Surfaces and Essences – Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sanders (2013)

layers“Being reminded of a past event is not a luxury add-on that might optionally take place after we have understood a new event; rather, such a reminding is deeply implicated in the very act of understanding the new situation.” 173

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Hofstadter and Sanders argue that thinking consists of making analogies. Human minds make analogies continuously and unconsciously, and this is what allows us to build categories, make logical deductions, recognize important features of a situation or problem, or, conversely, to ignore features which are irrelevant at a given level of analysis.

Building analogies is, they argue, synonymous with building categories. Analogy allows us to construct and navigate categories, even those (especially those!) categories which have blurry boundaries, and allow us to flexibly assign or deny category membership in effective and constructive ways:

“Without the ceaseless pulsating heartbeat of our “categorization engine”, we would understand nothing around us, could not reason in any form whatever, could not communicate with anyone else, and would have no basis on which to take any action.” 15

The book mounts an impressive and lengthy defense of these claims. It’s filled with humorous, clever, and insightful examples of how analogies pervade our thoughts, decisions, speech, and lives. While arguing that analogy is ubiquitous, the co-authors do not claim that analogy is flawless; many analogies are useless, insipid, even misleading or harmful given the aims or objectives of the person constructing the analogy. Despite its flaws, analogy lies at the heart of the most creative and fundamental scientific breakthroughs.

I found the book’s argument compelling and persuasive. Perhaps the most interesting point is how unconscious and automatic analogy building is. Our use of language serves as evidence; hardly any sentence or utterance can be truly devoid of some flavoring or influence of analogy, as they demonstrate quite persuasively through a range of examples. Even analogies that we may pursue consciously were often born in a hunch or grew out of an unconscious analogy, or out of a previous analogy that simply occurred to us, without desire or intention.

The style is very entertaining—full of humor, wit, creativity, and the self-reference, self-awareness, and recursion that are present in other Hofstadter works. The parallel the authors draw between everyday analogy and scientific analogy is very insightful, and exploration of the chains of analogy connecting breakthroughs in physics was especially interesting. Most of the major breakthroughs surrounding foundational discoveries were immensely creative analogies with previous breakthroughs.

The book is massive, not only in terms of pages, but with physically large pages. It took quite a few fits and starts to get through, but it was easy to pick and find yourself in familiar territory after a few weeks. Hofstadter is American, Sander is French, (both bi- or multi-lingual), and so they wrote the book in two original (or, perhaps, analogous) versions, in English and French, so that the examples and subtitles of the language and culture could be fully exploited to argue their thesis. What an ambitious and impressive undertaking!

Ideas per Page: (4/10)1, Medium. The strength of the book lies in the exploration of a few ideas, in a creative and convincing manner.

Related Books: I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter, (2007)

Recommend to Others: I would not recommend the book to others unless you have a very strong interest in thinking, or in witty, creative, original, recursive writing. The book is massive, and unless you are highly interested in the ideas you probably would not enjoy it or finish it. I would recommend you watch Hofstadter’s lecture on the material. Skip to fourteen minutes to miss the introduction.

Reread Personally: no


13 “[the brain can] spontaneously assign just about anything it encounters to some preciously known category. After all, despite the inevitable and undefinable blurriness of the “edges” of each one of our categories, and despite the enormous number of categories, our brains manage to carry out such assignments in a tiny fraction of a second and in a manner of which we are totally unaware.”

14 “A category pulls together many phenomena in a manner that benefits the creature in whose mind it resides.”

17 “[analogy is] the selective exploitation of past experiences to shed light on new and unfamiliar things belonging to another domain.”

20 “…categorization through analogy-making, which endows human thinking with its remarkable fluidity.” Italics in original

54 “The concept of fast food both depends on and modifies the concept of restaurant. The concept of credit card both depends on and modifies the concept of money.”

62 “In our analogy, the suburban sprawl corresponds to the most recent, novel, creative usages of the word, which still strikes us as metaphorical. And yet over time, these usages, if they resonate with native speakers, will become so widespread and bland that after a while no one will hear them as metaphors any longer.”

70 “Bit by bit, this will add up to a personal sense for the limits of the category – the category of appropriate usages and syntactic slots for the word “much”. For each person, this mental category will stretch out in its own idiosyncratic fashion, but no matter who it is, it will consist of a core surrounded by a “halo”.”

75 “We thus see that even bland little words like the numeral “one” intoned in a certain fashion, which might seem very close to content-free, can evoke rich and subtle categories in our minds.”

83 “An example where French is weaker is the word “beaucoup”, which corresponds to both “much” and “many” in English. For us anglophones, it’s obvious that these are separate concepts, one having to do with a large quantity of a substance, the other having to do with a large number or similar items. The French word that blurs this distinction thus seems rather crude. Thus in this case, the English language appears to be richer, and French poorer.”

