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A Somewhat Self-Referential Dialogue
About This Very Web Site
With Douglas Hofstadter

(extracted and transcribed with a bit of poetic lie-sense)

 
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===========================

GW: ...So in the Presidential Lecture Web site I’ll include my own essay on your work, some excerpts from your writings, and a... a selected bibliography...

DRH: Selected?

GW: Well, for someone as prolific as you, I couldn’t...

DRH: I wouldn’t say I was that prolific. I mean, I only have a few books, a few articles, a few translations...

GW: But still, I don’t think we should put all of... everything... all the chapters and the lectures and.... And I’d like to make it both more selective and more substantial, perhaps with notes... with...

DRH: With annotations?

GW: Well, yes, an annotated bibliography, with notes, maybe with very brief...

DRH: Haha, that’s great: a nanotated bibliography! With very, very tiny little nano-tations! Ha!

GW: Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I’m planning to do! A nanotated bibliography, haha! We can always count on you to say something punny...

DRH: So, are you... can you put other people’s things into the bibliography, aside from mine? Because...

GW: Well, I guess we could, but...

DRH: Because there’s this article that had a very big impact on my thinking, written a long time ago... maybe twenty... no, 1975, exactly thirty years ago!

GW: Yes?

DRH: It’s in the bibliography of my analogy article. It was written by Joe Becker, someone who has a terrific talent for languages and who had studied linguistics at MIT but who in the end wound up totally rejecting the whole “MIT approach” to languages and words and so on. It’s a brilliant and witty and in-your-face article, called “The Phrasal Lexicon”... Joe was very young when he wrote it. He’s about my age, I guess... He was maybe about thirty back then, and the article was youthful and full of pizzazz... The first time I read it I just thought it was funny, but over the years it exerted a stronger and stronger influence on me...

GW: Okay, I’ll find it in the bibliography of your article, and I’ll take a look at it. By the way, it’s comforting to hear that we can include your article, the one with the same title as your lecture. I was sort of... I was a little worried that, you know, since it has the same title, I was worried that it would steal your thunder if we included it on the Web site, if people read...

DRH: Of course! Well, yes, if you put it on the Web site, of course I will wind up stealing my own thunder! But obviously not everyone is going to read it... Maybe 1 percent of the people attending the lecture will have actually read the whole... But that’s fine, of course it’s on the same topic, and some of it will be similar — but I’ll have some other tricks up my sleeve, so it’s not a problem to include the article. Go ahead, be my guest!

light shadow
Photograph by Douglas Hofstadter. Used by permission.
GW: Great! Even though the very motivation for this Web site is you being our guest — it’s great that the feeling is mutual! A sort of tit-for-tat... or even chit-for-chat. (Speaking of chat, perhaps it would even be nice to include a transcription of this little chat itself in the Web site.) Oh, and I’d also like to include those photos that you sent for the lecture poster — the two tree photos, positive and negative —

DRH: No, oh no! Those weren’t positive and negative! They were two totally different...

GW: Oh, wow, I just looked at them quickly, and I thought...
snow shadow
Photograph by Douglas Hofstadter. Used by permission.

DRH: This is interesting... it’s interesting — aggravating — how many different ways people have interpreted these two pictures when I’ve shown them to them!

GW: You know, since I had read the analogy article before seeing the pictures, I thought I understood what you were trying to say with them, about the sun shadow and the snow shadow, but I just looked at them quickly and decided that you took one picture and, for the sake of illustration, did some Photoshop trickery, and—

DRH: No, no! They’re two totally unrelated photos. I mean, they’re of the same tree at my parents’ ranch up in northern California, but they’re two pictures that I took at different times — there’s no Photoshop trickery at all. One was taken in the bright summer light, and the other one in the snow, with the snow shadow. No, it’s not a negative image at all. There’s no regular shadow in the winter one at all — after all, it was a cloudy day, so no sun, so no ordinary shadow... It was just a snow shadow, a lack of snow under the tree, like the lack of rain under an umbrella, like the lack of rain to the east of the Sierra Nevada — what geographers call a “rain shadow,” by the way. I love this idea of “generalized shadows.” I have a big collection of all sorts of “abstract shadows” in my files, you know — for instance, the cold, cold shadow that England casts on the coast of southern Norway, since it blocks the flow of the warm Gulf Stream...

