Magazine article Times Higher Education

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

Magazine article Times Higher Education

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

Article excerpt

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy As the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. By Douglas R. Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. Basic Books, 512pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780465018475 and 021581 (e-book). Published 9 May 2013

Behind every word in our language, from nouns such as chair and teapot, to connectors such as "and" or "but", by way of adjectives and verbs, "there lurks a blurry richness". Ordinary words don't just have two or three "but an unlimited number of meanings". Why, then, do we use dictionaries, one might ask? But the fault, say Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, lies with the philosophers, or rather all of them up to one Ludwig Wittgenstein. Only in the 1950s were we freed from the long intellectual legacy of Plato and his notion of heavenly Forms for things like, well, chairs and teapots.

This is a book full of examples illustrating the complexity and fecundity of language, and Hofstadter and Sander are lucky in that they have space here to run through many bad examples and still offer (for the diligent reader) enough to make this a profound and thought-provoking examination, while the subsequent analysis is generally clear and precise. That said, after 500-odd pages one despairs for a little more selection, a little less repetition. The list of "Lists" in the index takes up one and a half pages! The effect is reminiscent not so much of long, learned lectures but of earnest seminars with a whiteboard on which everyone's suggestion has been carefully written. But now, to use an analogy of the sort the authors are fond of: Where is the meat in the stew?

The authors say they are offering "an unconventional viewpoint concerning what thought itself is". And the first third of this book is to show how "concepts designated by a single word are constantly having their boundaries extended by analogies". The "everyday concepts band, chair, teapot, mess and letter 'A' are very different from specialized notions such as prime number or DNA. The latter also have unimaginably many members, but what is shared by all their members is expressible precisely and unambiguously."

But whoa! Expressed how? In words? What is the relation between the concept and the "thing out there" - is it one to one? As a word is used more widely, does the concept too cover more ground? If words "designate" concepts, what use is the, er, "concept" of concepts?

The most interesting analogies here are the scientific ones. The authors argue that "the history of mathematics and physics consists of a series of snowballing analogies". …

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