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

This big, baggy, rambling excursion into the world of thought could have found a quicker route to its main point

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:34


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


Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sandler

Basic Books

Guideline Price:

Here is a simple proposition: human thinking is conducted in one of two ways. Either we categorise, building upwards from a mass of phenomena to fewer and more inclusive categories, or downwards from governing categorical headlines to more and more individuated phenomena; or we proceed by analogy, understanding “this” by perceiving how it is analogous to “that”, so that we build our webs of thought by intuitive leaps, from like to like or similar to similar.

Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sandler take 533 pages here to make the case that we think by analogy. That’s an awful lot of trees.

The world is full of popular explainers, and Hofstadter has had a bit of a run for as an authority on how we think. On the evidence of this book, I can’t help but think it’s nice work if you can get it.

Together with his colleague Sandler, a psychologist, Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and computer science, offers us a big, baggy, rambling excursus into the world of thought. The starting point, indeed the only point, is that the central mechanism that drives thought is our proclivity for making analogies; in other words, when confronted with a new phenomenon we flash around in our minds until we find something similar to what’s before us, and understand the new thing in the light of its likeness to the already known. For example, watching a child being undressed by his mother, we think that it’s like peeling a fruit and . . . well, what? The mind leaps, language flexes itself and we understand being alive a little better.

It’s a fairly simple proposition: we build our understanding, our complex, multilayered understanding, of the world not by the laborious piecemeal addition of building block to building block – by rigorous logical accretion, in other words – but by flights and leaps of understanding, by grounded intuition, by the spontaneous recognition of similarity. Did anyone seriously think things were otherwise?

There is a core of good sense in this book, but you have to wade through a soup of often tedious examples to get there, and once you’ve grasped the basic point, well, there is still a lot of soup to wade through, and the soup gets colder page by page. It isn’t just the examples of analogy-making that become tedious after a while. There is something very Dick and Janeish about the tone of the thing: here is Dick, Dick is a boy; here is Jane, Jane is a girl; Dick is wearing a blue shirt, Jane is wearing a blue shirt; look children, look: Dick and Jane are wearing similar colours.

It is, in other words, difficult to work out just what the intended audience for the book is. Students and professionals from the worlds of cognitive science and psychology will find the argument banal, perhaps overly familiar. Those for whom it will be a startling proposition that we make extensive use of analogies in our thinking will most likely have found their eyes already glazing over at the prospect of a book 533 pages long and are indeed unlikely ever to have embarked on reading it in the first place.

I can’t help feeling that the authors have been unduly tempted by popular “philosophy” of the kind made familiar (and lucrative) by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Alain de Botton. Take a central proposition of human life – “it’s all connected”, “life is a web of interconnections” – and set it spinning through a rambling, directionless set of stories, anecdotes and, well, analogies that make the reader feel comfortably connected to sources of predigested deep wisdom. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but in this case I found it irritating because inside this fat book – indeed, you saw this coming – a fine thin book is struggling to get out.

If you can get past the irritating use of “we” (intended to emphasise, I suppose, dual authorship but often uncomfortably heard, as in Thatcher’s infamous “we have become a grandmother”) Hofstadter and Sandler are capable of clear, incisive and even exciting writing. I was spellbound, for example, by near on 50 pages devoted to Einstein’s thought processes, as lucid and engaging a piece of writing on high-level science as I have ever read. I was so enthralled and persuaded by this passage that for a dizzy, breathless moment I thought I was on the verge of understanding special relativity.

When they can bring themselves to trust in the intelligence of the reader, when they write out beyond themselves, so to speak, in a single voice of authority and wonder, then they are very good indeed, Hofstadter and Sandler. It is beyond me to explain how they could have so quickly and calamitously plunged from those dizzy Einsteinian heights into the cringemaking final “Epidialogue”, “a dialogue in which two friends, Katy and Anna, argue about what lies at the core of cognition”. The gold standard in philosophical dialogue is set by Plato, and the analogy is inescapable for anyone engaged in philosophical explanation, so Hofstadter and Sandler, obviously possessed of intelligence, must have known they were getting into the ring with some heavyweights here. It is beyond me to understand how they could have permitted themselves, or how their editor could have allowed them, to write this kind of stilted guff:

[Katy:] “Your words are confusing me, Anna. I carefully chose an example to show you that analogy is subjective, and yet you’re using my own example to show me that categorization is subjective! What kind of sleight of hand is this, anyway?”
[Anna:] “There’s nothing underhanded or tricky going on here, Katy. It’s just an inevitable outcome of clear thinking . . . The verbal label ‘unfortunate incidents brought about by the very act of trying to avoid them’ attempts to pinpoint the shared subtle essence that makes them all analogous.”
[Katy:] “I can easily envision a little category centred on the story of the woman whose death was caused by the man whose goal was to save her.”

Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at the time. Perhaps there is a little subworld, unsuspected by the rest of us, where people do speak like this on the phone, a Sanhofstadterian universe of which it can be said: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Perhaps. The book as a whole proposes, as its grand design, to offer “an ambitious new theory about the way the mind works”.

It doesn’t, I’m afraid, although it has its engaging passages. A bit of a curate’s egg, alas, if I might be forgiven an analogy.

Theo Dorgan’s first novel, Making Way, is published by New Island. His most recent poetry collection, Greek, was published by Dedalus in 2010.