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Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern

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Hofstadter's collection of quirky essays is unified by its primary concern: to examine the way people perceive and think.

880 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1985

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About the author

Douglas R. Hofstadter

37 books1,905 followers
Douglas Richard Hofstadter is an American scholar of cognitive science, physics, and comparative literature whose research focuses on consciousness, thinking and creativity. He is best known for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, first published in 1979, for which he was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

Hofstadter is the son of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Hofstadter. Douglas grew up on the campus of Stanford University, where his father was a professor. Douglas attended the International School of Geneva for a year. He graduated with Distinction in Mathematics from Stanford in 1965. He spent a few years in Sweden in the mid 1960s. He continued his education and received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Oregon in 1975.

Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he directs the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition which consists of himself and his graduate students, forming the "Fluid Analogies Research Group" (FARG). He was initially appointed to the Indiana University's Computer Science Department faculty in 1977, and at that time he launched his research program in computer modeling of mental processes (which at that time he called "artificial intelligence research", a label that he has since dropped in favor of "cognitive science research"). In 1984, he moved to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was hired as a professor of psychology and was also appointed to the Walgreen Chair for the Study of Human Understanding. In 1988 he returned to Bloomington as "College of Arts and Sciences Professor" in both Cognitive Science and Computer Science, and also was appointed Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, and Psychology, but he states that his involvement with most of these departments is nominal.

In April, 2009, Hofstadter was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.
Hofstadter's many interests include music, visual art, the mind, creativity, consciousness, self-reference, translation and mathematics. He has numerous recursive sequences and geometric constructions named after him.

At the University of Michigan and Indiana University, he co-authored, with Melanie Mitchell, a computational model of "high-level perception" — Copycat — and several other models of analogy-making and cognition. The Copycat project was subsequently extended under the name "Metacat" by Hofstadter's doctoral student James Marshall. The Letter Spirit project, implemented by Gary McGraw and John Rehling, aims to model the act of artistic creativity by designing stylistically uniform "gridfonts" (typefaces limited to a grid). Other more recent models are Phaeaco (implemented by Harry Foundalis) and SeqSee (Abhijit Mahabal), which model high-level perception and analogy-making in the microdomains of Bongard problems and number sequences, respectively.

Hofstadter collects and studies cognitive errors (largely, but not solely, speech errors), "bon mots" (spontaneous humorous quips), and analogies of all sorts, and his long-time observation of these diverse products of cognition, and his theories about the mechanisms that underlie them, have exerted a powerful influence on the architectures of the computational models developed by himself and FARG members.

All FARG computational models share certain key principles, among which are: that human thinking is carried out by thousands of independent small actions in parallel, biased by the concepts that are currently activated; that activation spreads from activated concepts to less activated "neighbor concepts"; that there is a "mental temperature" that regulates the degree of randomness in the parallel activity; that promising avenues tend to be explored more rapidly than unpromising ones. F

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 96 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Sánchez Keighley.
149 reviews91 followers
April 15, 2019
- This is the self-referential sex hotline, where people who suffer from premature ejaculation finish after hearing the antecedent of this description. How can I help you?
- Hi. It’s my first time, so I’m not very sure how this works.
- This sentence would inform you someone else is available if it didn’t end in a full stop.
- I’m sorry, who is available?
- I’m implying you’ll have self-referential sex with me.
- Dirty. Go on.
- With this sentence I’m beginning the foreplay to the self-referential phone sex.
- Oh yes.
- The tone in which this statement is pronounced is intended to make you feel horny.
- You better believe it’s working. Tell me what you’re wearing.
- I am not telling you what I am wearing.
- That’s so hot.
- I am thinking of something to say but am in fact telling you something else.
- Oh yes, don’t stop. Tell me it’s your first time.
- I am telling you it’s my first time.
- Go on.
- If it is my first time, the last sentence I said is not true.
- Oh, God.
- ♭♭♭This ♭♭sentence ♭is ♮chromatic.
- Epimenides paradox, give me an Epimenides paradox!
- All self-referential sex hotline workers are liars.
- Yes, yes, use-mention distinction, go on!
- ‘My voice’ doesn’t turn you on, but my voice does.
- Oooh, argh… click, beep, beep, beep...
Profile Image for Andrew Breslin.
Author 3 books67 followers
September 7, 2014
While this is clearly not a "better" book than the incomparable Godel Escher Bach, I would have to say that I enjoyed it more. Because I understood almost all of it the very first time through while GEB took me about a year to digest, chewing slowly over each cognitive morsel, sometimes metaphorically regurgitating it a few times before getting it through the cerebral equivalent of my lower intestines. Metamagical Themas is food for thought, but it’s simple sugars, perhaps a fruit smoothie to GEB’s heavy proteins and complex carbohydrates. GEB was work to read. Immensely satisfying, but work nonetheless. This was a stroll in the park by comparison, and what a delightful park indeed.

