Once upon a time, I was invited to speak at an analogy workshop
in the legendary city of Sofia in the far-off land of Bulgaria.
Having accepted but wavering as to what to say, I finally chose
to eschew technicalities and instead to convey a personal perspective
on the importance and centrality of analogy-making in cognition.
One way I could suggest this perspective is to rechant a refrain
that I’ve chanted quite oft in the past, to wit:
One should not think of analogy-making as a special variety
of reasoning (as in the dull and uninspiring phrase “analogical
reasoning and problem-solving,” a long-standing cliché
in the cognitive-science world), for that is to do analogy a terrible
disservice. After all, reasoning and problem-solving have (at
least I dearly hope!) been at long last recognized as lying far
indeed from the core of human thought. If analogy were merely
a special variety of something that in itself lies way out on
the peripheries, then it would be but an itty-bitty blip in the
broad blue sky of cognition. To me, however, analogy is anything
but a bitty blip — rather, it’s the very blue that
fills the whole sky of cognition — analogy is everything,
or very nearly so, in my view.
oft-chanted refrain. If you don’t like it, you won’t like what follows.
of my chapter is to persuade readers of this unorthodox viewpoint, or failing
that, at least to give them a strong whiff of it. In that sense, then, my
article shares with Richard Dawkins’s eye-opening book The
Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976) the quality of trying to make
a scientific contribution mostly
by suggesting to readers a shift of viewpoint — a new take on familiar phenomena.
For Dawkins, the shift was to
turn causality on its head,
so that the old quip “a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg” might be taken not
as a joke but quite seriously. In my case, the shift is to suggest that every
concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies,
and to suggest that all we do when we think is to move fluidly from concept
to concept — in other words, to leap from one analogy-bundle to another —
and to suggest, lastly, that such concept-to-concept leaps are themselves
made via analogical connection, to boot.
viewpoint may be overly ambitious, and may even — horrors! -- be somewhat wrong, but I have observed that
many good ideas
start out by claiming too much territory for themselves, and eventually, when
they have received their fair share of attention and respect, the air clears
and it emerges that, though still grand, they are not quite so grand and all-encompassing
as their proponents first thought. But that’s all right. As for
me, I just hope that my view finds a few sympathetic readers. That would
be a fine start.
with a couple of simple queries about familiar phenomena: “Why do babies not
remember events that happen to them?” and “Why does each new year seem to
pass faster than the one before?”
swear that I have the final answer to either one of these queries, but I do
have a hunch, and I will here speculate on the basis of that hunch. And thus:
the answer to both is basically the same, I would argue, and it has to do
with the relentless, lifelong process of chunking — taking “small” concepts
and putting them together into bigger and bigger ones, thus recursively building
up a giant repertoire of concepts in the mind.
then, might chunking provide the clue to these riddles? Well, babies’ concepts
are simply too small. They have no way of framing entire events whatsoever
in terms of their novice concepts. It is as if babies were looking at life
through a randomly drifting keyhole, and at each moment could make out only
the most local aspects of scenes before them.
It would be hopeless to try to figure out how a whole room is organized, for instance, given just a keyhole view, even a randomly drifting
trot out another analogy, life is like a chess game, and babies are like beginners
looking at a complex scene on a board, not having the faintest idea how to
organize it into higher-level structures. As has been well known for decades,
experienced chess players chunk the setup of pieces on the board nearly instantaneously
into small dynamic groupings defined by their strategic meanings, and thanks
to this automatic, intuitive chunking, they can make good moves nearly instantaneously
and also can remember complex chess situations for very long times. Much the
same holds for bridge players, who effortlessly remember every bid and every
play in a game, and months later can still recite entire games at the drop
of a hat.
this is due to chunking, and I speculate that babies are to life as novice
players are to the games they are learning — they simply lack the experience
that allows understanding (or even perceiving) of large structures, and so
nothing above a rather low level of abstraction gets perceived at all, let
alone remembered in later years. As one grows older, however, one’s chunks
grow in size and in number, and consequently one automatically starts to perceive
and to frame ever larger events and constellations of events; by the time
one is nearing one’s teen years, complex fragments from life’s stream are
routinely stored as high-level wholes — and chunks just keep on accreting
and becoming more numerous as one lives. Events that a baby or young child
could not have possibly perceived as such — events that stretch out over many
minutes, hours, days, or even weeks — are effortlessly perceived and stored
away as single structures with much internal detail (varying amounts of which
can be pulled up and contemplated in retrospect, depending on context). Babies
do not have large chunks and simply cannot put things together coherently.
Claims by some people that they remember complex events from when they were
but a few months old (some even claim to remember
being born!) strike me
as nothing more than highly deluded wishful thinking.
for question number one. As for number two, the answer, or so I would claim,
is very similar. The more we live, the larger our repertoire of concepts becomes, which allows
us to gobble up ever larger coherent stretches of life in single mental chunks.
As we start seeing life’s patterns on higher and higher levels, the lower
levels nearly vanish from our perception. This effectively means that seconds,
once so salient to our baby selves, nearly vanish from sight, and then minutes
go the way of seconds, and soon so do hours, and then days, and then weeks...
this year sure went by fast!” is so tempting to say because each year is perceived
in terms of chunks at a higher, grander, larger level than any year preceding
it, and therefore each passing year contains fewer top-level chunks than any
year preceding it, and so, psychologically, each year seems sparser than any
of its predecessors. One might, somewhat facetiously, symbolize the ever-rapider
passage of time by citing the famous harmonic series:
1 + 1/2
+ 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/5 + 1/6 + 1/7 + 1/8 +...
I mean to suggest that one’s nth year feels subjectively n times
as short as one’s first year, or n/5 times as short as one’s
fifth year, and so on. Thus when one is an adult, the years seem to go by
about at roughly a constant rate, because — for instance — (1/35)/(1/36) is
very nearly 1. Nonetheless, according to this theory, year 70 would still
shoot by twice as fast as year 35 did, and seven times as fast as year 10
exact numerical values shown above are not what matter; I just put them in
for entertainment value. The more central and more serious idea is simply
that relentless mental chunking makes life seem to pass ever faster as one
ages, and there is nothing one can do about it. So much for our two riddles.
Analogy, Abstract Categories, and High-level Perception
I go any further, I would like to relate all this to analogy, for to some
the connection may seem tenuous, if not nonexistent. And yet to me, by contrast,
analogy does not just lurk darkly here, but is right up there, front and center.
I begin with the mundane observation that vision takes an input of millions
of retinal dots and gives an output of concepts — often words or phrases,
such as “duck,” “Victorian house,” “funky chair,” “Joyce Carol Oates hairdo,”
or “looks sort of like President
Eisenhower.” The (visual) perceptual process, in other words, can be thought
of as the triggering of mental categories — often standard lexical items —
by scenes. Of course, high-level perception can take place through other sensory
modalities: we can hear a low rumbling noise and say “helicopter,” can sniff
something and remark “doctor’s office,” can taste something and find the words
“okra curry” jumping to our tongue, and so on.
I should stress that the upper echelons of high-level perception totally transcend
the normal flavor of the word “perception,” for at the highest levels, input
modality plays essentially no role. Let me explain. Suppose I read a newspaper
article about the violent expulsion of one group of people by another group
from some geographical region, and the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” nowhere
present in the article, pops into my head. What has happened here is a quintessential
example of high-level perception — but what was the input medium? Someone
might say it was vision, since I used my eyes to read the newspaper. But really,
was I perceiving ethnic cleansing visually? Hardly. Indeed, I might have heard
the newspaper article read aloud to me and had the same exact thought pop
to mind. Would that mean that I had aurally perceived ethnic cleansing? Or
else I might be blind and have read the article in Braille — in other words,
with my fingertips, not my eyes or ears. Would that mean that I had tactilely
perceived ethnic cleansing? The suggestion is absurd.
input modality of a complex story is totally irrelevant; all that matters
is how it jointly activates a host of interrelated concepts, in such a way
that further concepts (e.g., “ethnic cleansing”) are automatically accessed
and brought up to center stage. Thus “high-level perception” is a kind of
misnomer when it reaches the most abstract levels, but I don’t know what else
to call it, because I see no sharp line separating it from cases of recognizing
“French impressionism” in a piece of music heard on the radio or thinking
“Art Deco” when looking at a typeface in an advertisement.
of prior mental categories by some kind of input — whether sensory or more
abstract — is, I insist, an act of analogy-making. Why is this? Because whenever
a set of incoming stimuli activates one or more mental categories, some amount
of slippage must occur (no instance of a category ever being precisely identical
to a prior instance). Categories
are quintessentially fluid entities; they adapt to a set of incoming stimuli
and try to align themselves with it. The process of inexact matching between
prior categories and new things being perceived (whether those “things” are
physical objects or bite-size events or grand sagas) is analogy-making par
excellence. How could anyone deny this? After all, it is the mental mapping
onto each other of two entities — one old and sound asleep in the recesses
of long-term memory, the other new and gaily dancing on the mind’s center
stage — that in fact differ from each other in a myriad of ways.
