I Am a
by Douglas R.
Basic Books, NY, NY, 2007
412 pp., illus. Trade, US $26.95
Reviewed by Richard Kade
Sunnyvale, CA, USA
The line from Ecclesiastes that there's
nothing new under the sun far too often
provides cover for those unwilling to
use blinding flashes of insight to see
the more adumbrativeeven if
less obvioussubtext. The potential
pitfall of that routeattempting
to cross the line from reviewer to previeweris
justification of Cicero's call for legislation
that no two soothsayers be allowed to
greet each other without first laughing
Most of Douglas R. Hofstadter's latest
book is fun to read even if there is little
that is new. Indeed, if one is looking
for the next great work on a scale comparable
to Gödel, Esher, Bach... or
Le Ton Beau de Marot , the
wait is probably another decade or so
The standard rapabsolutely
a bum rap at thatis in regard
to the volume of writing used to deal
with so many inter-related topics. John
McWhorter referred in 2003 to GEB
as an "erudite doorstop" in Doing Our
Own Thing; The degradation of language
and music and why we should, like, care
telling how it is a common "sight in educated
people's homes despite ... having heard
more than a few who own it admit" to never
having gotten around to reading it.
Think of Wagner likening Beethoven to
"a Titan, wrestling with the gods." As
great as so much of Ludwig's output was,
one probably will derive greater pleasure
skipping most of the even-numbered symphonies
and both even-numbered piano concerti.
So it is with Hofstadter's writing. Most
except for those of us who enjoy his "intermediate"
works, such as the novel versification
of Eugene Onegin and now,
again, with Strange Loop will probably
want to wait until the next big inspiration.
This book has ample imperfection. A typical
example is one page after deploring the
"linguistic sloppiness" in marketing hype.
The author suffers yet another instance
of his own "lexical laxity" when he uses
a buzz-cliché "near misses".
Obviously, he really meant the exact opposite,
"near hits". In all fairness, such lapses
are rare and almost all are when he attempts
to write in a breezy, "with-it", manner
not quite getting the "slanguage" right
or just not exercising sufficient discernment
in weighing the worthiness of the latched-onto
The other somewhat off-putting aspect
of the writing is Hofstadter's compulsion,
as he put it, not only to paint himself
into a corner but, also, to go out (to
the farthest extremities) on a limb. Most
such examples are premised upon way-left-of-center
dogma leading to the rooting of pronouncements
in, amongst other things, Albert Schweitzer's
silliness over never even stepping on
an ant! From this the author goes yet
further, ascribing moral superiority of
ants over mosquitoes suggesting that the
ant, by the pre-programming of her DNA,
is somehow less malevolent than the stinging
What is new in this book is the author's
expanded view of cognition, based in large
part on Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem
to encompass the traditional belief that
we live on in the memories of others as
long as our deeds, pronouncements and
accomplishments as well as idiosyncrasies
remaineven if such memory
is, sadly, "coarse-grained" and "low-resolution".
To go into greater detail here would do
disservice to the author and all who enjoy
the playfulness, charm and style of his
The editors of Seed Magazine invited
Hofstadter to lay out his new ideas about
consciousness and what it means to be
human for their March 2007 issue. That
synopsis is probably the best starting
point. For clearer understanding of how
these seemingly unrelated strands (Gödel,
cognition, sense of soul or spirit, what
he calls "I"-ness, etc.) evolved, the
author's list of references contains one
of the best clues: a chapter titled "Analogy
as the Core of Cognition" from a book
originally published by MIT Press in 2001.
This piece is posted in its entirety at
the Stanford University Library's website
along with every type of update to lend
context; most notably, "A Somewhat Self-Referential
Interview About This Very Web Site (extracted
and transcribed with a bit of poetic lie-sense)".
Since this article was the basis of a
lecture given by the author in February
of 2006, while still at work on this book,
you get to peer into the inner workings
of a great thinker.
At the outset, Hofstadter argues that
analogy-making is far from the "special
variety of reasoning and problem-solving
... cliché in the cognitive-science
world" which traditionally renders it
"but an itty-bitty blip in the broad blue
sky of cognition." He views it, rather,
as "the very blue that fills the whole
sky of cognition."
