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
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!
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!
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 —
|Photograph by Douglas Hofstadter. Used by
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...
|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,
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.
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
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...
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
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
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
phrases are more extended, they have become broader categories
than their original meanings, but what situations call them forth?
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
Stanford University Libraries.