The Mental Lexicon: A Vast Storehouse of Triggerable Analogies
humans begin life as rather austere analogy-makers — our set of categories
is terribly sparse, and each category itself is hardly well-honed. Categories
grow sharper and sharper and ever more flexible and subtle as we age, and
of course fantastically more numerous. Many of our categories, though by no
means all, are named by words or standard phrases shared with other people,
and for the time being I will concentrate on those categories — categories
that are named by so-called lexical items. The public labels of such categories
— the lexical items themselves — come in many grades, ranging more or less
- Simple words: chair, clock, cork, cannon, crash, clown, clue, cloak,
- Compound words: armchair, alarm clock, corkscrew, cannonball, skyscraper,
station wagon, sexpot, salad dressing, school bus, jukebox, picket line, horror
- Short phrases: musical chairs, out of order, Christmas tree ornament,
nonprofit organization, business hours, foregone conclusion, rush-hour traffic,
country-Western music, welcome home, tell me about it, give me a break, and
his lovely wife, second rate, swallow your pride...
- Longer phrases: stranded on a desert island; damned if you do, damned
if you don’t; praise the Lord and pass the ammunition; not in the foreseeable
future; to the best of my knowledge; and they lived happily ever after; if
it were up to me; haven’t seen her since she was knee-high to a grasshopper;
you could have knocked me over with a feather; thank you for not smoking;
handed to him on a silver platter...
lists go on and on virtually forever, and yet the amazing fact is that few
people have any inkling of the vastness of their mental lexicons (I owe a
major debt here to Joe Becker —
see Becker 1975). To be sure, most adults use their vast mental lexicons with
great virtuosity, but they have stunningly little explicit awareness of what
they are doing.
Roger Schank, I believe, who pointed out that we often use proverbs as what
I would call “situation labels,” by which I mean that when we perceive a situation,
what often springs to mind, totally unbidden, is some proverb tucked away
in our unconscious, and if we are talking to someone, we will quote that proverb,
and our listener will in all likelihood understand very clearly how the proverb
“fits” the situation-in other words, will effortlessly make the mapping (the
analogy, to stress what it is that we are talking about here) between the
phrase’s meaning and the situation. Thus the following kinds of phrases can
easily be used as situation labels:
- That’s the pot calling the kettle black if I ever saw it!
- It just went in one ear and out the other...
- Speak of the devil!
- When the cat’s away the mice will play!
The Common Core behind a Lexical Item
make an observation that, though banal and obvious, needs to be made explicitly
nonetheless — namely, things “out there” (objects, situations, whatever) that
are labeled by the same lexical item have something, some core, in common;
also, whatever it is that those things “out there” share is shared with the
abstract mental structure that lurks behind the label used for them. Getting
to the core of things is, after all, what categories are for. In fact, I would
go somewhat further and claim that getting to the core of things is what thinking
itself is for-thus once again placing high-level perception front and center
in the definition of cognition.
The noun “shadow” offers a good example of the complexity
and subtlety of structure that lurks behind not just some lexical
items, but behind every single one. Note, first of all, the subtle
difference between “shadow” and “shade”:
we do not speak of cattle seeking shadow on a hot day, but shade.
Many languages do not make this distinction, and thus they offer
their native speakers a set of categories that is tuned slightly
In many parts of the world, there are arid zones that lie just
to the east of mountain ranges (e.g., the desert in Oregon just
to the east of the Cascade mountains); these regions are standardly
referred to as the mountain chain’s “rain shadow.”
What does one call the roughly circular patch of green seen underneath
a tree after a snowfall? It could clearly be called a “snow
shadow” — the region where snow failed to fall, having
been blocked by an object.
A young woman who aspires to join her high-school swimming team,
but whose mother was an Olympic swimmer, can be said to be “in
the shadow of her mother.” In fact, if she joins the team
and competes, she might even be said to be “swimming in the
shadow of her mother.” And if she performs less well than
her mother did, she will be said to be “overshadowed”
by her mother.
say about a man who has had a bout with cancer but has recovered and is now
feeling more secure about his health, “He is finally feeling more or less
out of the shadow of his cancer.” Along similar lines, many countries in Europe
have recovered, to a large extent, from the ravages of World War II, but some
might still be said to lie “in the shadow of World War II.”
type of shadow cast by World War II (or by any war) lies in the skewed population
distribution of any decimated group; that is, one imagines the human population
as constituting a kind of flow of myriad tiny entities (individual people)
down through the years (like that of photons or snowflakes through space),
but long after the war’s end, there are certain “regions” of humanity (e.g.,
certain ethnic groups) where the flow of births has been greatly reduced,
much as if by an “obstacle” (namely, the millions of deaths in prior generations,
whose effect continues to reverberate for many decades before gradually fading
away, as a group’s population replenishes itself).
is of course no sharp line between cases where a word like “shadow” is used
conventionally and cases where it is used in a novel manner; although “rain
shadow” is something of a standard phrase, “snow shadow” (even though it is
far easier to see) is less common. And notions like that of “population shadow”
mentioned at the end are probably novel to most readers of this article, even
though a closely related notion like “in the shadow of the war” is probably
the domain of the word “shadow” is a blurry region in semantic space, as is
any human category, and — here I hark back to my initial refrain — that blur
is due to the subtleties of mapping situations onto other situations-due,
in other words, to the human facility of making analogies. The point is, a
concept is a package of analogies.
Complex Lexical Items as Names of Complex Categories
the next few pages I will present a potpourri of mental categories (via proxies
— namely, their English-language lexical-item representations); I invite you
to think, as you consider each item, just what it is that very different exemplars
of the category in question tend to have in common. Thus:
the list momentarily to comment on the last two entries, which of course are
not nouns. (Who says nouns are the only mental categories? Obviously, verbs
represent categories as well-but the same holds true, no less, for adjectives,
adverbs, and so forth.) Some situations call forth the word “probably”; most
do not. To some situations, the concept behind the word “probably” simply
fits, while to most, it does not fit. We learn how to use the word “probably”
over the course of years in childhood, until it becomes so ingrained that
it never crosses our mind that “probably” is the name that English speakers
give to a certain category of situations; it simply is evoked effortlessly
and rapidly by those situations, and it is uttered without any conscious thought
as to how it applies. It just “seems right” or “sounds right.”
then, about the word below it: “probab-lee”? This, too, is a
lexical item in the minds of most native speakers of contemporary American
English — perhaps not often used, perhaps more commonly heard than uttered
by readers of this article, but nonetheless, we native speakers of American
English all relate to hearing the word “probably” accented on its final rather
than its initial syllable, and we all somehow realize the connotations hidden
therein, though they may be terribly hard to articulate. I won’t try to articulate
them myself, but I would merely point out that this phonetic variant of the
word “probably” fits only certain situations and not others (where the “situation”
includes, needless to say, not just what is being talked about but also the
mood of the speaker, and the speaker’s assessment of the mood of the listener
as well). Example: “Are our stupid leaders ever going to learn their lesson?”
“Who knows? Maybe they’re doomed to keep on repeating the mistakes of the
past.” “Mmm... Probab-lee...”
with all the phrases cited above, is to bring to your conscious awareness
the fact that there are certain situations that one could call “probab-lee!
situations” no less than there are certain situations that are “musical-chairs
situations” or “speak-of-the-devil situations.” In short, lexical items can
be very abstract categories evoked by special classes of situations and not
by others. This applies to adjective, adverbs, prepositions, interjections,
short and long phrases, and so on. Thus let me continue my list.
the lowest item above seem puzzling, let me point out that the notorious contraction
“ain’t,” although it is in a certain sense ungrammatical and improper, is
nonetheless used very precisely, like pinpoint bombing, by politicians, reporters,
university presidents, and the like, who carefully and deliberately insert
it into their speech at well-timed moments when they know their audience almost
expects it-it fits the context perfectly. For example, a general trying to
justify a bombing raid might say, in describing the series of deadly skirmishes
that provoked it, “I’m sorry, but a Sunday picnic it just ain’t.” This is
just one of many types of “ain’t” situations. We native speakers know them
when we hear them, and we likewise have a keen ear for improper uses of the
word “ain’t” by educated people, even if we ain’t capable of putting our finger
on what makes them inappropriate. (Curiously enough, shortly after drafting
this paragraph, I came across an article in the New York Times about
the failure of a test missile to hit its target, and a perfectly straight
photo caption started out, “Two out of four goals ain’t bad...” As I said
above, even the most highly placed sources will use this “ungrammatical” word
without batting an eyelash.)
