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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking [Hardcover]

Douglas Hofstadter , Emmanuel Sander
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 23 2013
'Analogy is the core of all thinking.'

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 ofparticles 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 ofthe act of thinking.

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Review

Science
Surfaces and Essences warrants a place alongside Gödel, Escher, Bach and major recent treatments of human cognition. Analogy is not the endpoint of understanding, but its indispensable beginning.”

Nature
“Lucid and, page for page, a delight to read.... [Surfaces and Essences contains] gems of insight.”

Wall Street Journal
"Clear, lively, and personal."

Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Knowing what makes a duck a bird and what makes a plane not a bird may not seem like very profound mental feats—but Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander see such cognitive connections as part of an extraordinarily profound process.... Be prepared to become hyper-conscious of the myriad of analogies one makes every moment of every day.... The end result is a book that is ambitious and provocative.”

Booklist, starred review
“A revelatory foray into the dynamics of the mind.”

Library Journal
“Like Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach, this work executes, from a very complex thesis, an understanding by general readers while also appealing to specialists in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“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.... First rate popular science: difficult but rewarding.”

Melanie Mitchell, Professor of Computer Science, Portland State University, and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour
“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!”

Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“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.”

Gerald Holton, Professor of Physics and History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard University
“Hofstadter and Sander’s 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.”

Nancy J. Nersessian, Professor of Cognitive Science, Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of Creating Scientific Concepts
“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.”

Elizabeth F. Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California, and author of Eyewitness Testimony
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.”

Donald Norman, author of Living with Complexity and The Design of Everyday Things
“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.”

Barbara Tversky, Professor Emerita of Psychology, Stanford University, and Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia Teachers College
Surfaces and Essences has much of both. And more. This book is fun! And serious. Category, analogy (and similarity) are at the core of cognition. On every page, you will find delights: you will be informed, you will be puzzled; you will agree vehemently and you will disagree just as vehemently; you will ponder. And you will return for more.”

About the Author

Douglas Hofstadter is Distinguished College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. His previous books include 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' (which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1980) and 'Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies'. Emmanuel Sander is Professor of Cognitive and Developmental Psychology at the University of Paris (Saint-Denis), specializing in the study of analogy-making and categorization and their connections to education. Among his previous works is the book 'Analogy, from the Naïve to the Creative'.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy to put down April 25 2013
By David Wineberg TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
There is obvious passion and great times exhibited by the authors in Surfaces and Essences. They were back and forth between the US and France for years over this. You can feel them sitting around the table, tossing off words, analogs, and examples and probably laughing out loud, till the wine ran out. The boys were having their fun. And it shows. The book is very sprightly. As long as they were at it, they even did a French version, presumably with the examples reversed to show how French differs from English, as opposed to how English differs from French. They kept up the pace and had great enthusiasm for the task, that clearly never lagged. It shows bounce.

Sadly, it also shows overkill. Why give an example or two when you can list fifty or a hundred? Why tell a story when you can tell five of them (all illustrating the same point)? Sometimes they reorder the examples to make a nice pyramid shape, or a sharp upside down pyramid. They worked on phrases until they contained the exact number of letters they needed for the design. Sometimes the examples just run to a whole page, separated by commas. The subheadings have a tendency to be so clever, precious and cute that they give no clue as to the content.

But the real problem is that the book is entirely horizontal, without also being linear. It does not build. It doesn't grow. It just keeps spreading outward. This means you can put the book down any time and pick it up a month later without losing anything. You can open to any page and start reading without having missed anything.

The book's premise is that categorization is effectively the same as analogy. You might think our brains sort everything into neat categories for quick recall.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Like the concept July 7 2013
By D. Fyke
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This idea dovetails with Julian Jaynes definition of consciousness being our awareness of our awareness. This presents a theory of how analogy fits in the development of consciousness.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  35 reviews
190 of 209 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy to put down April 25 2013
By David Wineberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There is obvious passion and great times exhibited by the authors in Surfaces and Essences. They were back and forth between the US and France for years over this. You can feel them sitting around the table, tossing off words, analogs, and examples and probably laughing out loud, till the wine ran out. The boys were having their fun. And it shows. The book is very sprightly. As long as they were at it, they even did a French version, presumably with the examples reversed to show how French differs from English, as opposed to how English differs from French. They kept up the pace and had great enthusiasm for the task, that clearly never lagged. It shows bounce.