But what of the fact that, even the daylight
skyat the risk of running
his analogy into the groundis
not always blue? What of the edges of
clouds that can be so inexact, or that
atmospheric light refraction (at dawn
or sunset) create so rich a spectrum of
beauty beyond the mere blue?
Lest we dwell too long uponor
stray too far fromthe central
thrust of his over-arching theme, we must
remember one underlying fact. Most of
Professor Hofstadter's brilliance, indeed
what accounts for his success over the
course of the last quarter of a century,
comes from his being an unabashed philologer.
Here an analogy from Mark Twain is in
order, "The difference between the almost-right
word and the right word is like the difference
between the lightning bug and lightning!"
Although Hofstadter provides graphic illustrations
of nonverbal perception (sun shadow as
opposed to the far less familiar "rain
shadow" and "snow shadow") his love of
the wordspoken, written, printed,
translated, punned upon, (one imagines
even cruciverbalistic, jumbled, etc.,
in a multiplicity of languages)might,
however unintentionally, lead to his failure
to note that most thought is abstract
rather than verbal.
When quoting the Epimenidean self-referential
loop as "the pearl" of Gödel's Incompleteness
Theorem, in 1979, Hofstadter felt the
need to add, "Actually it was in German
and perhaps you feel that it might as
well be in German anyway ..." before paraphrasing
the passage "in more normal English."
And when Escher created the implied self-referential
loops of endless waterfalls, did it matter
that any verbal thoughts he may have had
were probably in Dutch?
Or what of Bach? With pen to paper, while
writing most of the same notes and orchestration
that went with both "Gratias agimus tibi"
and "Dona nobis pacem" was any thought
of hunger or anything unrelated to the
task at hand in Latin, rather than German
as one might imagine on the occasion these
same notes and instrumentation were coupled
with the title chorale of the cantata,
Wir Danken Dir? Of course not!
While non-verbal cognition was not really
covered in the lecture itself, (viewable
in RealTime or QuickTime ) the topic came
up in the discussion session. Hofstadter
replied that he "would hardly call 'hunger'
a cognitive phenomenon."
Fair enough. So visceral a perception
as hunger might not require verbal thought
any more than any of the countless Pavlovian
reflex impulses that cause, for example,
one to reach for the phone when it rings.
Too bad the obvious follow-up question
was not posed. Would playing a game of
chess fall into that same category? Few
people think the words (in whatever language)
"If I move this bishop to attack that
knight my queen is open to that castle
... " My own informal, brief, random sampling
of a couple dozen peopleroughly
50/50 split between male and femaleshows
that most just visualize pieces moving
to and fro weighing options without thinking
words. If chess requires no verbal thought,
is the level of reasoning less than cognition?
Another of Dr. Hofstadter's obsessions
is the minor matter of climbing the metaphorical
Tower of Babel. Translationeven
transcriptionat best, lends
little perspective to the importance of
analogy at the core or periphery of cognition.
Even Longfellow's analogy, "Music is the
universal language of the arts" is fatally
flawed. Yes, music is affected by the
same perceptual phenomena noted by as
early an auditor as Pythagoras in his
so-called "Music of the Spheres" which
led Leonard Bernstein, amongst many others,
to note how toddlers anywhere on the globe
taunt one another with an interval of
a minor third while singing the syllables,
"Nyah, nyah!" The natural yearning for
certain resolutions (dominant-to-tonic
and the like) is the means whereby such
musical ambiguity as Wagner's Tristan
Prelude or Debussy's Faun
is effectively exploited.
The actual notes used (diatonic scales
in the west, pentatonic in much of the
east and quarter- and eighth-tones in
India, etc.) are mere human attempts to
actuate the abstract for transmission
between crania. Sculpture, painting, dance
and all other non-verbal expression are
much the same.
Alan Turing, Allen Newell, Herb Simon,
Frederick Brooks and those earliest pioneers
in what would be termed "computer science"
(for a while "mathematical psychology"
before eventually becoming "artificial
intelligence") paved the path for later
generations, including Hofstadter, leading
to the study of cognitive science. This
seeming nit, the role of nonverbal thoughts
in cognition, is not one that can be leveled
legitimately against Professor Hofstadter.