“Suggestions” Imparted on the Soccer Field
nonnative speaker of Italian watching the 1998 Soccer World Cup on Italian
television, I was struck by the repeated occurrence of a certain term in the
rapid-fire speech of all the commentators: the word suggerimento (literally,
“suggestion”). They kept on describing players as having given suggerimenti
to other players. It was clear from the start that a suggerimento was
not a verbal piece of advice (a suggestion in the most literal sense), but
rather some kind of pass from one player to another as they advanced downfield.
But what kind of pass was it exactly? By no means were all passes called suggerimenti;
this term was dearly reserved for events that seemed to have some kind
of scoring potential to them, as if one player was wordlessly saying to another,
“Here now — take
this and go for it!”
does a sports announcer unconsciously and effortlessly distinguish this kind
of pass from other passes that in many ways look terribly similar? When is
this kind of nonverbal “suggestion” being given by one player to another?
I sensed that this must be a subtle judgment call, that there’s no black-and-white
line separating suggerimenti from mere passaggi, but that nonetheless
there is a kind of core to
the concept of suggerimento that all Italian announcers and keen Italian
observers of soccer would agree on, and that there are fringes of the category,
where some people might feel the word applied and others would not. Such blurriness
is the case, of course, with every mental category, ranging from “chair”
to “wheeler-dealer” to “pot calling the kettle black,” but since suggerimento
was not in my native language and thus I had been forced to grapple with
it explicitly and consciously, it was an excellent example of the view of
lexical items that I am herein trying to impart to my readers.
Polysemy and the Nonspherical Shapes of Concepts
be naive to imagine that each lexical item defines a perfectly “spherical” region in conceptual space,
as pristine as an atomic nucleus surrounded by a spherical electron cloud
whose density gradually attenuates with increasing distance from the core.
Although the single-nucleus spherical-cloud image has some truth to it, a
more accurate image of what lies behind a typical lexical item might be that of a molecule
with two, three, or more nuclei
that share an irregularly shaped electron cloud.
perfect example of such a molecule,
with one of its constituent atoms being the notion of
a verbal piece of advice, another the notion of prompting on a theater stage,
yet a third being the notion of a certain type of downfield soccer pass, and
so forth. There is something
in common, of course, that these all share, but
they are nonetheless distinguishable
regions in conceptual space.
native speakers of a language have a hard time realizing that two notions
labeled identically in their language are seen as highly distinct concepts
by speakers of other languages. Thus, native speakers of English feel the
verb “to know” as a monolithic concept, and are sometimes surprised to find
out that in other languages, one verb is used for knowing facts, a different
verb for knowing people, and there may even be a third verb for knowing how
to do things. When they are first told this, they are able to see the distinction,
although it may seem highly finicky and pointless; with practice, however,
they build up more refined categories until a moment may come when what once
seemed an unnatural and gratuitous division of mental space now seems to offer
a useful contrast between rather distinct notions. And conversely, speakers
of a language where all three of these notions are represented by distinct
lexical items may find it revelatory, fascinating, and perhaps even elegant
to see how they are all subsumed under one umbrella-word in English.
point in bringing this up is simply to make explicit the fact that words and
concepts are far from being regularly shaped convex regions in mental space;
polysemy (the possession of multiple meanings) and metaphor make the regions
complex and idiosyncratic. The simplest concepts are like isolated islands
in a sea; the next-simplest are like pairs of islands joined by a narrow isthmus;
then there are trios with two or three isthmuses having various widths; and
so on. Caveat: When I say “simplest concepts,” I do not mean those concepts
that we pick up earliest in life, but in fact quite the contrary. After all,
the majority of concepts planted in earliest childhood grow and grow over
a lifetime and turn into the most frequently encountered concepts, whose elaborate
ramifications and tendrils constitute the highest degree of twistiness! What
I mean by “simplest concept” is merely “concept with maximally simple shape”;
such a “simple” concept would most likely owe its simplicity precisely to
its low frequency, and thus would seem like a sophisticated adult concept,
such as “photosynthesis” or “hyperbola.”
Conceptual Families and Lexical Rivalry
down the corridors of a building in Italy in which I have worked over several summers, I have been faced innumerable
times with an interesting problem in high-level perception that has to be
solved in real time — in a couple of seconds at most, usually. That is, how
do I greet each person who I recognize as we approach each other in the hall,
and then pass? Here are five sample levels of greeting (there are dozens more,
needless to say):
- Buon giorno! (“Hello!” or perhaps “Morning.”)
- Salve! (“Howdy!” or perhaps “How are you.”)
- Buondì! (Perhaps “Top o’ the mornin’!” or
“How ya doin’?”)
- Ciao! (“Hi!” or “Hi there!”)
- Come stai? (“How are you doing?” or perhaps “What’s
of them conveys a particular level of mutual acquaintance and a particular
position along the formality/informality spectrum. And of course it frequently
happens that I recognize someone but can’t even remember how often I’ve met
them before (let alone remember what their name is or what their role is),
and so I have to make a decision that somehow will allow me to cover at least
two different levels of friendliness (since I’m really not sure how friendly
we are!). The choice is incredibly subtle and depends on dozens if not hundreds
of variables, all unconsciously felt and all slightly contributing to a “vote”
among my neurons, which then allow just one of these terms (or some other
term) to come bubbling up out of my dormant Italian mental lexicon.
the following spectrum of phrases all having in a certain sense “the same
meaning,” but ranging from very vulgar to somewhat incensed to quite restrained
to utterly bland:
- He didn’t give a flying f*** .
- He didn’t give a good God damn.
- He didn’t give a tinker’s damn.
- He didn’t give a damn.
- He didn’t give a darn.
- He didn’t give a hoot.
- He didn’t care at all.
- He didn’t mind.
- He was indifferent.
native speakers, there are situations that correspond to each of these levels
of intensity. To be sure, some speakers might be loath to utter certain of
these phrases, but true native-level mastery nonetheless entails a keen awareness
of when each of them might be called for in, say, a movie, or simply coming
out of the mouth of someone else. After all, a large part of native mastery
of a language is deeply knowing how other people use the language, regardless
of whether one oneself uses certain phrases. And thus, to reiterate our theme,
there are “He-didn’t-give-a-good-God-damn situations” and there are situations
of a very different sort, which could be called “He-didn’t-care-at-all situations,”
and so forth. Each of the above expressions, then, can be thought of as the
name of a particular type of situation, but since these categories are much
closer to each other than just randomly chosen categories, they constitute
potential rivalries that may take place during the ultra-fast high-level perceptual
act that underlies speech.
Lexical Blends as a Window onto the Mind
blends, which are astonishingly common though very seldom noticed by speakers
or by listeners, reveal precisely this type of unconscious competition among
close relatives in the mental lexicon. A lexical blend occurs when a situation
evokes two or more lexical items at once and fragments of the various evoked
competitors wind up getting magically, sometimes seamlessly, spliced together
into the vocalized output stream (see, for example, Hofstadter and Moser 1989).
Occasionally the speaker catches such an error on its way out and corrects
it, though just as often it goes totally unheard by all parties. Thus people
make blends of the following sorts:
- Word-level blends: mop/broom => brop
- Phrase-level blends: easygoing/happy-go-lucky => easy-go-lucky
- Sentence-level blends: We’ll leave no stone unturned/We’ll
pull out all the stops => We’ll pull no stops unturned.
reveal how much goes on beneath the surface as our brains try to figure out
how to label simpler and more complex situations. In a way, what is amazing
is that blends are not more common. Somehow, through some kind of cerebral
magic, speakers light most of the time upon just one lexical label despite
the existence of many potential ones, rather than coming out with a mishmosh
of several — much as when a good pianist plays the piano, it is very seldom
that two keys are struck at once, even though it might seem, a priori, that
striking two neighboring keys at once ought to happen very often.
A Lexical Item as One Side of a Perceptual Analogy
risk of boring some readers, I shall now continue with my rather arbitrary
sampler of lexical items, just to drive the point home that every lexical
item that we possess is a mental category, and hence, restating what I earlier claimed, every lexical item, when used in speech (whether received
or transmitted), constitutes one side of an analogy being made in real time
in the speaker’s/listener’s mind. I thus urge readers to try on for size the mindset that equates a lexical item with the “name” of a certain blurry set of situations centered on
some core. Though this sounds quite orthodox for nouns, it is less so for
verbs, and when applied to many of the following linguistic expressions, it
is highly unorthodox:
- slippery slope
- safety net
- shades of...