This book introduced me to many fascinating concepts, and had a lasting influence on me in two significant ways. 1) I tried to develop my very own personal font. And 2) It inspired me write my own book about game theory. I finished writing the book. The font remains an unrealized fantasy. But definitely something with serifs.

The title, by the way, is an anagram of “Mathematical Games.” This is appropriate, because games are, by definition, fun. And you’d have to look far and wide to find so much fun in mathematics.
Profile Image for Neil.
Author 1 book
October 7, 2007
I don't recall how or where I got this book as a young teenager; I swear my aunt gave it to me but she denies it. This book is a collection of Hofstader's essays and columns, many of which were published in Scientific American. I'd say the first time I read this book I understood about an eighth of what he was talking about; I dare say if I read it again I might barely be above half. Not because the writing is difficult, but because the topics are diverse and deep. Hofstader's column in Scientific American was intended to bridge the literary and the scientific, and does. The book - titled after the column - contains essays on self-referential sentences ("The reader of this sentence exists only while reading me" is one of my favorites); the mathematics of Frederic Chopin's compositions; a taxonomy of Rubik's Cube variations; the emerging studies of chaos and compexity; metafonts; artificial intelligence and machine learning; what the word "I" means; and a deep study of the mechanics and ethics of cooperation.

This book was probably the most influential book I read growing up, as I think it set me on the path to study computer science. But its effect was even broader. Metamagical Themas encouraged me to play with ideas, with words and with the world around me.
Profile Image for Michael A..
22 reviews
April 24, 2012
Pick up this book, and you will find yourself returning to it again and again. Not only is Metamagical Themas a great source (and resource) in itself, but it will lead you to other fascinating books--to wit books that deal not only with science but with literature and music. I owe Hofstadter a debt of gratitude for providing me with his wonderful introduction to the works of Allen Wheelis.
Profile Image for Keenan.
303 reviews9 followers
July 12, 2020
It's hard to give up on a book 200 pages in, but this collection of essays by Douglas Hofstadter really doesn't present anything new that other authors haven't done better. I got past all his stuff about self referential sentences (a few gems in the rough), a political science game where the rules keep changing (total yawnfest), some opinions about people's gullibility to the supernatural (meh), and the inability of most to properly estimate large numbers (also not terribly interesting). His post scriptums don't add much to the original essays beyond tangential rambling, and with hundreds of pages to go this is going to be a definite pass from me.
Profile Image for Sara.
177 reviews57 followers
April 4, 2009
This book is huge - like a massive dictionary - and packed with a bunch of essays on a range of topics too broad to even try to describe. Some of them were great and either made you laugh or think about things you hadn't before, though a few weren't as good. But overall, if you can make it through this book, it's worth the interesting journey.
Profile Image for Chris.
57 reviews10 followers
January 3, 2021
Metamagical Themas consists of 33 essays written by Douglas Hofstadter. The topics covered are broad; from the concept of self-reference applied to language and law, to defining creativity and exploring its relations to artificial intelligence, to biology and game theory. My favourite essays and sections of their content are listed below.