Sadly, it also shows overkill. Why give an example or two when you can list fifty or a hundred? Why tell a story when you can tell five of them (all illustrating the same point)? Sometimes they reorder the examples to make a nice pyramid shape, or a sharp upside down pyramid. They worked on phrases until they contained the exact number of letters they needed for the design. Sometimes the examples just run to a whole page, separated by commas. The subheadings have a tendency to be so clever, precious and cute that they give no clue as to the content.

But the real problem is that the book is entirely horizontal, without also being linear. It does not build. It doesn't grow. It just keeps spreading outward. This means you can put the book down any time and pick it up a month later without losing anything. You can open to any page and start reading without having missed anything.

The book's premise is that categorization is effectively the same as analogy. You might think our brains sort everything into neat categories for quick recall. Actually, what we call up are concepts and events for which there is some connection to what is occupying us at the moment - an analogous situation. But after 500 pages of examples of how words and phrases can be extended and compounded and misinterpreted and translated and categorized ad nauseam, I was in despair of ever getting to the payoff.

There isn't one.

It ends with a 30 page "epidialogue" between two women on the phone who've just had a similar nightmare, and they argue about categorization vs analogy, referring to various chapters in the book. Really. It's actually quite cute and comprehensive, and truth be known, if you read that first, you don't need to read the book.

The "argument" for categorization is never strong; there are too many places to question and refute it, and there too many assumptions I just can't buy and which the authors don't support. Words with capital letters seem to automatically file themselves in their own labeled categories, which presupposes printed language. That can't be right. The etymology of written words further muddies the categorization waters. Words evolve. Meanings evolve. Spellings change. Pronunciations change. It seems to wreak havoc in the ordered world of comprehensive categorizing. And of course, there can't be any such thing as comprehensive categorizing, because it is open ended and infinite, and our brains would have to be the size the universe to accommodate them.

Ultimately it doesn't matter, because analogy beats out categorization and subsumes it. So what was the point of those 500+ pages? And what does analogy over categorization give us? How does it change the world or even just the way we see it? What can we do with this important information? What decisions can we make now that we could not before? No hints are given.

From what I can see they haven't actually discovered anything. But they had fun doing it.

David Wineberg
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Editor? No, I don't think there's any need for an editor." July 15 2013
By Jim Kornell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Way too long. Were I writing this in the proper spirit, I'd now add six more sentences saying "way too long" in different ways with common English-language tropes and idioms. For me, the argument is unpersuasive: that things mean something according to their relations to other things, and that we describe things by reference to other things -- 'k, fine. No problem. That ALL thinking is this and only this? That, for example, metacognition (which I don't recall being mentioned), musical thinking, spatial thinking, proprioception, perception, all of these are really surface manifestations of analogy-making? The only way I can get to that is if I assume "analogy = representation," which reduces the book to, "the mind works by representing things." Which would have made a six-word book.
64 of 78 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Like an omelet full of eggshells May 16 2013
By Ruben Quinones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Reading Surfaces and Essences is like biting an apple and finding half a worm. It's like a pancake eating contest. It is the Phantom Menace of cognitive science literature. What should have been a monumental work about understanding via analogy undermines itself by being too repetitive, too unfocused, too obvious, too silly and too self-referential.

I wanted this book the minute I saw the title because I'm a big fan of well-crafted analogies. I remembered hearing good things about Dr. Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach from college roommates who'd read it, which added to my sense of anticipation.

Sadly, other than the prologue and parts of the final chapter, I find very little to recommend here.

The book opens with an exploration of the "zeugma", which is the use of a single word in two different ways in the same sentence. An example of a zeugma from a song I wrote is "I can make you a cup of tea/And you can make me smile." This begins to get at the ability of the human mind to make and break lexical categories in unexpected ways.

Yet starting with the first chapter, Dr. Hofstadter and his co-author, Emmanuel Sander, seem intent on removing everything that was interesting about analogies by taking a particular word or expression and overanalyzing its figurative meanings for a number of pages. The reason this comes across as extremely tedious is that the point has already been made, and it's easily understood. No one who knows what an analogy is needs to ruminate over why a mother board is a little bit like a real mother. Most people who read this book will go dozens of pages at a time without learning anything new.

A number of pages compare airport "hubs" (for airlines) to the hubs of wheels. Who cares?

There's a section on the difference between "and" and "but", as if anyone on Earth could have reached page 109 without understanding that.

