SURFACES AND ESSENCES by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking
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How do we know what we know? How do we know at all? With an enjoyable blend of hard science and good storytelling, Hofstadter (I Am a Strange Loop, 2007, etc.) and French psychologist Sander tackle these most elusive of philosophical matters.

The authors write that “each concept in our mind owes its existence to a long succession of analogies made unconsciously over many years, initially giving birth to the concept and continuing to enrich it over the course of our lifetime.” The word “band,” for instance, can mean many things, from an invisible set of wavelengths to a wedding ring to the Beatles; each of those designations forms by analogy to the others, a process made more complex by virtue of the fact that words, even the most ordinary of them, “don’t have just two or three but an unlimited number of meanings.” Given all that, it is hardly surprising that one man’s meat is another’s poison—and therein lies the complement to analogy formation, “the very lifeblood of cognition,” namely classification or categorization, with the ancillary process of abstraction (whence, for instance, the category “non-square rectangle,” containing eight subcategories of rhombuses, parallelograms and so forth). Hofstadter’s works are never easy reading, and this one is no different, chockablock full of words such as “zeugmaticity” and “factorization” and with plenty of math to daunt the less than numerate. Yet it’s worth sticking with his long argument, full of up-to-date cognitive science and, at the end, a beguiling look at what the theory of relativity owes to analogy.

Certainly not for all readers, but first-rate popular science: difficult but rewarding.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-465-01847-5
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2013


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