World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Enquirer
A great psychology article discussed is Ray Hyman's "How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them". Hyman, who studied manipulators such as salesmen and evangelists, illustrates the susceptibility of human's to manipulation. Using a newsstand astrology book, Hyman came up with a generic description:
"Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others' opinions without satisfactory proof..."
Students were told this description was specific to them and were asked to rank how accurate ‘their’ description was on a scale from 0 to 5. In response, 87% of the students rated the description as 4 or above! One size fits all personal reflection.
Other interesting points:
"Where is the borderline between open-mindedness and stupidity? Or between closed-mindedness and stupidity?"
"For every debate in science itself, there is an isomorphic debate in the methodology of science"

A Coffeehouse Conversation on the Turing Test
On the similarities of models used by computers and human:
"SANDY: Computers certainly can make mistakes -and I don't mean on the hardware level. Think of any present day computer predicting the weather. It can make wrong predictions, even though its program runs flawlessly.
PAT: But that's only because you've fed it the wrong data.
SANDY: Not so. It's because weather prediction is too complex. Any such program has to make do with a limited amount of data-entirely correct data-and extrapolate from there. Sometimes it will make wrong predictions. It's no different from a farmer gazing at the clouds and saying, "I reckon we'll get a little snow tonight." In our heads, we make models of things and use those models to guess how the world will behave. We have to make do with our models, however inaccurate they may be, or evolution will prune us out ruthlessly-we'll fall off a cliff or something. And for intelligent computers, it'll be the same. It's just that human designers will speed up the evolutionary process by aiming explicitly at the goal of creating intelligence, which is something nature just stumbled on.
PAT: So you think computers will be making fewer mistakes as they get smarter?
SANDY: Actually, just the other way around! The smarter they get, the more they'll be in a position to tackle messy real-life domains, so they'll be more and more likely to have inaccurate models. To me, mistake-making is a sign of high intelligence!"

On the Seeming Paradox of Mechanizing Creativity
"It is tempting, therefore, to imagine that good melodies are producible from some sort of recipe or mathematical formula, or, what comes to nearly the same thing, to think that the amount of beauty in a melody could be measured by some sort of machine, just as the amount of radioactivity in a sample of ore can be measured by a scintillation counter. You would stick your proposed string of notes into a machine and out would come a number called its "CQ" ("catchiness quotient"). If you doubt that the very idea of such a number is coherent, just remember that attached to every piece of existent music there really is a measure of its catchiness-namely, how often it actually is listened to, at the present time."

Analogies and Roles in Human and Machine Thinking
The exploration of analogies is a humorous exercise which showcase our impressive ability to deal with abstractions. For example, who is the president of England? Though incorrect, the thought of Boris Johnson comes to mind, which illustrates the slipperiness of language in mapping one related concept onto another. Analogies are complex, and establishing generalised mappings precisely is yet to be achieved. We use analogies as the basis for our legal systems - precedent cases - however, general definitions of these analogies have not been formed in language comprehensible to AI. Hofstadter terms this the inability of computers to understand the 'spirit of an idea', the slipperiness of concepts which goes beyond dictionary definitions. Ultimately, this is a barrier to general AI and the ability of AI to express genuine creativity.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma Computer Tournaments and the Evolution of Cooperation
As discussed in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, in a competition of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma strategies, the winner was the TIT FOR TAT strategy. This strategy entails co-operating with the opponent and cheating for one following turn if the opponent cheats. An interesting point, which runs counter to the much touted logical paradox of the Prisoner's Dilemma, is why it won: "TIT FOR TAT won the tournament, not by beating the other player, but by eliciting behavior from the other player which allowed both to do well. TIT FOR TAT was so consistent at eliciting mutually rewarding outcomes that it attained a higher overall score than any other strategy in the tournament. So in a non-zero-sum world you do not have to do better than the other player to do well for yourself. This is especially true when you are interacting with many different players. Letting each of them do the same or a little better than you is fine, as long as you tend to do well yourself. There is no point in being envious of the success of the other player, since in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma of long duration the other's success is virtually a prerequisite of your doing well for yourself."

