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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinkingby Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander
Synopses & Reviews
Analogy is the core of all thinking.
This is the simple but unorthodox premise that Pulitzer Prizewinning 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 brains 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.
"Not cold reason but a profusion of metaphorical similarities let us understand the world, according to this distended, unfocused treatise on conceptual thought. Cognitive scientists Hofstadter (GÃ¶del, Escher, Bach) and Sander explore the interesting though not startling idea that people rely on analogies drawn from past experience — in words, conversation, cultural assumptions, and ideologies — to make sense of novel situations and discover hidden, abstract commonalities. The authors apply this idea to everything from a child's generalization from 'Mommy' to motherhood to the falling-dominoes analogy drawn during the Vietnam War. They develop some fascinating insights on, for example, the simple analogies underlying Einstein's theories of relativity, but, unfortunately, the authors lack the good analogist's nose for concision. More natural history than rigorous scientific analysis, their argument proceeds by cataloging countless analogical specimens and dissecting their meanings at luxuriant length. Never content with a single pithy example where 20 repetitive ones will do, they bludgeon readers with belabored erudition, tiresome overexplication — five pages on the phrase, 'Me, too!' — and ponderous rhetorical japes, including a 27-page Socratic dialogue. ('Good grief, — Anna, are you implying that categorization and analogy-making are exactly the same thing?') The result is an annoyingly high ratio of gratuitous surface detail to essential information. 10 b&w illus." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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....[F]irst rate popular science: difficult but rewarding.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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!” Melanie Mitchell, Professor of Computer Science, Portland State University, and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour
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.” Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
Hofstadter and Sanders 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.” Gerald Holton, Professor of Physics and History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard University
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 insightful — imaginative and real — exemplars, from everyday thinking to the highest achievements of the human mind, which are sure to persuade a broad range of readers.” Nancy J. Nersessian, Professor of Cognitive Science, Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of Creating Scientific Concepts
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.” Elizabeth F. Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California, and author of Eyewitness Testimony
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.” Donald Norman, author of Living with Complexity and The Design of Everyday Things
Analogy is at the core of thinking.
From this singular premise, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Doug Hofstadter and French psychologist Emmanuel Sander construct a broad argument that explains how analogies help us find order out of the chaos of the world. From the simplest forms (a single word, category, or phrase) to infinitely complex constructions (an idiom, or proverb, or algorithm) analogies are the tools our brains use to interpret and master daily life.
We are faced with a swirling and intermingling multitude of ill-defined situations, none of which comes with a sharp frame delineating it, either spatially or temporally. Our brain is constantly grappling with this unpredictable chaos, always trying to make sense of what surrounds it and swarms into it. How do we make sense of this? The authors argue that these situations provoke an automatic triggering, or unconscious evocation, of certain familiar categories, which, once retrieved from dormancy, help us to organize the enormous potential of our brain. To a large extent, this means the spontaneous coming-to-mind of all sorts of words. And from the simplest of words to the most complex of idiomatic constructions, the retrieval and usage of analogies are the common thread in all of our thoughts. But where do these words come from, and how do they bubble up? What is going on when one merely thinks silently to oneself, a mother and her daughter”? These are the question Hofstadter and Sander grapple with.
With his trademark wit and singular talent for making complex ideas both accessible and yet still provocatively challenging, Hofstadter has partnered with Sander to create a major new contribution to the study of how the mind works.
Starting from the basic premise that analogies are the building blocks of thought, Pulitzer Prizewinning author Douglas Hofstadter and French psychologist Emmanuel Sander construct an ambitious new theory about the way the mind works. In Surfaces and Essences they work from the simplest forms (a single word, category, or phrase) to infinitely complex constructions (an idiom, proverb, or algorithm), to show how analogies are the tools our brains use to interpret and master daily life.
Hofstadter, known for his singular talent for making complex ideas both accessible and provocatively challenging, and Sander have each made significant contributions to the study of how the mind works. This major work will transform how we think about language, the mind, and intelligence.
In a major new work from the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach and I Am a Strange Loop, two leading scholars argue that analogy is the basis for all human thoughts.
About the Author
Douglas Hofstadter is College Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. His previous books include I Am a Strange Loop, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction); Metamagical Themas, The Mind's I , Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, Le Ton Beau de Marot, and Eugene Onegin.
Emmanuel Sander is a professor of Psychology at the University of Paris.
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