- Been there, done that.
- Forget it!
- It was touch-and-go.
- take a turn for the worse
- Be my guest!
- Make my day!
- Fancy that!
- Put your money where your mouth is!
- I mean,...
- Don’t tell me that...
- It’s fine to [do X] and all, but...
- kind of [+ adj.]
- when it comes to the crunch...
- You can’t have it both ways!
- ...that’s for sure!
- the flip side [of the coin] is...
- You had to be there.
- It’s high time that...
the teenager’s favorite rejoinder, “Whatever!” If one were to try to capture
its meaning — its range of applicability — one might paraphrase it somewhat
along these lines: “You think such and so, and I disagree, but let’s just
agree to disagree and move on...” It takes a good number of years before one
has acquired the various pieces of cognitive equipment that underpin the proper
usage of such a phrase (which again ties in with the fact that one cannot
remember events from one’s babyhood).
High-Level Mental Chunks That Lack Labels
long stock phrases like “Put your money where your mouth is!” might seem to
stretch the notion of mental chunking to the limit, that’s hardly the case.
Indeed, such phrases lie closer to the beginning than to the end of the story,
for each one of use also remembers many thousands of events in our personal
lives that are so large and so idiosyncratic that no one has ever given them
a name and no one ever will, and yet they nonetheless are sharp memories and
are revealed for the mental categories they are by the fact that they are
summoned up cleanly and clearly by certain situations that take place later,
often many years later. Thus take this one sample mental chunk, from my own
personal usually dormant repertoire:
that time I spent an hour or two hoping that my old friend
Robert, who I hadn’t seen in two years but who was supposed to arrive
from Germany by train sometime during that summer day in the little Danish
fishing village of Frederikssund (which in a series of letters he and I had
mutually picked out on maps, and in which I had just arrived early that morning
after driving all night from Stockholm), might spot me as I lurked way out
at the furthest tip of the very long pier, rather than merely bumping into
me at random as we both walked around exploring the stores and streets and
parks of this unknown hamlet
length suggests, this is a very detailed personal memory from many years ago
(and indeed, I have merely sketched it for readers here I could write pages
about it), and might at first seem to be nothing at all like a mental category.
And yet, how else can one explain the fact that the image of myself standing
at pier’s end tingling with unrealistic hope jumped instantly to mind some
fifteen years later as I was idly seeking to rearrange the eight letters in
the last name of Janet Kolodner, a new acquaintance, in such a way that they
would spell a genuine English word? Without success, I had tried dozens of
fairly “obvious” pathways, such as “rendlook,” “leodronk,” and “ondorkle,”
when out of the blue it occurred to me that the initial consonant cluster
“kn”, with its cleverly silent “k,” might be the key to success, and I started
excitedly trying this “brilliant idea.” However, after exploring this strategy
for a while, I realized, to my chagrin, that
no matter how lovely it would
be if the silent “k” were to
yield a solution, the probabilities for such a clever coup were rapidly diminishing. And at the precise instant that
this realization hit, the Frederikssund-pier
image came swooshing up out of memory, an image to which I had devoted not
even a split second of thought for many years.
was, of course, a perfectly logical reason behind this sudden resurfacing
— namely, a strong and rich analogy in which the mundane idea of merely walking
around the fishing village mapped onto the mundane exploration of “rendlook”
and cousins, in which the “romantic” idea of lingering way out at the tip
of the pier mapped onto the “romantic” hope for an anagram beginning with
the tricky “kn” cluster, and in which the growing recognition of the likelihood
of failure of the more unlikely, more “romantic” strategies was the common
core that bound the two otherwise
remote events together.
The Central Cognitive Loop
remindings of this sort have been noted here and there in the cognitive-science
literature, and some attempts have been made to explain them (e.g., Roger
Schank’s Dynamic Memory ), but their starring role in the phenomenon
of cognition has not, to my knowledge, been claimed. It is my purpose to stake
the claim more explicit, I must posit that such a large-scale memory chunk
can be thought of as being stored in long-term memory as a “node” — that is,
something that can be retrieved as a relatively discrete and separable whole,
or to put it metaphorically, something that can be pulled like a fish out
of the deep, dark brine of dormant memory. Once this “fish” has been pulled
out, it is thrown in the “bucket” of short-term memory (often calling “working
memory”), where it is available for scrutiny.
consists in the act of “unpacking” the node to some
means that inside it are found other nodes linked together by some fabric
of relationships, and this process of unpacking can then be continued recursively,
given that the contents of unpacked nodes themselves are placed in short-term
memory as well, and hence are themselves subject to more detailed scrutiny,
if so desired. (I suppose one could extend the fishing analogy by imagining
that smaller fish are found in the stomach of the first fish caught, as it
is “cleaned” — and so forth, recursively. But that fanciful and somewhat gory
image is not crucial to my story.)
if it is placed under scrutiny, inside the “Frederikssund pier” node can be
found nodes for the exchange of letters that preceded Robert’s and my Danish
reunion, for Frederikssund itself, for my Stockholm drive, for Robert’s train
trip, for a few of the town’s streets and shops, for the pier, for my growing
disappointment, and so on. Not all of these will be placed into short-term
memory each time the event as a whole is recalled, nor will the inner structure
of those nodes that are placed there necessarily be looked into, although
it is quite possible that some of their inner structure will be examined.
the unpacking process of this kind of
high-level unlabeled node (such as the “Frederikssund pier” node or the “Kolodner
anagram” node) can fill short-term memory with a large number of interrelated
structures. It must be stressed,
however, that the unpacking process is highly context-dependent (i.e., sensitive to what concepts have
been recently activated), and hence will yield a somewhat different filling-up
of short-term memory on each occasion that the same high-level node is pulled
up out of the ocean of long-term memory.
there are structures in short-term memory, then the perceptual process can
be directed at any of them (this is,
in fact, the kind of high-level
perception that forms the core of the Copycat and Tabletop models of analogy-making
— see Hofstadter and FARG 1995), the upshot of which will be the activation
— thanks to analogy — of further nodes in long-term memory, which in
turn causes new “fish” to be
pulled out of that brine and placed into short-term memory’s bucket. What
we have described is, in short, the following central
A long-term memory node is accessed, transferred to short-term
memory and there unpacked to some degree, which yields new structures to be
perceived, and the high-level perceptual act activates yet further nodes,
which are then in turn accessed,
transferred, unpacked, etc., etc.
An Illustration of the Central Cognitive Loop in Action
may seem too abstract and vague, and so to make the ideas more concrete, I
now will present a dialogue most of which actually took place, but some of
which has been added on, so as to make some points emerge a little more clearly.
The fact, however, that it all sounds perfectly normal is what matters — it
certainly could pass for spontaneous cognition in the minds of two speakers.
The dialogue exemplifies all the processes so far described, and — at least
to my mind — shows how these processes are what drives thought. So here is
A and B are walking by a church when A looks up and notices that on the steeple,
there are some objects that look like emergency-warning sirens attached to the
base of the cross.
A: Hey, fancy that! Shades of “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”
B: What do you mean?
A: Well, it’s kind of amusing to me. On the one hand, the cross implies
a belief in protection by the Lord, but on the other hand, the sirens suggest
the need for a backup system, some kind of safety net. I mean, it’s fine to
believe in divine protection and all, but when it really comes to the crunch,
religious people’s true colors emerge...
B: Well, sooner safe than sorry, no?
A: Sure, but isn’t a cross wrapped in danger sirens kind of hypocritical?
I mean, why don’t religious people put their money where their mouth is? If
they really believe in God’s benevolence, if they really have the courage
of their own convictions, then how come it doesn’t suffice to speak softly
— why do they need to carry a big stick as well? Put it this way: Either you’re
a believer, or you ain’t.
B: That’s a bit black-and-white, isn’t it?
A: Of course! As it should be! You can’t have it both ways. Somehow
this reminds me of when I had to leave my bags in a hotel in Italy for a few
days, and the hotel people stored them in a tiny little chapel that was part
of the hotel. A friend joked, “Well, this way they’ll be protected.” But why
is such a remark so clearly a joke, even to religious people? Aren’t churches
houses of God? Shouldn’t a sacred place be a safer place?
B: Yes, but being sacred doesn’t make churches immune to disaster.
We’ve all heard so often of churches whose roofs collapse on the assembled
A: Exactly. And then pious people always say, “The Lord works in mysterious
ways... It’s beyond our comprehension.” Well, how they can continue to believe
after such an event is beyond my comprehension, that’s for sure.
