Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinkingby Douglas Hofstadter
In The Essence of Thought,/i>
Is there one central mechanism upon which all human thinking rests? Cognitive scientists Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander argue that there is. At this core is our incessant proclivity to take what we perceive, to abstract it, and to find resemblances to prior experiences—in other words, our ability to make analogies.
In The Essence of Thought, Hofstadter and Sander show how analogy-making pervades our thought at all levels—indeed, that we make analogies not once a day or once an hour, but many times per second. Thus, analogy is the mechanism that, silently and hidden, chooses our words and phrases for us when we speak, frames how we understand the most banal everyday situation, guides us in unfamiliar situations, and gives rise to great acts of imagination.
We categorize because of analogies that range from simple to subtle, and thus our categories, throughout our lives, expand and grow ever more fluid. Through examples galore and lively prose peppered, needless to say, with analogies large and small, Hofstadter and Sander offer us a new way of thinking about thinking.
Longlisted for the 2014 PEN / E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
“Surfaces and Essences warrants a place alongside Gödel, Escher, Bach and major recent treatments of human cognition. Analogy is not the endpoint of understanding, but its indispensable beginning.”
“Lucid and, page for page, a delight to read.... [Surfaces and Essences contains] gems of insight.”
Wall Street Journal
"Clear, lively, and personal."
Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Knowing what makes a duck a bird and what makes a plane not a bird may not seem like very profound mental featsbut Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander see such cognitive connections as part of an extraordinarily profound process.... Be prepared to become hyper-conscious of the myriad of analogies one makes every moment of every day.... The end result is a book that is ambitious and provocative.”
Booklist, starred review
“A revelatory foray into the dynamics of the mind.”
“Like Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach, this work executes, from a very complex thesis, an understanding by general readers while also appealing to specialists in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“How do we know what we know? How do we know at all? With an enjoyable blend of hard science and good storytelling, Hofstadter and French psychologist Sander tackle these most elusive of philosophical matters.... [I]t's worth sticking with [Hofstadter's] long argument, full of up-to-date cognitive science and, at the end, a beguiling look at how the theory of relativity owes to analogy.... First rate popular science: difficult but rewarding.”
Melanie Mitchell, Professor of Computer Science, Portland State University, and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour
“Hofstadter and Sander's book is a wonderful and insightful account of the role of analogy in cognition. Immensely enjoyable, with a plethora of fascinating examples and anecdotes, this book will make you understand your own thought processes in a wholly new way. It's analogy all the way down!”
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“I am one of those cognitive scientists who believe that analogy is a key to explaining human intelligence. This magnum opus by Douglas Hofstadter, who has reflected on the nature of analogy for decades, and Emmanuel Sander, is a milestone in our understanding of human thought, filled with insights and new ideas.”
Gerald Holton, Professor of Physics and History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard University
“Hofstadter and Sander's book starts with two audacious goals: to show that none of us can think a minute without using a variety of analogies, and that becoming aware of this fact can help us think more clearly. Then, patiently and with humor, the authors prove their claims across the whole spectrum, from everyday conversation to scientific thought processes, even that of Einstein.”
Nancy J. Nersessian, Professor of Cognitive Science, Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of Creating Scientific Concepts
“Placing analogy at the core of cognition Hofstadter and Sander provide a persuasive answer to the question ‘what is thought?' Analogy is the mechanism underlying the myriad instances of concept formation and categorization we perform throughout any day, whether unconscious or explicit, without which there would be no thought. They mount a compelling case through analysis of a wealth of insightfulimaginative and realexemplars, from everyday thinking to the highest achievements of the human mind, which are sure to persuade a broad range of readers.”
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What People are Saying About This
“Surfaces and Essences is a mind-boggling argument for the central role that analogies play in human thought. Hofstadter and Sander’s witty and profound masterpiece will leave you thinking about thinking in totally new ways.”
Donald Norman, author of Living with Complexity and The Design of Everyday Things
“Doug Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander rip apart everyday understanding to reveal insights of both mind and universe. The key is to recognize that analogies and concepts are the same things, that they are ubiquitous, universal, and key to understanding human thought. Easy to read, but deep to comprehend. The result is both enjoyable and profound.”
Barbara Tversky, Professor Emerita of Psychology, Stanford University, and Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia Teachers College
“Surfaces and Essences has much of both. And more. This book is fun! And serious. Category, analogy (and similarity) are at the core of cognition. On every page, you will find delights: you will be informed, you will be puzzled; you will agree vehemently and you will disagree just as vehemently; you will ponder. And you will return for more.”
Meet the Author
Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University.
