Review: Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

My review of Doug Hofstadters new book, Surfaces and Essences:  Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking ran in today’s Shelf Awareness. It is also copied below in its entirety.

Hofstadter’s first book, Godel, Escher, Bach, was essential reading a generation ago – it remains iconic for the way it pulled common threads from very different disciplines to answer a core question about human thinking.

Surfaces and Essences reads in a much narrower way, as a string of examples angling in on the idea of analogy in thinking.  Those examples,  while exuberant, remain lists of examples in service of an argument.

One of the pleasures of reading science books comes from recounting experiments used to support the hypothesis.  There is narrative tension inherent in the question of whether the experiment will turn out the way the scientist wants it to; will it or won’t it support the point?  Will the counter-intuitive turn out to be “true?”  What other experiment will be devised next, to answer further questions?  Surfaces and Essences doesn’t use experiments, which explains the challenge of judging it as a reading experience as satisfying as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, for example.

As a contribution to science, Hofstadter’s core argument about analogy  is not new, but he takes the argument farther than has been done before, and the insights about creativity and discovery are interesting.  But the book does not open up an idea across disciplines and subjects like GED did and it seems unlikely to have the same cultural impact.


ReviewSurfaces 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 (Basic Books, $35 hardcover, 9780465018475, April 23, 2013)

Douglas Hofstadter was just 34 years old when he published the 1979 Pulitzer Prize‑winning Gödel, Escher, Bach, a profoundly original and bravura achievement that vaulted across disciplines to explore how consciousness and a sense of “self” might arise from inanimate matter. It became a cult classic, a shared “nerd bible” (as Time called it) for a generation of educated readers. Nearly 30 years later, I Am a Strange Loop (2007) offered a more contained and personal explanation of consciousness and the physical nature of thought.

In Surfaces and Essences, Hofstadter and French cognitive psychologist Emmanuel Sander address the central role of analogy in thought, an important research focus in cognitive science. The result is a definitive and emphatic affirmation of the argument that analogies are essential for concepts and thinking, permeating every moment and every aspect of thought. We understand the new and unfamiliar because we associate it with something familiar. Analogy is thus the core of thinking.

Hofstadter and Sander spin out this idea on multiple levels, from the personal to the cultural, from specific words, phrases and situations to abstract ideas and ultimately, to creativity. They explain that the mechanism that allows us to use the simplest words is the same mechanism that has enabled humanity’s most groundbreaking discoveries and its greatest accomplishments.

They also take unbridled and often infectious pleasure in backing up each key step in their argument with a dizzying array of examples, often laced with playful humor.  Surfaces and Essences shares with Hofstadter’s earlier books his joy in exploration and ideas. Its frequent examples from children to show the preconscious nature and development of analogies are effective and warm.

Surfaces and Essences is not a review of the research leading to its conclusions. Its purpose is to show how analogy works at successive levels. It relies on examples that illustrate rather than prove, but which often lack inherent interest beyond the point they support and, in their sheer number, can seem excessive, distracting from the main argument. The result is unnecessarily difficult reading, especially in the earlier chapters. Later chapters on creativity and scientific achievement are more persuasive, full of insights and ideas. The extended focus on Einstein’s dependence on snowballing analogies for his “grand train” of discoveries provides the strongest narrative thread, making this section the most engaging–a compelling capstone to this deep dive into human thought.

Shelf Talker: Like the iconic Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter’s latest is serious idea-driven nonfiction for general readers–especially fans of Stephen Pinker, George Lakoff and Daniel Dennett.


(By comparison, here is Publisher’s Weekly’s take.)

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2 Responses to Review: Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

  1. Pingback: Turing, Hofstadter, Bach – with some Cherla thrown in | cartesian product

  2. Pingback: Saving the world from bad books | Book Jacket Letters

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