GW: Ach, and here I thought I had understood everything... I even thought: how witty of you to use the same exact picture...

DRH: And yet — this is amazing: I took these two pictures at different times, one was a slide, just filed away somewhere... And the other was a Polaroid I snapped one winter day. The moment I saw that scene, I thought it was a great example of a phenomenon that fascinated me (this idea of “generalized shadows”), so I snapped it — and the amazing thing is that when I found the two pictures later and compared them, I saw that the exact same sticks are there in both, in the exact same places under the tree.... You’d think the cows in their grazing would have moved them during the time between when the two pictures were taken, but no...

GW: These really are remarkable pictures... There’s even something Escher-like about the pair of them....

DRH: Why yes, I guess there is. Kind of like the two villages on the opposite sides of his print “Day and Night.” Opposites, counterparts, flips...

GW: And you know, although I understand that we should focus on your more recent work for this lecture, of course I also need to give a general introduction to all your work, for those few who don’t already know you...

DRH: Even though that analogy article was written six or seven years ago, it still represents what I’m thinking now. If anything, my position is even stronger now than it was then — I’m even more convinced...

GW: Actually, I thought you were quite conciliatory in the article, very... soft-spoken, even apologetic...

DRH: No, oh no, I wasn’t apologetic at all! It’s true, I did say that I was in a very small minority in suggesting the centrality of analogy in human thought. I wrote that I knew some people wouldn’t like what I was going to say, since it was diametrically opposed to the standard cognitive-science party line that analogy is simply a part of “reasoning” in the service of some kind of “problem solving” (makes me think of doing problem sets in a physics course). For some bizarre reason, don’t ask me why, people in cognitive science only think of analogies in connection with what they call “analogical reasoning” — they have to elevate it, to connect it with fancy things like logic and reasoning and truth. They don’t seem to see that analogy is dirt-cheap, that it has nothing to do with logical thinking, that it simply pervades every tiny nook and cranny of cognition, it shapes our every thinking moment. Not seeing that is like fish not perceiving water, I guess. (There’s a throwaway analogy for you. But not in service of “reasoning,” let alone “problem solving.”) Anyway, I wrote that I was sorry but I was going to go ahead and make these brash, against-the-grain claims anyway! Back then, I thought I was perhaps being a bit uppity, but truth to tell, my opinion has only become firmer over time.

GW: Yes?

DRH: The point is that thinking amounts to putting one’s finger on the essence of situations one is faced with, which amounts to categorization in a very deep and general sense, and the point is that in order to categorize, one has to compare situations “out there” with things already in one’s head, and such comparisons are analogies. Thus at the root of all acts of thought, every last one of them, is the making of analogies. Cognitive scientists talk a lot about categories, but unfortunately the categories that they study are far too limited. For them, categories are essentially always nouns, and not only that, they are objects that we can see, like “tree” or “car.” You get the impression that they think that categorization is very simple, no more complicated than looking at an object and identifying the standard “features” that give away the fact that it belongs to this category “tree” — and that’s it!

GW: I see... Of course, it’s not hard to imagine a “tree category” in your head, even to describe its features...

