception of power, psychology, brutal behavior, indiscriminate use of force, etc. . is quite regularly mobilized in the “West”, explicitly or implicitly. Very often, these analogies are the subject of summary reasoning and which bother very little with demonstrations. It is therefore a question, more or less consciously, depending on the case, of using the reference to Hitler and the Nazis for the purposes of delegitimizing the adversary and justifying the actions recommended rather than trying to understand how the Russian president. On the other hand, the parallel between Russia’s action in Ukraine and that of Germany in the 1930s, from a strategic point of view, when it focuses on the so-called “artichoke maneuver”, does not does not belong to analogical reasoning with a strategic aim. It aims to decipher a logic of action by the argumentation of a more solid analogy.

Reasoning by analogy for analytical purposes is mainly used by political commentators and specialized analysts. They do not necessarily choose the same historical analogies to shed light on the same target situation, and sometimes the analogies themselves are subjects of debate. This poses the problem of the reasons for mobilizing one analogy rather than another. Sometimes, we mobilize an analogy not because we have come to the conclusion that the reference and target situations are similar in this or that aspect, but to give credit to a conclusion established a priori. Analogy then no longer helps to interpret, it is only there to illustrate a point and support it with its authority. Beyond the choice of the reference situation, there is also the problem of the elements that are selected to found an analogy between two historical situations. We always sort out from the abundance of reality elements that we then isolate to establish similarity. The way in which the sorting takes place and its greater or lesser relevance are not obvious. Finally, what can we legitimately conclude from a solidly argued analogy? We often forget that to this complex question the least probable answer is the identity of historical situations in all their aspects.

A column by Henri Guaino published in May in Le Figaro caused a stir and was the occasion for a protean debate with the political scientist specializing in international and strategic analysis Bruno Tertrais. Guaino’s point was to draw analogies between the international situation arising from the war in Ukraine and the state of Europe in July 1914: “I borrow this image from the title of Australian historian Christopher Clark’s book on the causes of the First World War: The Sleepwalkers, summer 1914: how Europe marched towards war”. However, not only is this parallel not obvious, but it also does not seem the most relevant, for many reasons. This is a large part of Bruno Tertrais’ reasoned response: “Henri Guaino’s text invites us to take a step back from the events in Ukraine. It has the merit of summoning the tragic history of the 20th century to encourage us to reflect on the consequences of our actions and our strategic choices. In doing so, however, he errs in the historical analogy […]. »

Henri Guaino also affirmed: “If the Cold War did not lead to the Third World War, it is because none of its protagonists ever sought to corner the other”, neglecting here the role played by reciprocal nuclear deterrence in the unstable balance between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. Generally speaking, if partial aspects of the relations between the United States, Europe and Russia or of the dimensions of the war between Russia and Ukraine can perfectly be the object of analogies with situations prior to the cold war, the international political and strategic configuration as a whole, when one seeks to apprehend its fundamental structural elements, it cannot. Mutual nuclear deterrence between NATO and Russia, which did not exist during the first two world wars, is far too structuring a factor in relations to be neglected by mobilizing analogies which do not enter into account. And besides obscuring reciprocal nuclear deterrence and its political and strategic effects, analogies with 1914 or 1939 also tend to assume that a direct war born out of the war in Ukraine would obviously engender World War III. It is the unexpressed and a fortiori unargued evidence that poses a problem here. Everything depends of course on the way in which one concretely defines the “global”, but the global nature of the two wars of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 was linked to the extension of European empires and military alliances, and that of cold war, without direct war at the “center”, to the planetary diffusion of the competition of antagonistic universalist ideologies. Are these characteristics present in the contemporary situation? If not, what mechanisms would possibly make a NATO-Russia war global? Analogies always open up many questions…