If anything it is just a symptom of the
reality that, in purely practical terms,
cognition gets you only so far. Cognition
-- so steeped in theory -- in and of itself
without consideration of the syllogistic
reasoning side of the equation makes any
study of how otherwise-brilliant minds
can put the "idiot" back into "idiot-savant"
problematic if not impossible.
Psychiatry suffers from the same drawback.
Look at Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz
or the fugitive ex-champion, Bobby Fischer
cited by psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer
as "the poster boy for the mad chess genius".
How plausible is the theory of intensely
focused monomania -- protecting one's
king from earliest youth and seeking ways
to checkmate the opponent -- producing
symptoms of nervous stress and unreality
that could explain Fischer's seeming paranoia?
Or what of the obvious brilliance in the
field of mathematics that did nothing
to prevent Theodore J. Kaczynski from
becoming the Unabomber?
A brief personal note on analogy and Hofstadter
is in order here. In this spacethis
"Siberian" sector of cyberiathe
year before last, a footnote was included
in a review of a commemoration of Merce
Cunningham. Recalling how C. S. Forester
saw Puccini as the "Wagner of opera",
I went on to say that one could plausibly
update this pronouncement to "David Del
Tredici is the 'Doug Hofstadter, of music!'"
This analogy took root upon my first reading
in late 1979 of GEB.
Having viewed a telecast of Final Alice
three years earlier, the question of what
each of these two would think of how the
other had treated the dialogues of Lewis
Carroll became inescapable. What I could
not have known was that the opportunity
to obtain an answer to both parts of the
question would take nearly another twenty
In late 1997 Hofstadter responded that
he had been asked the question before
but that, with his frenetic scheduleteaching,
speaking, writing and the demands of being
a single parenthe never had opportunity
to hear any Del Tredici work. The counterpart
answer would only have to wait another
David Del Tredici, in a handwritten note
after seeing the LDR piece on Onegin,
replied he had never read GEB.
He continued, "it's too intellectual for
me. Composers are not necessarily 'head
smart.' Composing is an affair of the
Wow! Now I had what appeared to be two
twin non-answers. The mathematical "mental
gymnastics" involved in the structural
foundation of any Del Tredici piece would
surely have Charles Dodgson sit up in
awe. Even setting that aside, I knew the
"intellectual" argument to be a canard
as an intellectual has aptly been defined
as one who can hear Rossini's William
Tell Overture without thinking of
The Lone Ranger and since I flunk
that test but could read GEB ...
But only upon reminiscing here a few moments
ago did the thought finally occur that
this was hardly "two twin non-answers"
but, rather, valid answers to a far more
subtle question. What neither of these
two individuals saw was that they were
viewing opposing sides of the same coin.
The essence of Hofstadter's position,
with its reliance upon "chunking" of countless
smaller component concepts enabling the
higher-level of thought, could best be
bottom-lined "if it ain't happening in
words you don't have cognition." The opposing
point of view is Del Tredici's trepidation
that "over-thinking" obstructs the torrent
of creative juices. His notes to the "Ecstatic
Alice" aria of his 1980 In Memory of
a Summer Day explain, "In fact, the
music emerged with such urgencyso
fearful was I of losing the melodic flow
and inspirationthat until
it was almost all written, I dared not
even glance at the text to see whether
the words fit properly!"
So what will be the eventual shape of
the next great work on a scale of GEB
or Ton beau? Nobody, of course,
knows; probably least of all Hofstadter
himself. The trigger might be anything
or set of things such as his finally having
opportunity to hear any of the Alice-related
works of Del Tredici. Or, perhaps, given
the deep passion Hofstadter has for both
musical and mathematical matters, maybe
even something along the order of the
work of Dmitri Tymoczko on the "Geometry
of Music" might unleash the unstoppable
flow of yet another torrent of creativity.
The good news is that this next "sprawling
book encompassing [his] many interests"
will most likely not be the last such
work. The scenario whereby such output
might come about is not at all hard to
envision. A few decades from now, when
attending the ceremony where one of his
eventual grandchildren is honored by the
Nobel Committee, some luminary will exclaim
something eerily reminiscent of Frederick
the Great a quarter-millennium ago, "Old
DugHof is here!" The creativity of Hofstadter
is nothing at all analogous to the old
proverbial question of how much juice
can be squeezed out of the lemon. Rather,
it is more like tapping the endless depth
of beauty of an ocean.