The Tale of Happiton
The parable The Tale of Happiton strongly reminded me of The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant by Nick Bostrom. Both present a village faced with an increasingly fatal threat, but one which could ultimately be overcome if the villagers collaborated deliberately. I enjoyed them both, though they differ slightly in theme; Bostrom's is an allegory for the avoidable mortalities of disease, while Hofstadter's is an exposition of game theory. In this tale, Happiton falls prey to the Tragedy of Commons in a comical, though resonant, fashion. While simple, I believe Hofstadter nails human selfishness, summarised in an earlier quote:
"People strongly resist seeing themselves as parts of statistical phenomena, and understandably so, because it seems to undermine their sense of free will and individuality. Yet how true it is that each of our 'unique' thoughts is mirrored a million times over in the minds of strangers!"
Hofstadter suggests that the survival of a meme which “asserts the logical, rational validity of cooperation in a one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma.” is the ultimate determinant of extinction or not
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 1 book52 followers
January 27, 2012
While this is not exactly a review, I thought I'd leave a few comments here. I recently got this on Kindle, so I've been slowly revisiting a few choice bits here and there. For what it's worth, I was dumbfounded to see this was available on Kindle. Given that his most popular and best selling book Gödel, Escher, Bach is still not available for Kindle, I took it for granted that none of his books were available on Kindle (except, perhaps, I am a Strange Loop, published, if I recall correctly, after Kindles were already on the market).

Anyway, after downloading this, I started flipping through the chapters wondering which I should reread and was a bit stunned to be reminded that there are 3 chapters on Lisp. What's interesting about this is imagining this text appearing in Scientific American. While I have fond memories of what SciAm used to be, it's hard to gel that with the image of SciAm that I currently have in my head. The days of meaty, tangible material in technical magazine that you could actually sit down and do something with (c.f., Byte), seem so long ago (Make and the recently deceased, in print format, Linux Journal, not withstanding) that it's hard to picture actual articles on Lisp appearing in what was, in fact, a fairly popular science magazine. This is not to say that SciAm is not still of good quality, but it's certainly a very different beast than what it used to be. These days, I would basically call it a nicer version of Discover (again, not to denigrate that magazine, but it certainly lacks depth in most cases).

To be continued...

Profile Image for Nicholas.
75 reviews7 followers
October 7, 2007
This is (mostly) a collection of Hofstadter's Scientific American columns. As a result the content is even more diverse in this book than in Gödel, Escher, Bach, and reading a few columns in a row left me a little bewildered. A couple of the essays seemed a little dated. For example, he gives a discussion of large numbers with frequent references to Rubik's Cube - but maybe my dislike of the reference is just because I'm terrible at that thing.

That said, Hofstadter is a wonderfully imaginative and entertaining writer, and there were some themes underlying the whole book which anybody familiar with Hofstadter will be able to guess, such as the nature of intelligence and consciousness and the concept of self-reference. Each essay is small and self-contained, making this book one I will feel comfortable going back to and re-reading.

Profile Image for Tatiana.
148 reviews113 followers
August 14, 2007
The thing I loved about this one is the playfulness involved. Sometimes I thought my head was going to explode from the weird wonderfulness of the ideas. The two chapters on self-referential sentences were absolutely delightful. Some I recall:

"It goes without saying that"

"Let us make a new convention that any thing shown in triple quotes, for instance '''I've changed my mind, when you reach the close of the triple quotes, just go directly to the period at the end of the sentence, and ignore everything up to that point''' should not even be read or given the slightest attention, much less actually obeyed.

"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation" yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

Definitely a great read!
Profile Image for Jimi Olivo.
23 reviews3 followers
November 3, 2013
I'd always wanted to solve the Rubik's Cube. Then, while reading his chapter on the principles of the cube, specifically 'Partial Inverses', I had the flash of insight I needed, and BLAMMO: cube solved. This isn't a joke, it really happened.

