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

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  798 ratings  ·  146 reviews
Analogy is the core of all thinking.

This is the simple but unorthodox premise that Pulitzer Prize–winning author Douglas Hofstadter and French psychologist Emmanuel Sander defend in their new work. Hofstadter has been grappling with the mysteries of human thought for over thirty years. Now, with his trademark wit and special talent for making complex ideas vivid, he ha
Hardcover, 578 pages
Published April 23rd 2013 by Basic Books (first published March 1st 2011)
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Average rating 3.78  · 
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May 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Insomniacs
Shelves: 2013
Reading Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking 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
Mar 23, 2019 rated it liked it
There are two or three different books in this book, but by all apparent surfaces, it is all a single, exhaustive tome on ANALOGY.

As I read it, I was struck by how vast and careful his analysis was and how I would have REALLY loved this as a teen, being fascinated by all the variances, categories, and richness of analogies. They are a source of amusement, creativity, vast and widespread accidents, a mode and end of consciousness, and an integral aspect of math and science. What is an equal sign
Jul 30, 2013 rated it did not like it
I read GEB on publication and it remains a landmark book for me. "The Mind's I", co-edited with Dennett, is fantastic and I greatly enjoyed his book on the perils of translation, "Le Ton Beau de Marot". Others might be hit and miss but always provided *something*. This one, co-written with Emmanuel Sander is not only an immense disappointment but just bafflingly bad. I'd read some reviews on Amazon that referred to certain problems but thought they might be exaggerating. What you have, at heart, ...more
Apr 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
I dreaded writing this review.

Douglas Hofstadter is among my favorite writers, and I usually name his 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' as my favorite book of all time. It's a gloriously fun, rambling, clever, surprising, educational, entertaining work that's easy to get lost in and hard to summarize, because it touches on a little bit of everything.

At this point I could make an easy comparison and say that 'Surfaces and Essences' is, in many ways, its polar opposite. You see, this book is far too long, dul
Jan 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: black
Douglas Hofstadter (writing here with his Francophone colleague Emmanuel Sander) has written a 5-star book of about 200 pages, and has hidden it inside a 500+ page tome. He has made a really splendid book, and then repeated each and every point so often as to make the whole thing longer, and less splendid. He has penned a truly excellent work, were it of a modest length, but he has engaged in an abundance of redundancy, such that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, were there fewer part ...more
Martin Cohen
Aug 02, 2013 rated it liked it
Here's the short review: Yes, it is rather boring in places.

Here's the long one, because you know, there is a lot in here too.

Behind every word in our language, from nouns such as teapot to connectors such as 'and' or 'but', by way of adjectives and verbs such as 'blue' or 'to paint', "there lurks a blurry richness". Ordinary words don't just have two or three "but an unlimited number of meanings". Why do we use dictionaries then, one might ask? But the fault say Hofstadter and Sander, is with t
Pete Welter
May 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
It's been a while since I've read Hofstadter, and so it took a little bit for me to get back in the rhythm of his style, which meanders somewhat, takes detours, and delights in self-reference. Given that the book is about analogy as the mechanism for human thought, as you might guess the book overflows with analogies about analogies, and examples of analogies. Early in the book I found this somewhat tiresome, but as the discussion hit it's stride the examples server to anchor the rather abstract ...more
Bart Jr.
Dec 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander 12/08/2014

Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

Fantastic book, full of interesting insights about analogies. And analogies about insights. I always try to distill a book like this into what I consider the key points.

The first of those, in my mind, was the definition of intelligence offered. Intelligence is the ability to rapidly and reliably see the crux, the gist of a situation. I thought about this. Was th
Dave Peticolas
Sep 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic. This is Hofstadter's latest thinking about thinking and, as usual, he has some enormously interesting things to say and a delightful way of saying them. Highly recommended. ...more
Jul 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book has a nice thesis (essentially all thought is merely the construction of analogies), and I enjoyed reading it. I felt that much of it was indulgent--full of dozens and dozens of examples where a few would have sufficed, and paced rather glacially, but it was quite readable and often pleasant.

