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

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  642 ratings  ·  123 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 has
Hardcover, 578 pages
Published April 23rd 2013 by Basic Books (first published March 1st 2011)
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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. Wa
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
Surfaces and Essences is an exhaustive and comprehensive survey of cognitive and epistemological concepts filling the interstitial space between language and thought. As this very generic but succinct synopsis suggests, there is a lot more going on here. Actually, there is a bit too much going on here; that said, the authors confront some very deep ideas that are worth exploring even for the armchair neuroscientist. Ultimately, the books thesis can be reduced to two grand themes: surfaces and es ...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 ...more
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
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
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.
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.
Teo 2050
17h @ 2x. Contents:
(view spoiler)
Dan'l Danehy-oakes
Sep 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is fairly thick, but more than that, it's 530 pages are *dense*.

Douglas Hofstadter, of course, is the author of GODEL ESCHER BACH and other fine meditations on the nature of mind and thought. In this collaboration with French cognitive scientist Emmanuel Sander, they propose, quite seriously and with a great deal of supporting evidence, examples, and argumentation, that the basic nature of thought - its "fuel and fire," as the subtitle would have it - is _analogy_.

Summarized in my own
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 time 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 categoriz ...more
Anton Hammarstedt
* Synopsis: This is a book that argues that the way in which the mind processes information is by making analogies of various levels of abstraction.
+ I wouldn't have thought that a treatise on this subject could be very interesting, because I never thought about the subject at all. This isn’t a book about neuroscience or a book about psychology in the sense that one might expect when “mind” and “process information” is present in the synopsis, but rather a book about a kind of theory of thought.
May 18, 2018 rated it liked it
There are a lot of really interesting ideas here.

But as many have noted, the presentation is the opposite of efficient. I think one reason for this is that the authors really believe their theory that knowledge is primarily built up from analogical reasoning from specific examples. That means, instead of simply defining something in terms of a rule, they’ll give examples of it. Dozens of examples. Pages of examples.

I listened to an audiobook version of this at 2x speed and sometimes 3x, only s
Feb 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
2 1/2 stars, maybe. Gödel, Escher and Bach was such an amazing book, and nothing since then has lived up to it.

I have said that I am apparently not the audience for this book. I am very conscious of how much I use analogies. And when it was suggested that the almost automatic way in which we choose words as we speak or write, I could see that it was driven by analogy. But the audience for this book must not have thought so, considering it "merely" a process of categorization. So for 7 chapters,
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
Mainly a long list of mundane language examples. The basic idea is that there are different things we can mean by a concept - in fact this is the only idea. The first chapter seems promising but then the rest of the book is like "Acronyms are one kind of concept that means different things. Acronyms include TV, NBA, CNN (thirty examples later) phrases are another concept that mean different things. Examples of phrases include you can't kill two birds with one stone, shooting your load..."

It all
May 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A beast of a book but a fantastic one. It's rare to find a book that discusses evidence-based and rationally-backed arguments that isn't written with that certain kind of "science-speak" that seems so common among many scientists. This book really takes a new perspective on how we see and understand the world, and while I went into it skeptical of the subject matter, I found it to be a pleasurable journey through a new landscape.
Often when explaining new ways of seeing the world, authors resort
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
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
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Douglas Richard Hofstadter is an American academic 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 St
“We have a very hard time “seeing” our cognitive activity because it is the medium in which we swim. The attempt to put our finger on what counts in any given situation leads us at times to making connections between situations that are enormously different on their surface and at other times to distinguishing between situations that on first glance seem nearly identical. Our constant jockeying back and forth among our categories runs the gamut from the most routine behaviors to the most creative ones.” 1 likes
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