DRH: But that’s just too narrow! What about a category like “mess” or “snack”? (And notice that I’m being charitable by sticking with just visual nouns, even what seem like simple and very concrete nouns, things that you can see with your eyes.) What are the standard “visual features” of messes that help us identify one when we see it? We only know it’s a mess because we create an analogy to other things that we’ve seen that were called “messes.” What visual features do all snacks have in common? Or all pedestrians? Or all offices? In fact, let me give you an example. My friends Dick and Kellie were helping me clean up my house, and they kept calling what I call my study my “office.” They’d say, “Oh, that box goes in the office” — but for me it was not my office, it was my study, and they knew it. We kept on arguing about what to call it, very good-humoredly but with each side insisting it was right. Then, when we dug deeper, when we talked about what was going on behind the scenes in our minds, it came out that Kellie and Dick have a room in their house, and like my study it’s on the top floor and it’s where they have their computers and their books and their desks and so forth, and they have always referred to that room as their “office,” so by an unconscious analogy, they called the room that plays that role in my house an “office.” Not because of some list of visual “features” shared by all offices. After all, they knew perfectly well that most places called “offices” don’t share many features with my study: think of a dentist’s office or a doctor’s office, or a professor’s office, or offices in an office building. No, Dick and Kellie’s label for my study came from an unconscious analogy they made with a room in their house. And, by the way, when we thought more about it, we realized that my use of the word “study” came from an unconscious analogy that I was making with my Dad’s study when I was growing up, which, once again, was on the top floor of our house, and which housed all his books and his slide rules and his Friden adding machine, and so forth.

GW: Hmm... Your Dad’s study with his slide rules and his adding machine, and your study with your computer — sounds like the “study” category is closely related to the “computing devices” category... although if you’re anything like me, you probably do much less “computing” with your computer than your Dad did with his slide rules.... So perhaps the category of these “computing devices” derives less from a set of common features and more from an analogy?

DRH: Indeed! Quite a fluid one, in fact. Word choices are always made by unconscious analogies, and that’s one of the key points of my paper. Let me give you another example. In my class this semester on analogies and concepts, we were reading the novel The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and I asked my students to focus on specific word choices made by Hosseini, and to speculate why they were there, why they had been chosen by him, what kind of unconscious analogies most likely underlay them in his mind. There was one sentence where the narrator of the tale, who is named Amir, is describing a photograph of himself as a baby being held by his father standing next to a family friend, and he says, “I’m in Baba’s arms, but it’s Rahim Khan’s pinky my fingers are curled around.” Now I was struck by the word “pinky” here, since it’s such a childish word. I thought it was curious that this grown man was described as having a “pinky,” while the little baby had “fingers.” I was intrigued by the fact that the childish flavor of “pinky” had leaked over to an adult in the photo. But then one of my students focused instead on the word “but” in that sentence, asking why it was there. He said that Hosseini could just as easily have had Amir say “and” instead — “I’m in Baba’s arms, and it’s Rahim Khan’s pinky my fingers are curled around” — but then he pointed out that if Amir had said that, it would have radically changed the meaning of that sentence. When we then thought about the use of the word “but” in that sentence, we realized that it subtly brought out the contrast between Amir’s very complex love/hate feelings toward his father and his uncomplicated love for Rahim Khan, which is a central theme in the whole book, from beginning to end. And so the author’s word choice of “but” in this sentence very early on was an extremely deep cognitive act, actually foreshadowing the rest of his entire novel! And yet he surely didn’t think that through consciously, planning it out, doing some kind of fancy “problem solving” — it was just a snap decision, a standard, vanilla categorization of a “but” situation. The word “but” is the name of a mental category, a very deep and complex entity. But then again, so is every word, for that matter — “snack,” “probably,” “with” — just every word. Every single lexical item that comes out of your and my mouth as we speak. That’s my point.

GW: I should read that novel — or at least take a look at that pinky picture...

DRH: And you’ll like this: as you know very well, the Russians have three words for “and” and “but” instead of our two, and they’re marvelously expressive: “и” [i] corresponds to our “and”; “но” [no] corresponds to our “but”; and then they have this word “а” [a], for situations that float roughly halfway between our “and” and “but”. My point here is that categories are not just concrete, visual nouns like “tree” or “car.” Every single word we use is just the tip of the iceberg of a profoundly complicated mental category.

GW: Yes, of course... I suppose each language does chunk the world in its own individual way — and lest we believe that Russian is simply more subtle than English, with its three degrees of “and/but,” we should remember that there’s only one Russian word used for everything from the shoulder to the tip of the pinky! But English has “arm” and “hand” and... I suppose those are also concrete visual nouns, but still...

