Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Hofstadter / Sander)

Though I didn’t get to the very last page, I’m giving myself credit for this one. After a long slog through the first 502 pages, I was looking forward to what the authors called the “Epidialogue.” But instead of an original, authentic conversation between two genuine people about the topics just presented in exhausting thoroughness, this is just Hofstadter and Sander being clever, inventing two characters, whose stilted and artificial dialogue matches the tone of much of the book.

Right at the beginning of the Prologue, the authors, to their credit, state their thesis explicitly (3):

In this book about thinking, analogies and concepts will play the starring tole, for without concepts there can be no thought, and without analogies there can be no concepts. This is the thesis that we will develop and support throughout the book.

Right away, I had a problem. When I teach students to write thesis statements, I, like English teachers everywhere, push them to write something that someone else might disagree with, something controversial. Otherwise, I tell my students, why would the reader continue? But the authors do little to present an alternative viewpoint. A few are offered, briefly, and readily dismissed as either wrong, or, upon further (often smug) reflection, really just examples that support the thesis of this book.

The other piece we teachers of writing push for is a “so what?” In other words, if I am persuaded by your thesis, why does it matter? How does it change the way I think about things in any meaningful way? At least the authors try to do this. In Chapter 8, some 437 often mind-numbing pages into this doorstop of a book, they offer a chapter called “Analogies that Shook the World.” This immediately seemed problematic to me. For if the underlying notion of their thesis is that thinking, an everyday act, is governed by analogies, then why use an example of thought that’s just about the direct opposite of everyday thought, namely the theory of relativity? As they acknowledge, it is time consuming to explain, and it is only erratically that the authors seem to remember the subject of their argument and point out how Einstein’s insights were based on analogies.

In the end, I didn’t find myself disagreeing with the thesis. We use analogies. We use categories and create new ones. Language is slippery and imprecise. But it’s what we have. I don’t need 5 pages on the connotations of ‘pig’ complete with subscripts to convince me.

For me, this would have been an interesting magazine article. Instead, it’s 530 pages. I admit, I only read 513. The pages were just getting too heavy after that. (See, there’s an analogy.)

I’ve heard Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is pretty amazing. It may take me a while to try it.

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