They bother to point out that understanding is not actually standing under anything.

One particularly unreadable section uses letter patterns to illustrate how we are reminded of past events. They somehow thought that people wanted to read about how iijjkk-->iijjkd is different from iijjkk-->iijjd and iijjkk-->iijjll. This reminded me of how in high school a classmate thought that the page numbers had some connection with what was happening in the novel. I can't bring myself to care about that.

Chapter 7: Naïve Analogies and Chapter 8: Analogies that Shook the World were the only two worth writing, though they were not particularly well done. Naïve Analogies discusses the ways that using physical terms to explain abstract concepts limits our understanding. The best example is that people think of division as splitting something up, thereby making it smaller. However, this is a limiting analogy. If you have four bags of chocolate chips, and you need half of a bag to make one batch of chocolate chip cookies, you can make eight batches of chocolate chip cookies, ending up with a number (8) that is larger than the first two (4 and .5). Thus, 4 ÷ .5 = 8. The last chapter explored analogies in physics, concentrating primarily on Einstein's theories. Unfortunately, the language was so abruptly technical that it seemed like it had been written by a different author.

The Epidialogue has to be the worst possible way to end a book. It's a made-up conversation about two friends discussing categories vs. analogies and referring to parts of this book, Surfaces and Essences, including this very epidialogue. Then one of the characters wakes up, and has a conversation about the crazy conversation it had just dreamed. Then one of the characters wakes up, and it turns out that the second conversation was all a dream, too. It's bad.

Lastly, (analogy alert) the authors' rampant use of clunky, mixed metaphors reminded me of Stephen King's "dandelions" from On Writing. Dandelions are unobtrusive until you notice them on your lawn, and then you really notice them, and they get on your nerves. (For Stephen King, dandelions are adverbs, as in "she replied nonchalantly"). For example, Hofstadter and Sander write: "Once he had glimpsed this analogy, Einstein went way out on a limb, placing all of his chips on it, in a move that to his colleagues seemed crazy." And "The turning point when light quanta at last emerged from the shadows came only in 1923." I'm not sure if the authors are trying to be cute or if they just don't proofread, but this stuff is not good.

It makes me annoyed and write a long negative review.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging read...with a little skimming of the more lengthy sections. Aug. 4 2013
By Shane Harvey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
While I agree with some of the other reviews written here, specifically that there are many things which could have been explained more concisely, if you are not pressed for time the book offers up an interesting read. I am not familiar with Emmanuel Sander but my experience with Douglas Hofstadter is that he does write in a playful and whimsical manner and this can contribute to the observation that he could be more to the point. And it's probably true, but it does seem to be his style, it works for him, indeed he often uses it to illustrate his points, so don't let it stop you from enjoying some great ideas which are contributing to an exciting area of research. Namely, how human like thinking happens.

What was particularly exciting about one of the main ideas of the book, that human thought is made up of analogy, upon analogy, upon analogy, is that it dove tails quite nicely with some of the findings which neuroscience and the study of some forms of AI research are telling us. Surfaces and Essences explicitly states that it is not trying to explain human thought from a neurological point of view. However, the building block approach explored in the book of using low level analogy to build up from the most basic levels of understanding up through our most accomplished insights into how the world works finds some support there. For example, Jeff Hawkins, in his book On Intelligence walks the reader through how the cortex uses layers of interconnected neurons to build up basic units of understanding into larger more rich understanding of the nested and hierarchical structure of thought. . The brain is using the same basic process throughout, over and over, to accomplish bottom up understanding. "Cortex is cortex. The same process is happening everywhere: a common cortical algorithm." Hofstadter and Sander seem to be conveying the same message only speaking of it from the point of view of analogy and categorization.

If you're an avid reader of AI, neuroscience and related topics the book may indeed seem long winded as it's possible many of the concepts will be, well, analogous to other concepts you've read elsewhere. If you're new to these topics you may appreciate the thorough exploration of the topic the lengthy book takes the reader through. In either case, with perhaps a bit of skimming through areas that may seem to get repetitive, it's an enjoyable read which offers a different perspective on how thinking works. It was for me, with a bit of skimming.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I Agree with Ruben Quinones July 8 2013
By William A. Horne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I agree with the review by Ruben Quinones, except that I rate this book with a single star.

The analogy that comes to mind in reading Surfaces and Essences is "beating a dead horse."
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