87 “Often compound words have drifted so far from their etymological roots that native speakers can easily miss what is right in front of their eyes. Thus in German the word for “nipple” is “Brustwarze”, which, broken up into its parts (the two nouns “Brust” and “Warze”), means “breast-wart”. Once again in German, the word for “glove” is “Handschuh” (“hand-shoe”)… over time, they have melted together to make category names that are seamless wholes and which therefore feel completely bland.”

99 “What appears to be a freshly manufactured sentence is in fact a stored phrase that can be called up as a while by a situation that a speaker is in, and the phrase carries standard connotations that go well beyond the literal sense of the words making it…”

101 “The use of a proverb as a label is a way of making sense – albeit perhaps a biased type of sense – of what one is seeing. Applying a proverb to a freshly-encountered situation results in a kind of insight that comes from filtering what one sees through the lens of the proverb, rather than form a purely logical analysis.”

102 “…what counts is not a proverb’s truth, but its ability to cast light on a situation, allowing it to be seen as more than simply a recitation of events.”

108 “Indeed, in the end, and excess of abstraction winds up being similar to an excess of literality, because seeing any two things as analogous is not more insightful than not being able to see any analogies at all.”

124 “Thus we see a genuine power that comes along with providing a concept with a name: it allows speakers to spread knowledge of it around easily and quickly, and that in turn allows it to enter public discourse on many levels, and to exert influences both on individuals and on society as a whole.”

131 “We who are alive today are the beneficiaries of the countless thousands or conceptual pitons that have been driven into the metaphorical cliffs of highly abstruse situations. We can easily climb up steep slopes of abstraction that would have seemed impossible a few generations ago, for we have inherited a vast set of concepts that were created by ingenious forebears and that are easy to use.”

177-8 “And so, grafting “faux” onto “authenticity”, we suggest the term “fauxthenticity”. … Sometimes one reads that a particular article is made of “genuine leatherette: or even “genuine artificial leather”, and oddly enough, no irony is intended. The idea is presumably that there is an industrial standard for imitating leather (and other natural products), and that this standard constitutes a kind of authenticity.”

189 “A given situation can be labeled at many different levels of abstraction because sometimes we wish to make distinctions and other times we wish to see commonalities.”

205 “For instance, one’s concept of shadow grows richer and deeper one on liberates oneself from the idea that what matters is the blockage of sunlight. The same phenomenon – exactly the same! – works with moonlight, firelight, lamplight, light emitted by a flashlight, by a television screen, by a cell phone, by a cigarette lighter or even by a lowly glowworm.”

211-2 “To put it differently, the sound-to-light leap was facilitated by a meta-analogy, even if it wasn’t spelled out explicitly – namely, the idea that one analogical leap (from water to sound) had already worked, and so why shouldn’t the analogous analogical leap (from sound to light) also work?”

250 “However, by the act of simplifying and thus perceptually impoverishing the situation, replacing the initial category by a more abstract one, the representation of the situation is paradoxically enriched by revealing characteristics that had previously been hidden.”

276 “Ironic though it may seem, oppositeness, which naively makes one think of a maximal distance, is actually a type of conceptual nearness; it simply resides at a more abstract level than one usually associates with categories (for example, brightness is more abstract than light and dark).

282 “In a word, many of the analogies we make are utterly pointless and lead nowhere at all.”

298 “As we have seen, analogies constrain one’s perception of situations.”

299 “What we perceive is the result of a compromise among our environment’s offerings, our repertoire of categories, and our current concerns.”

341 “…by definition, a novice in a particular domain cannot tell what the essence of a concept in the domain is. In other words, the distinction between surface-level features and deep features doesn’t apply to novices, because to them any trait that they perceive could equally plausibly be shallow or deep.”

346 “Experts have categories that evolve over time, allowing them to make observations that are doubly opaque to novices. Firstly experts are able to see features that elude novices, because what is salient to experts is not salient to novices; secondly, experts associate hidden traits with these subtle surface-level traits, whereas novices almost certainly are totally unaware of those hidden traits.”

404 “…computer terminology worms its way into everyday discourse. One business executive confides to another: “I’d really like to have your input on this.”

426 “In sum, the predominance of the naïve analogy “division is sharing: doesn’t imply that envisioning a measurement (“How many B’s will fit inside A?”) is cognitively more demanding than envisioning an act of sharing (“if I cut A into B parts, how big will each part be?”).

465 “Any given entity belongs simultaneously to an unlimited number of categories. Nonetheless, in daily life one often has the illusion of dealing with an entity belonging to just one category. In general, our surroundings often strike us as being clear and unambiguous, as if there were just one correct, objective way to perceive them; indeed, it’s this illusion that allows us to live.”

522 There isn’t a sharp baptismal moment at which one must henceforth say “town” or “city”, because the metamorphosis is gradual. And likewise, there is no hierarchical difference, no sudden jump abstraction between an initial memory and a category.”


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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