Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

by Douglas Hofstadter, Emmanuel Sander
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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter, Emmanuel Sander


Analogy is the core of all thinking.

This is the simple but unorthodox premise that Pulitzer Prize–winning author Douglas Hofstadter and French psychologist Emmanuel Sander defend in their new work. Hofstadter has been grappling with the mysteries of human thought for over thirty years. Now, with his trademark wit and special talent for making complex ideas vivid, he has partnered with Sander to put forth a highly novel perspective on cognition.

We are constantly faced with a swirling and intermingling multitude of ill-defined situations. Our brain's job is to try to make sense of this unpredictable, swarming chaos of stimuli. How does it do so? The ceaseless hail of input triggers analogies galore, helping us to pinpoint the essence of what is going on. Often this means the spontaneous evocation of words, sometimes idioms, sometimes the triggering of nameless, long-buried memories.

Why did two-year-old Camille proudly exclaim, “I undressed the banana!”? Why do people who hear a story often blurt out, “Exactly the same thing happened to me!” when it was a completely different event? How do we recognize an aggressive driver from a split-second glance in our rearview mirror? What in a friend's remark triggers the offhand reply, “That's just sour grapes”? What did Albert Einstein see that made him suspect that light consists of particles when a century of research had driven the final nail in the coffin of that long-dead idea?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is analogy-making—the meat and potatoes, the heart and soul, the fuel and fire, the gist and the crux, the lifeblood and the wellsprings of thought. Analogy-making, far from happening at rare intervals, occurs at all moments, defining thinking from top to toe, from the tiniest and most fleeting thoughts to the most creative scientific insights.

Like Gödel, Escher, Bach before it, Surfaces and Essences will profoundly enrich our understanding of our own minds. By plunging the reader into an extraordinary variety of colorful situations involving language, thought, and memory, by revealing bit by bit the constantly churning cognitive mechanisms normally completely hidden from view, and by discovering in them one central, invariant core—the incessant, unconscious quest for strong analogical links to past experiences—this book puts forth a radical and deeply surprising new vision of the act of thinking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465018475
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 04/23/2013
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 355,895
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.00(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author


Douglas Hofstadter is Distinguished College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. His previous books include Gödel, Escher, Bach (which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1980) and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies.

Emmanuel Sander is Professor of Cognitive and Developmental Psychology at the University of Paris (Saint-Denis), specializing in the study of analogy-making and categorization and their connections to education. Among his previous works is the book Analogy, from the Naïve to the Creative.

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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
SorryMyEnglish More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.