cover image Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. Basic, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-0-465-01847-5

Not cold reason but a profusion of metaphorical similarities let us understand the world, according to this distended, unfocused treatise on conceptual thought. Cognitive scientists Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach) and Sander explore the interesting though not startling idea that people rely on analogies drawn from past experience—in words, conversation, cultural assumptions, and ideologies—to make sense of novel situations and discover hidden, abstract commonalities. The authors apply this idea to everything from a child’s generalization from “Mommy” to motherhood to the falling-dominoes analogy drawn during the Vietnam War. They develop some fascinating insights on, for example, the simple analogies underlying Einstein’s theories of relativity, but, unfortunately, the authors lack the good analogist’s nose for concision. More natural history than rigorous scientific analysis, their argument proceeds by cataloging countless analogical specimens and dissecting their meanings at luxuriant length. Never content with a single pithy example where 20 repetitive ones will do, they bludgeon readers with belabored erudition, tiresome overexplication—five pages on the phrase, “Me, too!”—and ponderous rhetorical japes, including a 27-page Socratic dialogue. (“Good grief,—Anna, are you implying that categorization and analogy-making are exactly the same thing?”) The result is an annoyingly high ratio of gratuitous surface detail to essential information. 10 b&w illus. (May 1)