DRH: Each word choice we make is a subtle, deep cognitive act coming from a tremendously large set of unconscious pressures. It goes way beyond concrete nouns. Every time I say “probably,” I’m making an abstract categorization of some situation I am facing. Every time I say “but,” every time I say “on the mark” or “after all” or “in fact” or “you bet” or “of course” or whatever idiomatic phrase or stock phrase you wish, I’m finding what feels like the appropriate category in my “phrasal lexicon,” to use Joe Becker’s term. Word choices come from a competition between thousands, even millions, of situations or feelings that we’ve stored in our minds during our lives. Every last word choice is a cognitive struggle among an unimaginably large set of possible competing analogies. When I’m speaking with you like this, every time I hesitate for a tiny fraction of a second before I say a word, every time that I slightly distort a vowel or lengthen a consonant for just a few milliseconds, every such thing is a subtle hint of that fierce cognitive struggle that is taking place behind the scenes in my brain...

GW: Yes...

DRH: And so, to me, suggesting that categorization comes down to just “feature detection” is to trivialize these wonderfully deep cognitive acts. I mean, feature detectors do exist in the brain, that’s clear — there are neurons that respond to horizontal lines or vertical lines in the visual field, and so forth and so on, but please tell me how something like a “mess” or a “snack” consists of some standard kind of arrangement of horizontal and vertical lines, blue and red lines, etc. It’s ridiculous! And then what about “but” situations? And “after all” situations? And “be my guest” situations? Where are the “features” that categorize such things? Features, schmeatures! What kind of “feature detectors” in your brain fired, a few minutes ago, to let you know that you were facing a “steal your thunder” situation (you were talking about putting my analogies article on the Web site)? Or what kind of “feature detectors” went off in my brain when I described Joe Becker’s youthful article as “in-your-face”? Throwaway remarks like this, which are a dime a dozen in everyday speech, so that they seem rather banal and trivial to most people, are in fact extremely deep cognitive acts — they are wonderful acts of categorization, and that means analogy-making.

GW: Speaking of “deep cognitive acts,” how did your Einstein talk go in Urbana? This was the one for which you’d sent me a very amusing abstract, consisting of one enormously long sentence, about the analogies that Einstein used in creating all of his great ideas, right? I think the talk was to be called “How Analogy Showed Einstein the Light, and Light Showed Einstein the Universe.”

DRH: Yes, that’s the one: it went pretty well from my point of view, and I think the audience enjoyed it. It took me a long time to write that abstract, and I tried reading it aloud in one breath, but could never come close.

GW: The abstract was certainly unique, and the talk sounded very interesting. I mean, I really love poetry translation, as you know, and I guess I probably had understood before, on some level, how analogical thought was central while translating from one language to another — it’s a great example of analogical thought, in fact — but to show the same sorts of analogical thought processes in scientific thinking, and in the greatest of all scientific thinkers! That seems to be really raising the bar... upping the ante... in the discussion of analogies.

DRH: Hmm.... “Raising the bar,” “upping the ante”.... Just look at those colorful phrases that you just pulled out of a hat, without the slightest effort! You should really think about that: why did you choose those particular abstract categories? One has to do with high-jumping, right? And the other one has to do with poker-playing, right? Of course by now the meanings of these phrases are more extended, they have become broader categories than their original meanings, but what situations call them forth? What in this situation evoked them? And why two of them at once? What kind of mysterious unconscious lightning-fast analogies were made (and please don’t call it “analogical reasoning”!), pulling up these phrases out of your huge phrasal lexicon and making you utter them now and not any other time during our conversation? And what will be the circumstances the next time you use either of them? And will both of them be appropriate the next time, or just one of them? And why?

GW: Ha, yes.... Yes, I will certainly think about why I chose these phrases — although I’m tempted to claim that it was your own favorite shadow category, the “barring of rays,” that led me to the raising of bars....

DRH: I think you may be pushing my principle of poetic lie-sense a bit too far on this one...

GW: Yes, yes, you’re right. Anyway, although I confess I’m quite tempted, I would obviously never include such a bad pun in this very serious Web site for your very serious lecture.

DRH: Thanks, I appreciate it.

 


Text by Douglas Hofstadter and Glen Worthey

©2006 Stanford University Libraries.
(Previously unpublished.)


 


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