B: You’re talking about people who claim to believe but in some sense
act as if they don’t really believe, deep down. But then there’s the flip
side of the coin: people who claim not to believe but act in a way as if they
do. The reverse type of hypocrite, in sort.
A: Do you have an example in mind?
B: Yes — Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist. I once read that
in his house there was a horseshoe hanging over one door, and someone asked
him, “What’s this all about?” Bohr answered, “Well, horseshoes are supposed
to bring good luck, so we put it up there.” The friend then said, “Come now
— surely you don’t believe it brings good luck, do you?” Bohr laughed and
said, “Of course not!” And then he added, “But they say it works even if you
don’t believe in it.”
A: I see your point — in a way Bohr’s remark is the flip side of “Praise
the Lord and pass the ammunition.” In the trench-warfare case, you have a
believer whose actions reveal deep doubts about their proclaimed belief, and
in the Bohr case, you have a skeptic whose actions reveal that he may doubt
his own skepticism. But that cross with the sirens — I just can’t believe
that they would wrap them around the cross, of all things — that’s the height
of irony! I mean, it’s like some priest who’s going into a dangerous area
of town and doesn’t just carry a handgun along in case of need, but in fact
a cross that doubles as a handgun.
B: You’ve made the irony rather clear, I agree. But tell me — would you
propose that the pope, simply because he’s a big-time believer in God, should
travel through the world’s cities without any protection? Would you propose
that true believers, if they are to be self-consistent, shouldn’t put locks
on their churches?
A: Well, won’t God take care of his flock? Especially the pope?
It’s not that simple.
Come on — if God doesn’t
look after the pope, who does he look after?
Come on, yourself! They
crucified Jesus, didn’t they? If anyone should have had divine immunity, it
was Jesus — but he didn’t. And yet that in itself doesn’t mean that Jesus
wasn’t God’s son.
exchange illustrates all of the themes so far presented. In the first place,
it shows A and B using ordinary words — bite-size lexical items such as “cross,”
“sirens,” “bags,” “hotel,” “when,” “people,” and dozens more — nouns, verbs,
adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so forth. Nothing unusual here, of
course, except that readers are being exhorted to picture each of these words
as the tip of an iceberg that hides a myriad hidden analogies — namely, the
analogies that collectively allowed the category to come into being in the
first place in the speaker’s or listener’s or reader’s mind.
second place, the dialogue shows a good number of the shorter phrases cited
in lists above being used in realistic situations — smallish stock phrases
such as “Fancy that!” “kind of,” “I mean,” “ain’t,” “that’s for sure,” and
many more. These phrases are used by speakers because they meet the rhetorical
needs of the particular context, and when perceived by listeners they activate
familiar rhetorical-context categories.
third place, the dialogue illustrates high-level perception — the retrieval
of high-level labels for perceptions — such as A’s opening statement,
in which the lexical item “Praise and Lord and pass the ammunition” is the
effortlessly evoked label for a church cross
with warning sirens attached to it. In fact, all through the dialogue,
the participants use large
lexical items to label situations that are being categorized in real time
in their minds. Thus we hear “backup system,” “safety net,” “when it really
comes to the crunch,” “flip side of the coin,” “put your money where your
mouth is,” “sooner safe than sorry,” “speak softly and carry a big stick,”
“black-and-white,” and many more.
fourth place, we have large-scale remindings. First there is the shift from the cross-wrapped-in-sirens
scene to the suitcases-left-in-hotel-chapel situation, then the shift to the
collapsing-churches scenario, after which comes the shift, mediated by a kind of conceptual reversal, to
Niels Bohr’s horseshoe-that-works-despite-skepticism
(probably an apocryphal story, by the way). Following that image comes a different kind
of shift — an analogy where
a given, known scenario is compared
with a spontaneously concocted hypothetical scenario
— thus, for instance, the cross-wrapped-in-sirens scene is compared
with a hypothetical cross/handgun blend. This is swiftly
followed by a trio of further concocted analogues: first the pope traveling
without protection, then churches that are left unlocked, and finally God not even taking
care of his own son.
The Central Cognitive Loop in Isolation and in Interaction
pathway meandering through the limitless space of potential
ideas during the hypothetical conversation of A and B is due to various actual scenes or imagined scenarios being reperceived,
in light of recently activated
concepts, in novel fashions and thereby triggering dormant memories, which are then fished
up from dormancy to center stage (i.e., short-term memory), where,
partially unpacked, they are in turn
subjected to the exact same
context-dependent reperception process. Around and around in such a loop, alternating
between fishing in long-term memory and unpacking and reperceiving in short-term
memory, rolls the process of cognition.
that what I have just
described is not problem-solving, which has
traditionally played such a large role in modeling of thought and been tightly
linked with “analogical reasoning”; no, everyday thought is not problem-solving or anything that resembles it at all; rather, it
is a nonrandom stroll through long-term memory, mediated by high-level perception
(which is simply, to echo myself, another name for analogy-making).
sure, thought does not
generally take place in a sealed-off vat or an isolation chamber; most of the time, external events are constantly impinging
on us. Therefore the purely self-driven flow that the “central loop” would
suggest is just half of the story — it is the contribution from within one’s private cognitive system. The other half — the contribution from outside — comes from inanimate objects
impinging on one’s senses (skyscrapers and sunsets and splashes, for instance),
from animate agents seen mostly
as objects (mosquitos that one swats at, people that
one tries not to bang
into as one hastens down a crowded sidewalk),
or from other cognitive agents (conversations with
friends, articles read in the
paper, email messages, scenes
in movies, and so on).
buzzing, booming confusion in which
one is immersed most of
the time tends to obscure the constant running of the private inner loop —
but when one retreats into solitude, when one starts to ponder or daydream,
when one tries to close oneself off from these external impingements and to be internally driven,
that is when the above-posited “central loop of cognition” assumes the dominant
Goal-Drivenness and the Central Loop
do goals enter this picture? How does the deeply goal-driven nature of human thought emerge from what might seem to be the
randomness of the posited central
loop? The answer resides in the enormously biased nature of each
person, as life progresses,
develops a set of high-level concepts that they tend
to favor, and their perception
is continually seeking to cast
the world in terms of those concepts. The perceptual process is thus far from
neutral or random, but rather it
seeks, whenever possible, to employ high-level concepts that
one is used to, that
one believes in, that one
is comfortable with, that are one’s pet
themes. If the current perception of a situation leads one
into a state of cognitive dissonance, then
one goes back and searches
for a new way to perceive it. Thus the avoidance
of mental discomfort
— the avoidance of cognitive dissonance — constitutes
a powerful internal force that helps
to channel the central loop in
what amounts to a strongly goal-driven manner.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Language and the Central Loop
I have been proposing here — in most ways quite unrevolutionary! — can be
rephrased in terms of “perceptual attractors,” which are long-term mental
loci that are zoomed into when situations are encountered (see Kanerva 1988).
We all have many thousands of such attractors in our dormant memories, only
a tiny fraction of which are accessed when we encounter a new situation. Where
do such attractors come from? How public are they? Do they have explicit labels?
Here I list three main types:
- Standard lexical items (words, names, phrases, proverbs, etc.) provided
to a vast public through a shared linguistic environment
- Shared vicarious experiences provided to a vast public through the media
(e.g., places, personages, and events of small and large scale in books, movies,
television shows, and so on), the smaller of which have explicit linguistic
labels, the more complex of which have none
- Unique personal memories, lacking any fixed linguistic labels (such chunks
are generally very large. and complex, like the Frederikssund memory discussed
above, or even far larger events, such as a favorite high-school class, a
year spent in a special city, a protracted divorce, and so on)
a sizable fraction of one’s personal repertoire of perceptual chunks is provided
from without, by one’s language
and culture, this means that inevitably language and culture exert powerful,
even irresistible, channeling
influences on how one frames events. (This position is related to the “meme’s-eye
view” of the nature of thought, as put forth in numerous venues, most recently
in Blackmore 1999.)
for instance, such words as “backlog,” “burnout,” “micromanaging,” and “underachiever,”
all of which are commonplace in today’s America. I chose these particular
words because I suspect that what they designate can be found not only here
and now, but as well in distant cultures and epochs, quite in contrast to
such culturally and temporally bound terms as “soap opera,” “mini-series,”
“couch potato,” “news anchor,” “hit-and-run driver,” and so forth, which owe
to recent technological developments. So consider the first set of words.
We Americans living at the millennium’s cusp perceive backlogs of all sorts permeating our lives
— but we do so because the
word is there, warmly inviting us to see them. But back
in, say, Johann Sebastian
Bach’s day, were there backlogs
— or more precisely, were backlogs
perceived? For that matter, did Bach ever experience burnout? Well, most
likely he did — but did he know that he did? Or did some of his Latin pupils strike
him as being underachievers?
