The Uses of Analogy in Human and Social Sciences

A session led by Lara Bonneau

It is possible to conceive transdisciplinarity as sharing of objects or methods by several disciplines. Besides objects and methods, it can also be – and this might be its first form – the sharing of a common lexicon. The tendency of certain human sciences – philosophy in particular – to use concepts elaborated by other disciplines in other contexts was sharply criticized by Alan Sokal in 1994, in what remains known as the Sokal Affair. The physicist tried to discredit the way certain philosophers were using concepts that belonged to the natural sciences, showing their ignorance about the real meaning of these concepts in their original field and thereby reducing their work to vain language games. Indeed, the use of analogy and metaphor in the human sciences can be put into question. During this session, I will try to show that, if it is not without danger, the use of analogy and metaphor is inherent to the scientific activity, which can moreover be both legitimate and fruitful. I will start with a concrete example: the way the art historian Aby Warburg uses analogy and metaphors from the natural sciences. I will then rely on a more reflexive text about the legitimacy of this method entitled Théorie de l’acte analogique in Simondon’s L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information.


  • Gilbert Simondon. L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. Paris: PUF, 1964, pp. 264-268.
  • Alan Sokal. ‘A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.’ Lingua Franca May/June 1996, available at:
  • Aby Warburg. Miroirs de faille, A Rome avec Giordano Bruno et Edouard Manet. Paris: Presses du réel/L’écarquillé, 2011, pp. 62, 64.