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

Douglas Hofstadter , Emmanuel Sander
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Is there one central mechanism upon which all human thinking rests? Cognitive scientists Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander argue that there is. At this core is our incessant proclivity to take what we perceive, to abstract it, and to find resemblances to prior experiences—in other words, our ability to make analogies.

In The Essence of Thought, Hofstadter and Sander show how analogy-making pervades our thought at all levels—indeed, that we make analogies not once a day or once an hour, but many times per second. Thus, analogy is the mechanism that, silently and hidden, chooses our words and phrases for us when we speak, frames how we understand the most banal everyday situation, guides us in unfamiliar situations, and gives rise to great acts of imagination.

We categorize because of analogies that range from simple to subtle, and thus our categories, throughout our lives, expand and grow ever more fluid. Through examples galore and lively prose peppered, needless to say, with analogies large and small, Hofstadter and Sander offer us a new way of thinking about thinking.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In what Einstein cherished as the “happiest thought” of his life, Hofstadter and Sander discern a mental process that empowers the mind not just of the rare genius but also of the ordinary person. That process—the framing of analogies—received favorable attention from Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche. But many modern empiricists, including Hobbes and Locke, have warned against analogies as intellectual snares. And many tunnel-visioned students see in analogical thinking only the logic-chopping of an IQ test. Hofstadter and Sander tear through the misperceptions, demonstrating the astonishing conceptual power of analogies—manifest when mathematicians venture from real to imaginary numbers, when physicists leap from photons to vector bosons. That power shows up in unexpectedly ubiquitous, ordinary ways, though, as we meet everyday challenges by categorizing the features of those challenges and by dredging up forgotten but relevant past experiences to interpret them. Surprisingly, only analogies enable us to recognize deep essences behind surface appearances and to weigh competing options in national policy or personal life. Readers do confront the risks of false and stereotypical analogies, but soon realize that analogy-making is the pilot light of creativity—and essential for adapting to a changing world. A revelatory foray into the dynamics of the mind. --Bryce Christensen


Longlisted for the 2014 PEN / E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

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.”

“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.”

Product Details

  • File Size: 2522 KB
  • Print Length: 594 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0465018475
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 23, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00BE65086
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,955 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
227 of 247 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy to put down April 25, 2013
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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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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.
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85 of 99 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Like an omelet full of eggshells May 16, 2013
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?
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Worth your time.
Published 17 days ago by Waldemar Schmidt, PhD, MD
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
One of the most important books in cognitive linguistics I've read!
Published 24 days ago by Antonio Suarez Abreu
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
This is more for the specialist.
Published 1 month ago by Mom with Ph.D.
3.0 out of 5 stars made the argument more strongly and be a better book. Definitely don't...
I have read GEB at least 4 times, and have read all DH's other books (Le Ton Beau twice). Always a stretchfor the mind, this one was quite a slog to get through. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jeremy S. Keens
5.0 out of 5 stars Douglas Hofstadter is one of my husband's favorite authors and this...
Douglas Hofstadter is one of my husband's favorite authors and this was a new addition to his library. Loved the philosophy of it!
Published 2 months ago by Tanya L. Platt
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Just couldn't get into it
Published 3 months ago by stephen
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great item and good service.
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as I had hoped
Having loved other books of Hofstadter, I was quite disappointed with this one. While it does contain some fresh insights, the usual Hofstadter sparkle seems to be missing. Read more
Published 6 months ago by J. Duker
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful ideas!
I read the other reviews and knew what to expect. I look past the presentation of the ideas to the ideas themselves. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Important scholarly work. Well written
Published 7 months ago by albert kok
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