Could he see this quality without being given the label? Or, moving further
afield, do Australian aborigines resent it when their relatives
micromanage their lives? Of course, I could have chosen
hundreds of other terms that have arisen only recently in our century, yet
that designate aspects of life that were always around to be perceived but,
for one reason or another, aroused little interest, and hence were neglected
is simple: we are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our
language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking,
even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to
see them at all. The perceptual attractors that we each possess (some coming
from without, some coming from within, some on the scale of mere words, some
on a much grander scale) are the filters through which we scan and sort reality,
and thereby they determine what we perceive on high and low levels.
this sounds like an obvious tautology, that part
of it that concerns
words is in fact a nontrivial proposition, which, under the controversial
banner of “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” has been heatedly debated, and to a large
extent rejected, over the course of the twentieth century. I myself was once
most disdainful of this hypothesis, but over time came to realize how deeply
human thought — even my own! — is channeled by habit and thus, in the last
accounting, by the repertoire of mental chunks (i.e., perceptual attractors)
that are available to the thinker. I now think that it is high time for the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to be reinstated, at least in its milder forms.
Language, Brains, and “Just Adding Water”
goal of communication is, of course, to set up “the same thought” in the receiver’s
brain as is currently taking place in the sender’s brain. The mode by which
such replication is attempted is essentially a drastic compression of the
complex symbolic dance occurring in the sender’s brain into a temporal chain
of sounds or a string of visual signs, which are then absorbed by the receiver’s
brain, where, by something like the reverse of said compression — a process
that I will here term “just adding water” — a new symbolic dance is launched
in the second brain. The human brain at one end drains the water out to produce
“powdered food for thought,” and the one at the other end adds the water back,
to produce full-fledged food for thought.
for instance, the paragraph given a few pages back:
that time I spent an hour or two hoping that my old friend
Robert, who I hadn’t seen in two years but who was supposed to arrive
from Germany by train sometime during that summer day in the little Danish
fishing village of Frederikssund (which in a series of letters he and I had
mutually picked out on maps, and in which I had just arrived early that morning
after driving all night from Stockholm), might spot me as I lurked way out
at the furthest tip of the very long pier, rather than merely bumping into
me at random as we both walked around exploring the stores and streets and
parks of this unknown hamlet
this set of black marks on a white background is not similar to the time I
spent in Frederikssund, nor is any part of it similar to a pier, a drive from Stockholm, a body of water, or dashed
hopes. And yet these marks
triggered in your brain a symbolic dance so vivid that you saw, in your mind’s
eye, a fishing village, two young friends, their joyful anticipation of a
semirandom reunion, a pier stretching far out into a gulf, a barely visible
person anxiously pacing at its tip, and so on. A never-before-danced dance
inside your brain, launched by a unique set of squiggly shapes, makes you
feel almost as if you had been there; had I spelled it out with another page
or two of intricate black-on-white patterns, it would feel all the more vivid.
This is a wonderful kind of transportation of ideas between totally different
media — uprooting ideas from one garden and replanting them in a garden never
even imagined before, where they flourish beautifully.
book The poetics of translation (Barnstone 1993), poet and translator Willis Barnstone has a section called
“The Parable of the Greek Moving Van,” where he points out that on the side
of all Greek moving vans is
written the word μεταφορά (phonetically “metafora” and semantically “transportation”). He then observes:
To come to Greece and find that even the moving vans run around under the
sun and smog of greater Athens with advertisements for transportation, for
metaphor, and ultimately with signs for translation should convince us that
every motor truck hauling goods from one place to another, every perceived
metamorphosis of a word or phrase within or between languages, every decipherment
and interpretation of a text, every role by each actor in the cast, every
adaptation of a script by a director of opera, film, theater, ballet, pantomime,
indeed every perception of movement and change, in the street or on our tongues,
on the page or in our ears, leads us directly to the art and activity of translation.
my mental goods down into tight, neat bundles, I load them as carefully as
I can into the metafora truck of language, it drives from my brain to yours,
and then you unpack. What a metaphor for communication! And yet it has often
been said that all communication, all language, is metaphorical. Since I believe
that metaphor and analogy are the same phenomenon, it would follow that I
believe that all communication is via analogy. Indeed, I would describe communication
this way: taking an intricate dance that can be danced in one and only one
medium, and then, despite the intimacy of the marriage of that dance to that
medium, making a radically new dance that is intimately married to a radically
different medium, and in just the same way as the first dance was to its medium.
this all a little more concrete,
let us consider taking a complex dance done in the medium of the sport of basketball
and trans-sporting that dance into the rather different medium of the sport
of soccer. Indeed, imagine taking the most enthralling basketball game you
ever watched — perhaps a championship game you saw on television — and giving
a videotape of that game to a “soccer choreographer,” who will now stage all
the details of an artificial soccer game that is in some sense analogous to
your basketball game. Of course this could be done in many ways, some conservative
and some daring.
choreographers, citing irreconcilable differences between the two sports (for
instance, the difference in the number of players per team, the lack of any
counterpart to a goalie in basketball, the low frequency of scoring in soccer
relative to basketball, and on and on), might severely bend the rules of soccer,
creating a game with only five players on a team, taking away the goalies,
vastly reducing the size of the field (and the goals), and so forth, thus
effectively creating a hybrid soccer-basketball game
that looks very much like basketball, only it is played on grass and involves
propelling the ball with the lower rather than the upper limbs. When one watched
the reenactment of one’s favorite basketball game in this artificial medium,
one would not have the sense of watching a soccer game but of watching a very
distorted basketball game.
choreographers, more willing to go out on a limb, would retain the normal
rules of soccer but would attempt to stage a game whose every play felt like
a particular play of the original basketball game, even though eleven players
were retained on a side, even though the goals remained huge compared to baskets,
even though there were still goalies, even though the goals might be coming
a little too thick and fast, and so forth. There would be plays that would
be essentially like slam-dunks while at the same time looking every bit like
normal soccer plays. In such a case, one would feel one was watching a genuine
soccer game — perhaps a peculiar one in some ways, but nonetheless genuine.
In the ideal case, one could have the two counterpart games running on side-by-side
television screens, and a “neutral” commentator using only terms that apply
to both sports could be effectively heard as describing either of the games.
in between these two extreme philosophies of “trans-sportation” can also be
imagined — and just such a bizarre scenario is what
everyday communication is actually like. Two brains are, in general, far more unalike than are the sports of soccer
and basketball — and yet our society is predicated on mutual comprehensibility
mediated by language.
astonishing to me how often people — even linguistically sophisticated people,
such as philosophers, writers, linguists, translators, and cognitive scientists
— will speak as if communication among members of a single language community
were total and perfect, with serious communication gaps only taking place
at the interface between different languages — as if translation were needed
only between languages, never within a language community. Thus it is taken
as obvious and indisputable that Russians all read, say, a novel by Pushkin
in one and the same way, but that no one who reads an anglicized version of that
novel could possibly get anything like “that same experience” (as if the reading
of that novel engendered just one experience in the vast world of all different
Russian speakers). My retort would be that what matters is not the dried linguistic
powder that is used to transport the dance between brains — what matters is
the dance set up inside a brain by whatever dried powder is used for the transport.
Linguists (I exempt those in the very recent cognitive-linguistics movement)
concentrate so hard on the overt dried powder that they wind up largely ignoring
the covert dances that engender it, and that it engenders. As an ironic consequence,
the standard model of language that has been built up this century by linguists
is hugely impoverished.
people’s (and most linguists’) model of translation is as dry as the powder
that carries dehydrated ideas from brain to brain; indeed, they conceive of
translation as a mapping from one purely dehydrated chain of symbols to another
dehydrated chain of symbols, without any need for “adding water” at any stage
of the process. The whole process happens purely at the level of the dry symbols.