I expect most people will have similar flashes of insight in every chapter. Buy this book. Read it. Forget treating it well. Destroy the book while reading it. Take it to the beach. Write in the margins. Scribble out words and replace them with improved approximations. Spill coffee on it. Throw it against the wall. Forget you left it on the bed and fuck on it. Dog ear the pages. Skip chapters and never look back (you'll be back).

Do everything you can to get through it. No judgments. Feeling comfortable with these ideas will enrich your life.
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
587 reviews21 followers
August 19, 2021
I came across Hofstadter in the early 1990s. I read Godel, Escher, Bach first of course, and struggled with the ideas but upon several readings incorporated much of the material into my outlook on mind matter and computation, The same is true of Metamagical Themas. I loved the similar themes of self-reference and self-referential systems, The game theory, the multilevel of constitutions, LISP programs, and recursion, the impossible logical structures were quite beautiful like an Escher print. I like the many time Hofstadter introduces a system and jumps out of it or goes meta. It was the same loops and jumps that I had when I messed around with LSD but more academic and disciplined and much more creative. Beautiful stuff.
306 reviews22 followers
August 26, 2022
This book covers a wide variety of topics, some of which I enjoyed much more than others. I especially enjoyed:
* The discussion of metafont, whether it would be possible to parameterize a family of all possible fonts, and examples of some very strange looking A's.
* The analogy between parquet deformations and music (both being more-or-less linear art forms)
* Hofstadter's story about the time a professor and group of students invited him to conduct a live Turing Test with a new AI.
* Hofstadter's thoughts on whether the genetic code (the mapping from necleutide triplets to amino acids) is arbitrary
Profile Image for Stuart.
172 reviews7 followers
May 31, 2021
I have had this book as long as I can remember and possibly bought second hand in dusty second hand bookshop in Jinbōchō as my copy looks like it is a first edition paperback from 1986. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t buy it then. Maybe it had been hanging about on the shelves of a Tokyo bookstore for several years before I came past.

I think other reviews cover the difference between it and GEB well. All I can say is that I remember enjoying it immensely at the time and flicking through now many of the topics are those that I still talk about. I wouldn’t be surprised if half of my “original” ideas had their roots in the discussions in this book.

Today it certainly would be considered a book of a different age as it is pre-internet and is an eclectic collection of essays on many topics that were state of the art at the time. For example an 1982 discussion of avoiding sexist language while writing seems very forward looking but dated all at the same time, a time capsule of a simpler time.

All in all, if you like Douglas R. Hofstadter you’ll definitely enjoy this one.
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
231 reviews71 followers
December 17, 2020
This is an amazing follow-up to Godel, Escher, Bach. I read this soon after reading GEB, and I honestly at times like it more than the first book. It is a collection of pieces that Hofstadter wrote at the Scientific American in the mid-1980s in a regular section called Mathematical Games that he inherited from Martin Gardner he rearranged Gardner's title to the section to the Book title. One of my favorite articles was the game he invented called Mediocre. Frankly, I am Mediocre at it, I don't want to brag, though. It is a many splendored thing to behold. Really interesting and charming articles that will expand your mind.
Profile Image for Aron.
16 reviews13 followers
May 10, 2018
A collection of Hofstadter's columns written for the Scientific American. Very wide-ranging, illuminating read on a variety of concepts (ranging from logic, through mathematics, to art and physics). More accessible than GEB.
11 reviews1 follower
June 4, 2022
I started this book in the late 80s - I think I must have bought it at the Harvard Coop. It consists of 30+ chapters + postscripts, most of which were written for Scientific American. Hofstadter took over from Martin Gardner in 1981. Gardner's Mathematical Games column lasted over 20 years and became the the most popular feature of the magazine. Hofstadter took a different view to just 'games' - he stepped into mind and meaning, with considerable focus on Artificial Intelligence. These are his fortes. All very appealing, in principle.