Emmanuel Sander is a professor of psychology at the University of Paris.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A deep, well-conceived, deceptively simple exploration of the workings of the human mind. As well as, I think, an outline of where AI research and development needs to concentrate its efforts...Ignore the detractors, there isn't a misplaced or redundant word, thought, or concept in this book. Highly recommended!
Reading Surfaces and Essences is like biting an apple and finding half a worm. It's like a pancake eating contest. It is the Phantom Menace of cognitive science literature. What should have been a monumental work about understanding via analogy undermines itself by being too repetitive, too unfocused, too obvious, too silly and too self-referential. I wanted this book the minute I saw the title because I'm a big fan of well-crafted analogies. I remembered hearing good things about Dr. Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach from college roommates who'd read it, which added to my sense of anticipation. Sadly, other than the prologue and parts of the final chapter, I find very little to recommend here. The book opens with an exploration of the "zeugma", which is the use of a single word in two different ways in the same sentence. An example of a zeugma from a song I wrote is "I can make you a cup of tea/And you can make me smile." This begins to get at the ability of the human mind to make and break lexical categories in unexpected ways. Yet starting with the first chapter, Dr. Hofstadter and his co-author, Emmanuel Sander, seem intent on removing everything that was interesting about analogies by taking a particular word or expression and overanalyzing its figurative meanings for a number of pages. The reason this comes across as extremely tedious is that the point has already been made, and it's easily understood. No one who knows what an analogy is needs to ruminate over why a mother board is a little bit like a real mother. Most people who read this book will go dozens of pages at a time without learning anything new. A number of pages compare airport "hubs" (for airlines) to the hubs of wheels. Who cares? There's a section on the difference between "and" and "but", as if anyone on Earth could have reached page 109 without understanding that. They bother to point out that understanding is not actually standing under anything. One particularly unreadable section uses letter patterns to illustrate how we are reminded of past events. They somehow thought that people wanted to read about how iijjkk-->iijjkd is different from iijjkk-->iijjd and iijjkk-->iijjll. This reminded me of how in high school a classmate thought that the page numbers had some connection with what was happening in the novel. I can't bring myself to care about that. Chapter 7: Naïve Analogies and Chapter 8: Analogies that Shook the World were the only two worth writing, though they were not particularly well done. Naïve Analogies discusses the ways that using physical terms to explain abstract concepts limits our understanding. The best example is that people think of division as splitting something up, thereby making it smaller. However, this is a limiting analogy. If you have four bags of chocolate chips, and you need half of a bag to make one batch of chocolate chip cookies, you can make eight batches of chocolate chip cookies, ending up with a number (8) that is larger than the first two (4 and .5). Thus, 4 ÷ .5 = 8. The last chapter explored analogies in physics, concentrating primarily on Einstein's theories. Unfortunately, the language was so abruptly technical that it seemed like it had been written by a different author. The Epidialogue has to be the worst possible way to end a book. It's a made-up conversation about two friends discussing categories vs. analogies and referring to parts of this book, Surfaces and Essences, including this very epidialogue. Then one of the characters wakes up, and has a conversation about the crazy conversation it had just dreamed. Then one of the characters wakes up, and it turns out that the second conversation was all a dream, too. It's bad. Lastly, (analogy alert) the authors' rampant use of clunky, mixed metaphors reminded me of Stephen King's "dandelions" from On Writing. Dandelions are unobtrusive until you notice them on your lawn, and then you really notice them, and they get on your nerves. (For Stephen King, dandelions are adverbs, as in "she replied nonchalantly"). For example, Hofstadter and Sander write: "Once he had glimpsed this analogy, Einstein went way out on a limb, placing all of his chips on it, in a move that to his colleagues seemed crazy." And "The turning point when light quanta at last emerged from the shadows came only in 1923." I'm not sure if the authors are trying to be cute or if they just don't proofread, but this stuff is not good. It makes me annoyed and write a long negative review.
I loved reading this book very much. It is original in many ways. Two authors of different tongues (French and English) compose a book which I read in German. The authors wrote the book in a very careful way, scientifically precise and I could see that they enjoyed composing it. They themselves inserted here and there examples of analogies by their own. It was fun to detect them. I was interested in chapter 5 how analogies manipulate us. I found out that politicians and managers (people of influence) make use of analogies in order to narrow down our thinking (black and white thinking). Thus we are occupied by their analogies which are not valid in this context and whose only purpose is to detract us from a matter. That's why I prefer to come to the point. Now I learn from this book that we cannot help thinking in analogies.Anyway: I have deep respect of the profound knowledge of these two authors.
I only got through the first 200 pages. He could have covered all of that in 20 pages. I skipped to the last chapter and he was still saying the same things over and over. I do not recommend this book.