Translation would thus be an activity for drones — and hence ideal for computers
to carry out. Here — courtesy of my Sofia hotel — is an example of the “drone”
theory of translation:
the early machine-translation pioneer Warren Weaver once wrote (Weaver 1955),
“When I look at an article in Russian, I say, ‘This is really written in English,
but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I shall now proceed to decode.’”
translation is but the challenge of communication rendered crystal-clear,
and since communication is but metaphor, and since metaphor is but analogy,
I shall spend the rest of this article on analogy focusing on translation
and showing how at its core translation is analogy, and indeed, is analogy
at its most sublime and enchanting.
a few paragraphs back, I wrote the phrase “a novel by Pushkin,” my choice
was not as flippant as I tried to make it seem. Indeed, as a recent translator
of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, I have been totally
absorbed over the past year or so in the delicious but daunting task of reincarnating
Pushkin’s sparkling poetry in the medium of contemporary English — or rather,
contemporary American. It has not, needless to say, been a process that looked
anything like the Sofia-hotel model, with the two-headed vertical arrows connecting
words. In order to give a sense of what was involved, I must first describe
the building blocks of the novel, usually called “Onegin stanzas.” Each sonnet
(of which there are nearly four hundred) is a “crystal” — a pattern to transplant
from one medium to another. What is the nature of these crystals?
with, each one consists of fourteen lines of strict iambic tetrameter (which
means — at least in Russian — that stresses never fall on odd-numbered syllables).
The rhyming pattern is always as follows:
A B A
B C C D D E F F E G G
this framework, the “A,” “C,” and “E” line-pairs have the special property
of being feminine rhymes, while the “B,” “D,” “F,” and “G” line-pairs are
masculine. The distinction is as follows: “return/discern” is a masculine
rhyme, because the final syllables not only rhyme but are stressed, whereas
“returning/discerning” is a feminine rhyme, because the penultimate syllables
rhyme and are stressed, while the final syllables are not only unstressed
but identical. In other words, in feminine rhymes, the “rhyming action” takes
place before the line’s final syllable (which is unstressed), whereas in masculine
rhymes, the rhyming action takes place on the final syllable (which is stressed).
consequence of this intricate design, an Onegin stanza’s lines have varying
numbers of syllables, depending on whether they are feminine or masculine.
The six “A,” “C,” and “E” lines have nine syllables apiece, while all others
have eight, as follows:
9 8 9 8 9 9 8 8 9 8 8 9 8 8
hundred crystals in the original Russian have this property, and thus all
four hundred crystals in the counterpart work in English should — should they
not? — have this same property. The crucial question is, of course, what kind
of compromises should be made in the transportation of Pushkin’s virtuoso
game into the new medium. One type of translator (Nabokov 1964) might insist
on retaining the most literal possible rendering of each word and even much
of the Russian word order, in which case all rhyming and rhythmic properties
would have to be sacrificed. This would seem rather akin to the word-for-word
Sofia-hotel model, and quite uninspired as a translation philosophy.
type of translator would insist on retaining the medium-message marriage that
well-wrought poetry inevitably is, and thus on looking behind the scenes,
looking beyond the dry dust on the paper, looking at the sparkling mental
dance to which the dry powder gives rise, once water is added to it. To such
a translator, what matters is that each semantic chunk of the original poetry
(whether contained within a single line or spread across several) gives rise
to a scene in the mind’s eye of a reader (not to mention that of Pushkin),
and this type of translator, having tried to envision that scene as clearly,
fully, and. faithfully as possible, then uses it as a source for English words
and phrases that can be used in lines of English poetry that obey. the formal
constraints. Such a translator, in short, is inspired by the inner dance and
not merely by the dry powder.
the scene conjured up by a line or two of the original goes far beyond the
literal words in those lines (i.e., since “just adding water” adds such richness!),
there is much more to draw on as potential material for a new poem in English,
and so one is enormously freed up. There remain, of course, all the rhythmic
and rhyming hoops to jump through, but by adding water, one has at least given
oneself a fighting chance at finding a solution satisfying all the relevant
satisfying those constraints is not a simple task, nor is it by any means
a black-and-white matter to judge whether (or to what degree) the constraints
have actually been met. There are many pressures vying with each other, and
by no means are they all explicit, although some are. One might cite the following
sets of pressures under which a translator must work:
- Content: the image evoked by the words
and phrases in a semantic chunk
- Structural pattern: the above-described
features that define the phonetic nature of an Onegin stanza
- Tone: an intangible brew of subliminally
felt qualities suggested by the following oppositions: humorous vs. serious;
straightforward vs. ironic; heavy vs. light; old-fashioned vs. modern; meditative
vs. peppy; sweet vs. sad; resigned vs. delighted; highbrow vs. lowbrow;
one of these constraints that has a sharp, black-and-white feel to it is that
of the structural pattern, since it is generally fairly objective whether
two words rhyme or not, how many syllables are in a word, where stress should
fall, and whether a given two-syllable chunk is an iamb or not (although,
in truth, these matters are surprisingly often quite blurry — does “midnight”
make a true feminine rhyme with “slid right”? is “finally” bisyllabic or trisyllabic?).
constraints are anything but sharp, since the content of any lexical item
is (as has been the thrust of this paper) determined by a host of prior analogies,
and hence is tremendously blurry, and since tone is not only vague but also
highly multidimensional, allowing for any conceivable combination of degree
of irony, degree of modernity, degree of sadness, and so on, ad infinitum.
Given the complexity of this range of competing pressures, it is hardly surprising
that there will occur, in the translation of nearly every single line, smaller
or larger creative slippages, typified by, but by no means limited to, the following
- The “perfect” literal translation of a
word is abandoned in favor of a slightly less perfect choice, because of
(say) phonetic constraints
- A syntactic reversal, slightly unusual
in English, is resorted to for (say) reasons of metric purity
- An idea or image is shifted from one line
to another because English grammar works that way
- An alliterative pattern is dropped in one
stanza but is introduced out of the blue in another, in order to replicate
fairly accurately the overall density of alliteration in the original
- A modern-seeming word is used in a passage
that has an older tone, or vice versa, because of (say) certain extra connotations
that are gained thereby
- A word strongly evocative of something
linked tightly to the target culture but not the original culture (e.g.,
“jive”) is used, even if the effect creates a very short-lived subliminal
shift of venue from source to target culture
- A perfect rhyme is sacrificed for a near-rhyme,
in order to gain an extra set of connotations or to conjure up a precise
image that would otherwise not be attainable
- A word is used in a highly metaphorical
manner, stretching it even beyond its normal degree of plasticity
- A metaphor is dropped or is replaced by
a different metaphor, because the original metaphor makes no sense in
the target culture
- A metaphor is introduced out of the blue,
perhaps because it is implicit in a stock phrase or proverb that fits
aptly and that also rhymes very strongly;
- Etc., etc., etc.
fact about the result of all these kinds of creative slippage is that what
emerges can often be so powerfully evocative of the original that it seems
— at least on some levels — perfectly plausible to refer to the English-language
Onegin stanza thereby produced as being “by Alexander Pushkin,” and therefore
to write those three words on the front cover and spine and title page of
the book, perhaps even relegating the translator’s name to nothing more than
a line in fine print on the copyright page.
now take a look at the results of all these kinds of slippages caused by multiple
rival pressures in the minds of different translators with different philosophies
of translation. I have selected one stanza, the 29th from chapter II, to illustrate
what kinds of things can occur. (See also chapters 8, 9, and 13 of Hofstadter
First I display Pushkin’s original Russian and, next to it, a literal
translation by Vladimir Nabokov; thereafter, in order, stanzas by
the following translators (in the chronological order of publication
of their translations): Babette Deutsch, Oliver Elton, Walter Arndt,
Charles Johnston, James Falen, and Douglas Hofstadter.
Ей рано нравились
Они ей заменяли
Отец ее был добрый
Но в книгах не
Он, не читая никогда,
Их почитал пустой
И не заботился
Какой у дочки
Дремал до утра
Жена ж его была
Vladimir Nabokov (1964)
She early had been fond of novels;
for her they replaced all;
she grew enamored with the fictions
of Richardson and of Rousseau.
Her father was a kindly fellow
who lagged in the precedent age
but saw no harm in reading books;
he, never reading,
deemed them an empty toy,
nor did he care
what secret tome his daughter had
dozing till morn under her pillow.
As to his wife, she was herself
mad upon Richardson.
Babette Deutsch (1936)
She found in a romantic story
All one might care to be or know;
Living the chapters through, she’d glory
In Richardson as in Rousseau.
Her father saw no harm in reading
(He was a decent chap, conceding
He lived in quite another age);
But then he never read a page.
He did not know that books could say things
To move you even while you slept;
He thought the tomes his daughter kept
Beneath her pillow, empty playthings;
While, on the other hand, his wife
Held Richardson as dear as life.
Oliver Elton (1937)
Romances were her only passion,
And all the world to her; and so
She fell in love, the dupe of fashion,
With Richardson, and with Rousseau.
Quite a good fellow was her father,
Of the last age, belated rather;
He saw no mischief in a book,
Though in one he would never look;
Thought it a toy, and held it lightly,
And cared not what his daughter did
When she a private volume hid
Beneath her pillow, slumbering nightly.
His lady wife was mad upon
The tales of Samuel Richardson.