I got about 2-3 chapters into Metamagical Themas at the time and never picked it up again till now (2019). Those first 2-3 chapters are very interesting and quite a few others are well done and thought-provoking. The quality is very patchy, however, and the repetitive nature of many of the points to be made becomes increasingly frustrating, as does the persistent - almost narcissistic - referencing to his major work, "Godel, Escher, Bach".

Beyond this, however, many of the chapters, unfortunately, are utterly tedious. As examples: The 3 chapters on the AI program Lisp became progressively more dire, and never, in my view, actually get to the point. Instead, they persisted with a series of increasingly difficult coding exercises - great for coders who wanted to learn Lisp, I guess, but barely illuminating about AI coding in general. Scientific American readers at the time were 'treated' to these 3 chapters in successive issues.

The worst chapter is Inside the Careenium - a Platonic-style discussion between Achilles and a tortoise. Poor Plato, to be (ab)used in this way. Perhaps he would give a bitter shake of the head, and one also coming from Randy Read, Hofstadter's initial and partial co-author of this piece.

Hofstadter claims that after 2.5 years of columns he had said all he wanted to say but I can only think that SciAm had all they wanted to have of this rather rapidly degenerating, increasingly marginalising stuff. Maybe a hard core would have been left as this column played towards an increasingly niche section of the readership.

I have given 3 stars but perhaps 2 is enough - and the range for the chapters is large...anywhere from 0-4 stars.
Profile Image for Assaad.
58 reviews31 followers
October 11, 2013
Another book added to my personal favorite!
This book is just amazing, I liked it even more than the mystical Godel Escher Bach. I bought the book originally just to have the honor to read the original article of Dr. Hofstadter on Superrationality in game theory, and I was completely stunned by the diversity of articles presented in the book.
Surely my best part of the book is the last 100 pages where he tackled game theoretical problems and experiments. The best passage ever, is the one that I have waited all along my reading, the recursive definition of superrational players:
“Supperational thinkers, by recursive definition, include in their calculations the fact that they are in a group of superrational thinkers."
What a beautiful mind on Dr. Doug. All my respects!
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book703 followers
October 13, 2008
There's some gems hidden in here, but it's pretty scattered. Be prepared for extensive and expansive discourse regarding calligraphy, typography and the design of fonts. Possessing a dysfunctional visual aesthetic sense and being generally wary of anything requiring more than UTF-8 and a console font to render meaningfully, I find these singularly uninteresting topics. Your meterage may very.
March 28, 2010
I read this book in high school (A long time ago) and it was over
my head. As I progressed in life I have reread it many times and its a gem full of quirky essays about patterns and self-reference and paradoxes. Highly recommended for a ride into an forest of bizarre thoughts from a brillant thinker.
Profile Image for Michelle.
41 reviews1 follower
September 12, 2012
Totally incredible. If you want to get closer to/further away from understanding the world and yourself while being entertained and amazed, read this book. Or just parts of it. It's a series of columns on different topics, no need to be intimidated by the 800 pages.
Profile Image for Mark Schiffer.
313 reviews15 followers
April 1, 2013
A supreme joy. I can dip into this book anytime, and gain something from what I read (even if I can't entirely grasp it).
"The Tale of Happiton" is one of the best pieces regarding nuclear disarmament I have read.
Profile Image for Tim.
32 reviews14 followers
April 1, 2013
Read this BIG book after college. Enjoyed it then...about 30 years ago! Just wondering if any of my friends online are familiar with it? We are going through our books. Thinking of reading it again...
Profile Image for J. Fearon.
5 reviews3 followers
August 28, 2014
I read this a long time ago and as I remember it was completely amazing, thus my 5 star rating. I'm going to pick it up again soon and see if I still love it as much as I once did. :)
Profile Image for Alex Lee.
894 reviews107 followers
June 4, 2020
Douglas Hofstadter is a strange man. He obviously likes building systems of thought; but he resists often solidifying his conjectures into systems. He resists building systems. The reason why is that he takes a STEM approach to things; that for that he has a system. Instead, in these conjectures he dovetails into other areas that are not hand-science (like that of philosophy of mind or philosophy or linguistics) but he utilizes a STEM approach.

