Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking
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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.
labels used in scientific taxonomies, such as lists of the names of biological species.) The tentative and non-black-and-white nature of categorization is inevitable, and yet the act of categorization often feels perfectly definite and absolute to the categorizer, since many of our most familiar categories seem on first glance to have precise and sharp boundaries, and this naïve impression is encouraged by the fact that people’s everyday, run-of-the mill use of words is seldom questioned; in
from any other member of its species, and nobody is surprised or amused by its irreverent behavior when it lands on Albert Einstein. For the mosquito, the crux of the situation is that this nameless object is a warm vessel filled with fuel, and we all understand that that is the only way the mosquito is capable of relating to Einstein. This scenario in fact leads easily to a new set of variations on a theme. Thus one can imagine a dog that goes along one night into the countryside with some
are some insects and a child who finds them interesting, that encoding will allow slightly more distant memories to be triggered, such as that of the family on vacation in the Cinque Terre, but even so, the set of possible retrievals remains very sparse. 166 Chapter 3 When one goes yet further and perceives a person who is concentrating on something trivial and ordinary instead of something grand and extraordinary that is right there before their eyes, then one has taken a large step in
whether a wig is an article of clothing, and so forth. People turn out to have highly divided opinions on such questions. In an experiment conducted by the psychologist James Hampton, sinks turned out to be just barely included in the category kitchen utensils, while sponges were just barely excluded. Since these close calls are the result of averaging over many subjects in a large experiment, one might imagine that if one were to ask individuals instead, one would find clear-cut and fixed
competent in that context, and we assume that many of our readers (at least those who are reading this book in one of its two original languages) would also feel more comfortable that way. However, our general points have nothing to do with the specific concepts that we will discuss. Looking at Two or More Languages within a Conceptual Space How is a conceptual space filled up with sets of blobs of different colors? For instance, how do the repertoires of concepts possessed by French and English