Walter Arndt (1963)
But novels, which she early favored,
Replaced for her all other treats;
With rapturous delight she savored
Rousseau’s and Richardson’s conceits.
Her honest father, though old-fashioned,
Last century’s child, grew not impassioned
About the harm that books might breed;
He, who was never known to read,
Regarded them as empty thrillers
And never thought to bring to light
Which secret volume dreamt at night
Beneath his little daughter’s pillows.
His wife had had a crush herself
On Richardson — still on her
Charles Johnston (1977)
From early on she loved romances,
they were her only food... and so
she fell in love with all the fancies
of Richardson and of Rousseau.
Her father, kindly, well-regarded,
but in an earlier age retarded,
could see no harm in books; himself
he never took one from the shelf,
thought them a pointless peccadillo;
and cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow.
His wife, just like Tatyana, had
on Richardson gone raving mad.
James Falen (1990)
From early on she read romances,
And novels set her heart aglow;
She loved the fictions and the fancies
Of Richardson and of Rousseau.
Her father was a kindly fellow
Lost in a past he found more mellow;
But still, in books he saw no harm,
And, though immune to reading’s charm,
Deemed it a minor peccadillo;
Nor did he care what secret tome
His daughter read or kept at home
Asleep till morn beneath her pillow;
His wife herself, we ought to add,
For Richardson was simply mad.
Douglas Hofstadter (1999)
From early on, she read romances;
True life they were for her, not show.
She fell for all the moods and trances
Induced by authors like Rousseau
And Richardson. A friendly fellow,
Her father was old-fashioned, mellow,
And saw in books no cause for dread;
Instead, because he never read,
He thought of them as dull and boring,
And didn’t give a tinker’s damn
What brand of frivolous flim-flam
His daughter clutched all night while snoring.
But on the other hand, his wife
Thought Richardson the spice of life.
of these compact fourteen-line verbal packets is a structure that bears to
the original packet the relation of analog in the medium of the English language.
Each one is clearly the result of myriad tradeoffs involving preservation
of imagery, strictness of meter, perfection of rhyme, phonetic patternedness,
era exuded by words and phrases, degree of humor, degree of catchiness, degree
of familiarity of lexical items, ease of syntactical flow, sequential order
of ideas, and much more.
for instance, the word “instead” on line 8 of my translation. Initially, I
had line 8 beginning with “indeed,” which in some ways is stronger (because
“indeed” carries a more emphatic flavor than “instead,” and also because,
more subtly, the comma-signaled pause that would follow “indeed” strikes me
as ever-so-slightly longer and more charged than its counterpart with “instead”),
and yet despite these lures, the internal rhyme of “instead” with “dread”
preceding it and with “read” following it somehow carried the day in my mind.
This is typical of the multidimensional internal conflicts that occur routinely
in translation, and each time, one has to weigh all the factors and make a
more blatant semantic level, you may note that the imagery in my stanza is
that of the daughter sleeping — nay, snoring! — while clinging tightly to
a favorite book, whereas the imagery in the original is of the book itself
sleeping (or dreaming) beneath the girl’s pillow. To what extent is one entitled
to manipulate imagery this way and then to claim that the resulting book is
“by Alexander Pushkin”?
extent did the nonanglophone Russian poet Alexander Pushkin ever say, in describing
the girl’s father, “and didn’t give a tinker’s damn”? On the other hand, to
what extent did Pushkin ever write the line “nor did he care”? Using the former
as line 10 provides a clear whiff of Pushkinesque humor (not to mention having
the proper meter, rhyme, and so on), while using the latter as line 10 is
bland and flat (and is but four syllables long, where Pushkin’s line had,
of course, four full iambs on it).
right did I feel entitled to insert an alliterative and flippant phrase like
“frivolous flim-flam” into the lyrical mouth of Alexander Pushkin? On the
other hand, by what right did Vladimir Nabokov feel entitled to insert the
graceless and nonidiomatic phrase, “As to his wife, she was herself mad upon
Richardson” into the mouth of Russia’s greatest poet? For that matter, by
what right did James Falen think he could get away with a pseudorhyme like
“romances” and “fancies”? As for Walter Arndt, by what right did think he
could get away with a nonrhyme like “thrillers” and “pillows”? And by what
right did Charles Johnston think he was entitled to portray the girl’s novels
as “her only food”? By what right did Babette Deutsch rearrange the order
of Pushkin’s ideas, so as to make the father’s old-fashionedness follow (and
in parentheses, to boot!) his seeing no harm in books? And how in the world
did Oliver Elton feel he was being faithful to Pushkin by using the bizarrely
redundant phrase “his lady wife”?
I am feigning outrage here; I have great respect for most of these translators,
despite the fact that I see compromises ubiquitously riddling the productions
of each of them. The questions just raised were raised purely rhetorically,
my intention being to provoke readers into pondering which of these seven
rival English-language stanzas might be seen as the most analogous to Pushkin’s
original stanza (without claiming there is any “correct” answer).
Winding Up: On Associationism and the Cartesian Theater
come a long way, starting out by seeing single words as analogs to perceived
situations, and ending up by seeing sonnets in different languages as each
other’s analogs. Somewhere near the midpoint came the crux of this essay, however, which claimed
that thinking (at least when isolated from external influences) is a series
of leaps involving high-level perception, activation of concepts in long-term
memory, transfer to short-term memory, partial and context-dependent unpacking
of chunks, and then further high-level perception, and so forth.
may sound like no more than the age-old idea of associationism — that we think
by jumping associatively from one thing to another. If that’s all it came
down to, my thesis would certainly be a sterile and vapid noncontribution
to cognitive science. But the mechanisms I posit are more specific, and in
particular they depend on the transfer of tightly packed mental chunks from
the dormant area of long-term memory into the active area of short-term memory,
and on their being unpacked on arrival, and then scrutinized. Both transfer
and perception are crucial, and in that respect, my thesis departs significantly
readers, such as the author of Consciousness explained (Dennett 1991),
might feel they detect in this theory of thinking an insidious residue of
the so-called Cartesian theater — a hypothetical theater in which an “inner
eye” watches as various images go parading by on a “mental screen,” and becomes
“aware” or “conscious” of such imagery. Such a notion of thinking leads very
easily down the slippery slope of nested homunculi, and thus to an infinite
regress concerning the site of consciousness.
would gladly plead guilty to the accusation of positing a “screen” upon which are “projected” certain representations
dredged up from long-term memory, and I would also plead guilty to the accusation
of positing an “inner eye” that scans that screen and upon it posts further
representational structures, which trigger a descent via analogy into the
dormant depths of long-term memory. I would insist, however, that the label
“perception,” as applied to what the “inner eye” does, be sharply distinguished
from visual or any other kind of sensory perception, since in general it involves
no sensory modality in any normal sense of the term (recall the perception
of “ethnic cleansing” in a newspaper story). The nature of such abstract or
high-level perceptual processing has been sketched out in work done by my
students and myself over the years (see Hofstadter and FARG 1995), and I will
not attempt to describe it here.
since it has been implemented as a computer program (at least to a first approximation),
such a model does not succumb to snagging on the fatal hook of infinite regress.
who would scoff at the very notion of any “inner screen” involved in cognition,
I would point to the large body of work of perceptual psychologist Anne Treisman
(e.g., Treisman 1988), which in my view establishes beyond any doubt the existence
of temporary perceptual structures created on the fly in working memory (she
cal\s them “object files”) — a stark contrast to the connectionist-style thesis
that all cognition takes place in long-term memory, and that it consists merely
of simultaneous conceptual activations (possibly with attached temporal phases,
so as to handle the “binding problem”) without any type of transfer to, or
structure-building in, a distinct working area. Although this more distributed
view of the essence of cognition might appeal to opponents of the Cartesian
theater, it does not seem to .me that it comes anywhere close to allowing
the richness of thought that back-and-forth flow between long-term and short-term
memory would allow.
that my speculative portrayal of analogy as the lifeblood, so to speak, of
human thinking, despite being highly ambitious and perhaps somewhat overreaching,
strikes a resonant chord in those who study cognition. My most optimistic
vision would be that the whole field of cognitive science suddenly woke up
to the centrality of analogy, that all sides suddenly saw eye to eye on topics
that had formerly divided them most bitterly, and naturally — indeed, it goes
without saying — that they lived happily ever after. Whatever.
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Previously published in:
Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science,
Dedre Gentner, Keith J. Holyoak, and Boicho N. Kokinov (eds.).
Cambridge MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book, 2001, pp. 499-538.
by kind permission of The MIT Press.
The MIT Press
by Douglas Hofstadter; used by permission.