Review of Hofstadter et al., Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies

Forthcoming in Complexity
Daniel C. Dennett
December 3, 1995

Douglas R. Hofstadter and the Fluid Analogies Research Group, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, New York: Basic Books, 518pp.

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter published Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a brilliant exploration of some of the most difficult and fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: recursion, computation, reduction, holism, meaning, "jootsing" (jumping out of the system), "strange loops", and much, much more. What made the book's expositions so effective were a family of elaborate (and lovingly elaborated) analogies: the mind is like an anthill, a formal system is like a game, theorem and nontheorem are like figure and ground, Bach's Inventions are like dialogues, and much, much more. The whole analogy-package was wrapped in layers of self-conscious reflection. "Anything you can do I can do meta-" was one of Doug's mottos, and of course he applied it, recursively, to everything he did.

Then in 1985 came Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, its title drawn from the title of his monthly column in Scientific American, which was of course an anagram of its predecessor, Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games." More word-play, more games, more analogies, more recursion, more self-conscious reflection--all brilliant, but many began to wonder: what, actually, was Hofstadter doing? Was there a serious research project here, or just fun and games and self-absorption? His fans were fascinated, but even some of his colleagues and graduate students--even his friend and co-author (of The Mind's I: myself)--began to worry a bit about his lengthy odysseys into toy worlds (ambigrams, bizarre fonts, curious doodles on long rolls of paper).

(The whole paper is now available in Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren, Essays on Designing Minds, MIT Press and Penguin, 1998.)