The last few chapters, though, which highlight analogies in the fields of physics and mathematics were AMAZING. The authors step you through a series of analogies that lived in the minds of the ph
Jul 13, 2014 rated it it was ok
When I started listening to the audiobook version I thought this was going to be a solid 4 stars. About half way through I had knocked it down to a three for the same reason many people have cited - the repetitive nature of the examples was becoming overwhelming. By the time I reached the last chapter, my final assessment hovers somewhere between a two and three. I felt that the last chapter - a manufactured debate about the thesis that was more than thoroughly covered up to that point was compl ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
I didn't listen to the whole book. I listened to about 9 hours of it. The book is clearly for lovers of words of which I'm not. I do like the authors overriding theme that we think by categorization through analogy. I just didn't want to sit through a countless stream of analogies and word play examples.

Some people (especially lovers of words) will love the book. I just prefer less examples and more facts.

(I bought this book because I absolutely loved the senior author's book, "Godel, Escher and
Dan Falk
Mar 22, 2014 rated it liked it
My first grade-school reader was titled A Duck is a Duck. (Stay with me on this one, folks.) Now, by first grade I had learned a few things about ducks: They have feathers and a beak; they can swim and fly. No doubt I had observed that pigeons are sort of like ducks (they have everything except the swimming part); ostriches, meanwhile, don’t look much like ducks or pigeons – they can’t even fly – but they’re close enough to ducks and pigeons to deserve the label “birds.” Of course, airplanes hav ...more
Richard Thompson
Jan 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book was a huge disappointment. It has a promising premise — that categorization and analogies are basically the same thing and that they are the key building blocks in human thinking. And I found it about 75% convincing, but the presentation is awful. The book is about five times longer than it needs to be and makes the same points over and over again, using a seemingly never ending stream of examples far more extensive than is needed to make the point. And then the authors try to categori ...more
Nick Klagge
Jun 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Unfortunately, although I am a huge fan of Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach," I found this book to be much less impressive. S&E lacks the engaging format of GEB, with only one short dialog at the end (rather than interspersed throughout, as in the earlier book). In addition, I would say that S&E could have been significantly shorter, and probably would have been edited more aggressively if Hofstadter weren't such a big name. The book often goes on for multiple pages illustrating a topic where a ...more
Alex Weird
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As a linguistics student fascinated by cognition, I love the book for all the reasons others hate it.

The long lists of examples are joyous to pore through, providing a dense and diverse corpus of illustrative ammo to draw from in your own conversations and projects.

This is true in general of the book's overall length and repetition: it's just richness and comprehensiveness. Instead of a quick chug of meal replacement, the 500-so pages are a thicc, delicious stew for you to savour and truly dige
Rachel Moyes
Nov 11, 2018 rated it liked it
It started out so good. Then it got so long and boring. Then there was a whole chapter about scientific discoveries that felt very self-indulgent. Like, you know Hofstadter just wanted to include that because he thought it was cool. It was overly technical and could have been its own book.

Then the ending was bizarre and completely unnecessary and very self-indulgent again. It's a dialogue between two people used to sum up the book. One, Katie, is arguing that categorization is the essence of al
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: borrowed-book
Did not finish, stopped about half way through. I liked the concept, I think the theory is solid. I really enjoyed the prologue and first chapter. However, the writing is dense, and it becomes increasingly tedious.. The examples beat each point to death (to use an analogy...).

But what really killed it for me, was the implicit bias shown in the examples. The assumption that traditional gender roles are universally understood, the use of offensive stereotypical analogies, such as the Jewish Mother
Oct 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
I can't judge whether the authors manage to make a convincing case for analogy-making being the basis of human intelligence. That's beyond my qualifications, and moreover, I skimmed through the middle parts of the book. But there's such an amazing trove of interesting facts in this books, especially on the linguistic front, that the book is worth reading regardless of the its grand claim. There's a long and great chapter at the end about how Einstein used analogies to come up with his special an ...more
Michael Dubakov
This book is quite cool. It is about thinking and the authors main idea is that all our thinking processes based on analogies. They provides 530 pages of arguments in defence of this idea. While it looks convincing, the book is quite verbose. I believe it can be easily cut to 300 pages without any problems. Information-to-inc ratio could be easily improved, that is why I gave it 4 stars.