The problem with this is that STEM approaches like all sciences attempts to focus on defining its content in terms of what that content does -- which is NOT the only way humans create meaning. For instance, people can reason by metaphor or analogy. These can work in order to highlight the avenues of sensemaking for humans; with that sensemaking we know what options we have, even if the content is non-literal. Doing science requires content that is literal however; attempting to treat alchemy like science, for instance, will fail because the content of alchemy is littered with cultural modes of reason, like the medieval elements of air, earth, fire and water -- literally not true. But for the purposes of highlighting which medicines to take (based on cultural knowledge) it can work... sometimes.

Anyway, because Hofstadter focuses on content one of the "trippy" areas he delights in is exploring where form and content interrelate because that boundary is ill defined in STEM thinking, so he will look at something in terms of form, and then in terms of content and then mix the two together, seeing them flip inside and out. Interesting perhaps, but I, like many of us "serious" readers, like "insight-porn" and so he is providing me with inkling of tidbits but lacks the sophisticated terminology to really systematize his thinking. So to me that is sad and a waste of time. For instance, his exploration of fonts is interesting but it leads nowhere because he doesn't avoids developing the language of graphology or iconography in order to truly answer his questions (like "what makes the letter "A" "A" when we change fonts radically?) He could go into some early machine learning techniques -- he is certainly smart enough to do so -- but resists that too, because this is just an intellectual game for him, not something that has deeper implications in to other areas. He often finds interesting relationships but then resists extending them into other areas (although sometimes he does extend them into other areas!) But I suspect this limitation is because he adopts a STEM view in which only certain descriptions are worthy of nominalization and only certain methods can yield consistent truths...

Still, towards the end when he looks at game theory that is very interesting, and that made this otherwise somewhat disappointing book worth reading. I like his arguments for how to reason in terms of game theory because it takes a meta-approach that positions the thinker among those he thinks about, and that my friends is totally fantastic, because it relates to things like metamodernism and post-structuralism in a fascinating way... but that is for a different topic.

