Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking
(Basic Books, 2013)
“Analogy is the motor of the car of thought.” — Douglas Hofstadter,
2006 Presidential Address at Stanford University.
The central thesis of Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s massive new tome, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, is as follows: “the spotting of analogies pervades every moment of our thought…constituting thought’s core...we swim nonstop in an ocean of small, medium-sized, and large analogies, ranging from mundane trivialities to brilliant insights.” Dredging up the past to compare it with a present circumstance requires an analogy—it is nothing if not analogy. We inform ourselves, keep ourselves safe, and conduct the trillions of transactions of thinking through the mechanism of analogy.
As befits a subject as rich as cognition, the authors’ first task is to eradicate as wholly as possible the morass of stereotypes and misunderstanding about the nature of the mind and the meaning of analogy. Acknowledging and setting aside the comparatively sterile notion of proportional analogy (A is to B as C is to D), Hofstadter and Sander define analogy as “the selective exploitation of past experiences to shed light on new and unfamiliar things belonging to another domain.” Analogy’s chicken-egg partner, categorization, the authors tell us, should not be thought of as akin to putting items from one’s closet into clearly labeled boxes—one for shoes, say, and another for hats. Rather, categorization, as it relates to cognition, ought to be thought of as the perpetual mental activity of deciding what the essence of something is:
If one sees a dog, one has the ability to infer…that it barks now and then, that it might bite someone, that it has a stomach, a heart, two lungs, and a brain—internal organs that one doesn’t strictly perceive but that category membership allows one to infer. Inferences of this sort are a crucial contribution to thought…If we did not do this at all times, we would be helpless.
Douglas Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, first met Emmanuel Sander, Professor of Cognitive and Developmental Psychology at the University of Paris (Saint-Denis), in 1998, and the two have been collaborating since 2005. The joy in their partnership is evident on every page and seems part and parcel with their pursuit of one of the greatest human projects: explaining how we think. Flush with examples, they push language and meaning to their breaking point to demonstrate the mental mechanics at work. The following demonstrates the interplay between analogy and verisimilitude:
And if we read a certain book in which a certain Sue is described as the mother of a certain Tim, then does this Sue, who is never anything but a made-up character in a book, truly belong to the category mother?…A doll, at least, is a physical object, but what is Sue, when you come down to it? An abstract thought triggered by some words on a page, by some black marks on a white background. Does this thought even deserve the pronoun ‘she’?
Hofstadter is an American, and Sander is a Frenchman, which poses unique challenges for the composition of their book, challenges which have made their text and their joint study of analogy all the richer. “This book has two originals—one in French and one in English,” they write. “Each is a translation of the other, or perhaps neither of them is a translation.” This unavoidable, endemic, crucial suffusion of multiple languages into their study helps bring to life core structures of the mind inherent in their subject. It also recalls Noam Chomsky’s work on universal grammar. The authors’ subject transcends the substance of each specific language, but necessarily includes and deals in iterations of every language. Another subtitle for this book might have been, The Varieties of Linguistic Experience. This nuance in cognition was perceived by another perspicacious mind, novelist Henry James. As he writes in The Art of Fiction:
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience…if experience consists of impressions, it may be that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe.
Cliché, and other pre-formed arrangements of language, figure into the surfaces of words and language use, yet it is our experience that determines their essences. From Hofstadter and Sander’s delicious section, “Did I Spill the Beans or Let the Cat out of the Bag?”:
The two expressions both stand for situations in which once-secret information has, to the regret of certain parties, been revealed to a larger public. And yet the two phrases, for all their similarity of meaning, don’t apply to exactly the same set of situations. That is, they are names of slightly different categories (whose members have a considerable degree of overlap). Thus when a member of a criminal gang reveals (whether to the police or just to an outsider) the gang’s plans for wrongdoing, it’s a case of spilling the beans (and probably not of letting the cat out of the bag), whereas when a married couple tells a few of their close friends very early on that the wife is pregnant, despite having earlier resolved that they would wait a few more weeks before telling anyone, they are letting the cat out of the bag (and probably not spilling the beans). These are close calls, and some native speakers might disagree…but what is undeniable is that most of the time, just one of these phrases will pop to mind while the other remains dormant…the subtle difference in flavor between categories denoted by the two phrases is certainly not a standard piece of conscious knowledge…but is simply something that is acquired over time as the phrase is encountered in a wide range of contexts.
Hofstadter and Sander reconnoiter our linguistic landscape, and make in-roads into the mechanics of brainwork. They demonstrate how the mind may transform casual, effortless conversation into revelations on the outer-reaches of mankind’s capacity. “Making analogies allows us to think and act in situations never before encountered, furnishes us with vast harvests of new categories, enriches those categories while ceaselessly extending them over the course of our lives...and enables us to make unpredictable and powerful mental leaps.”
Surfaces and Essences is a capstone to Hofstadter’s decades’ worth of pioneering work on cognition. For Sander, a younger man, it is a work of rich collaboration and friendship, a foundation on which to rest another generation’s worth of insight and discovery. This book is a terrific expression of a career’s involvement in the fields of cognition and philosophy, a study of what the authors call the “incessant mental sparkling” through which we evaluate our experience and come to make the decisions we make. Hofstadter and Sander have blown the jambs off the orchard gates and in so doing have taken our thinking about thinking, and thus, the analogies we make about analogies, way beyond the realm of mere apples and oranges.