Last third of the book is brilliant though. There are very cool examples from math and physics I really enjoye
Shane Mcloughlin
Jul 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: All psychologists, regardless of experience.
Recommended to Shane by: Found it online and ordered it from Amazon.
This book was a great, easy to read, book about analogical cognition written by two cognitive scientists. While cognitive science doesn't provide an adequate model of what analogical cognition is and how it might be trained / manipulated, it does a great job of stressing its importance in the first place. The narrative that makes this book easy to understand would never be found in one of the articles that actually provides an empirical model of analogical responding. In this case, that's a grea ...more
Mickey Kawick
May 22, 2017 rated it did not like it
It is a terrible book. The author uses every comparison in the world as an analogy... this sounds like that... must be an analogy... this word is combined with another word... must be an analogy.

Boring, repetitive, and I find that a man whose only tool is analogy sees the entire world as an analogy.

The world is filled with more subtlety than that. Many other people here have read the same book and found it similarly dull, uninsightful, and childish. Save your reading time for a good book.
AJ Armstrong
Jan 11, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
Henceforth, I can use "surfaces and essences" as an analogical category for the idea of "taking a facile, even trivial, idea that might make an interesting dozen-or-so page paper and using an awe-inspiring amount of pedantry to expand it into a large corpus, to a degree that strikes the reader as almost a parody". This will, inevitably, be connected to the mental category "life is way too short to expend time on a long, boring, book." ...more
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is now officially one of my favorite books. Towards the end it got tedious and I suspect that it's one of those books that just causes one to just reach in there and jostle one's own thoughts. Also I read it right after Dennett's Intuition Pumps- if that affected my state of mind. I would recommend it if you're into thinking about words, thoughts, and psychophysics. ...more
Rogers George
Sep 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
As I read, I felt that I already knew everything in the book--until I got to the last chapter, which contains the clearest explanation of why E equals mc squared that I have ever read. I felt that I knew the material intuitively, but the book organizes it, discussing and codifying how we think in analogies--in great detail, and with Hofstadter's trademark subtle humor. ...more
Teo 2050


Hofstadter D & Sander E (2011) (33:52) Surfaces and Essences - Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Prologue: Analogy as the Core of Cognition
• Giving Analogy its Due
• What Dictionaries Don't Say about Concepts
• Zeugmas: Amusing Revealers of Conceptual Subtlety
• Some Revealing Zeugmas
• The "Natural" Conceptual Distinctions Provided by Each Language
• Wordplay with the Word "Play"
• Playing Music and Sports in Chinese
• Zeugmas and Concepts
• The Nature of Categorizati
Micah Grant
This book was like eating a 6-foot sandwich all by yourself. At first it tastes great, there are some really good flavors. But as you get father into the sandwich, the flavors aren't as bright and the bread is dried out making it harder to swallow. Until by the end you are so far into it that you just keep enduring until it's over. And finishing it was a bigger relief than was the fun you had at the beginning.

The book started off with some great concepts, and I had a lot of fun relaying what I w
Feb 18, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: stopped-reading
I bought this and saved it for just the right reading moment and ugh! What a bore. I kept waiting for the book to say something that wasn’t obvious or derivative. I finally gave up. Nothing new or interesting or not glaringly obvious here but the author seems like he thinks he’s really enlightening us...and that we’re stupid. Don’t bother.
Shreyash Tiwari
Jun 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
You how there is stuff, the moment you read it, feels like you knew it somewhat but never could articulate it, to draw inferences. Well this book is FILLED with it!
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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 physici

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