My opinion of Hofstadter is that he is a brilliant man, an engaging writer but for me, he lacks the methods really needed to answer the questions he asks. Instead he asks them and is pleased to look at what he examines in wonder. And that wonder is a great attitude to have, even though if he was a little more critical I think he would see much more available. Still that attitude is something we can all learn from, and for me, reading him in HS, that was a great influence even though decades later I am a little muffled at what looks like close attempts at developing new avenues of thinking -- but ultimately it is thwarted because the author is too busy playing in the muckity-muck to really see what he has done.
Profile Image for Douglas Summers-Stay.
Author 2 books38 followers
July 5, 2020
When I first read this (it was during the summer, I remember, at my grandparents' house-- 1989, maybe? so about 30 years ago) it opened my eyes to a hundred new ideas. I found his meta- play endlessly funny, and was awestruck by the cleverness and thoughtfulness displayed on every page. It was playing with ideas in a way I had never seen. I had enjoyed Godel Escher Bach, but a lot of it had gone over my head. This book however, was right at my level and it just grabbed me. It's probably a big part of why I am an AI researcher today: the questions he asked -- about how thinking happens, analogies, the nature of concepts, the depth of connotations, what it means to understand, the source of creativity -- never left me.
Since that time, though, I feel like many of those questions have been answered to my satisfaction. For example, one of the essays is about what would need to happen to create a machine capable of inventing new typefaces. There's been research on that, and with Generative Adversarial Networks and artistic style transfer I feel like the problem is more than half-solved. He raises the issue of how a concept, as represented by a computer, can carry all the richness of association that human concepts do. But in the General Pretrained Transformer networks, they've really captured that.
It's just as amazing as he hinted that it would be. Hofstadter himself, though, has been left behind. He no longer keeps up with the relevant research in the field. His last lecture that I saw online was a grouchy complaint that Google Translate was unable to handle famously difficult, heavily constrained ancient Chinese poetry. Which, yeah. Hofstadter himself taught me, though, that the ability to be creative in little ways (translating everyday French to English, say) is not a difference in kind from creative genius. It's just a matter of degree, and degree translates to processing power, which we get more of every year. So I feel this deep frustration that he has refused to carry on his arguments into the present day, to respond to the miraculous achievement of many of his dreams in his clever, thoughtful way. (Which I know is not his fault, exactly.)
In many ways, he is still ahead of time in this book, though. In the last five years or so, people have begun to talk about what pronouns they want to be called by, and at least two people I know personally go by "they/their." And we have generally moved away as a society over the last 30 years from "default male" language patterns, like "early man", "all men are created equal", "fireman", and "he" meaning "he or she." But Hofstadter goes a step beyond this, showing how embedding gender information into pronouns at all is, in a Sapir/Whorf way, sexist at a very deep level.
I also have a better understanding of consciousness than I did back then. In the early 80s, you could still (as Hofstadter frequently does in this book) talk about "consciousness" to philosophers and not get called on it. Today, though, we routinely separate access consciousness from phenomenal consciousness, sentience, wakefulness, transitive consciousness, and so forth. We can talk about how they are related or distinct. I think if Hofstadter could clarify with modern vocabulary which he was talking about, a lot of the clouds surrounding his ideas would be dispelled-- maybe to their benefit, but also maybe to their detriment.
At several times as I read the book, I paused to see if GPT-2 could continue his line of thinking, or his lists of examples. It did an amazing job on continuing the self-referential story, in which every sentence is self-referential.
I want to write a detailed paper in response, addressing his points one by one. Who would read it, though? The arguments have moved on.
Profile Image for George Marshall.
105 reviews2 followers
December 1, 2018
It was enjoyable to read, but by the end I was simply happy to be done. The topics are numerous, and interesting, some more than others. And I even have a basic affinity for much of the author's views. I was just weary of him speaking in a way. And I can't put my finger on directly why.

Maybe it is the repetition. Individual articles overlap significantly in theme. But even within a single article a particular nail can be hit with a colorful assortment of hammers, pipe-wrenches, violin cases and ant farms. Maybe it would have been better to read all these articles serialized in the magazine, without all the commentary and post post post scriptums. They were interesting though!

Martin Gardner. I get it. Awesome guy, great puzzler and writer. Magician, I suppose? But I find myself unenthused. And Hofstadter's role with Scientific American, its dependence on Gardner, and their friendship, all make his repeated mention understandable. But at some point you tire of it. I think the author does well-enough of making his own voice and mood clear, especially toward the very end. But by then it was too late. I wasn't reading to hear about Gardner, magic or puzzles. I was reading because of my interest in math, intelligence, logic, language, and what I saw as Hofstadter's shared interest. All related, for sure, but not the same. Obviously, he is quite interested in the puzzle side of tackling these things, and I not so much. Or maybe that is just a facet of his approach, attempting to popularize these topics. So that is on me I suppose, and not any failure he owns.

Then there are the repeated mentions of Gödel, Escher, Bach. Yes, that is maybe what most people are familiar with in relation to the author. But I found myself thinking, was the column just a reheat of GEB, or does he have something novel, a new twist or thought to offer? Actually, his columns on analogy in this book offered some benefit over GEB, and I found that section all the more enjoyable for it.

Unfortunately this is coming off more negative than I would like, and this is due to my "mood" concerning it at the finish. But it was enjoyable. There are many, many nuggets to grab hold of and twist in the brain in prolonged study: for example, analogy and its centrality to human-like thought (or is it all thought?), the barrier/boundary between connectedness and symbol manipulation and its relevance to both artificial and "real" intelligence or consciousness, and I was enthralled by the column concerning Chopin, different as it was, yet echoing in a lovely way.

So, happy I read it. But also happy to read something else for a change.
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