Noted cognitive scientist asserts that analogy is (almost) the whole enchilada

Rod Searcey hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University gave a Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts.

During the second Presidential Lecture of the academic year, Douglas Hofstadter, professor of computer and cognitive science at Indiana University, argued for the central place of analogy in cognition while using a bumper crop of analogies.

Analogy is the "motor of the car of thought" and "the interstate freeway of cognition," said Hofstadter in a talk titled "Analogy as the Core of Cognition." Hofstadter, director of the Fluid Analogies Research Group (FARG) at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at IU, has written on topics including artificial intelligence and poetry translation and is the author of the popular and Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979).

Far from being a subset associated with problem solving—a tiny "Delaware on the map of cognition"—or a special variety of reasoning, analogy is the main event, Hofstadter asserted during an evening lecture Feb. 6 and during a discussion the following afternoon at the Humanities Center.

A capacity crowd—some carrying copies of Gödel, Escher, Bach—packed into Cubberley Auditorium to hear Hofstadter speak. They filled the balcony and spilled up onto the stage to sit cross-legged across the back and along the sides. Hofstadter, who has a casual shock of thick gray hair, accompanied his talk with hand-drawn transparencies displayed on an overhead projector. He is possessed not only of a charismatic imagination but an "incorrigible playfulness" with language and anagrams, said President Emeritus Donald Kennedy, who introduced the speaker. "His biography would break a spell-checker," Kennedy said.

The son of the late Nobel laureate and Stanford physics Professor Robert Hofstadter, Douglas Hofstadter received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Stanford in 1965. He became interested in how language works while computer programming using a Burroughs computer in the basement of Encina Hall—the only one then on campus, said Hofstadter, who later earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Oregon. His experience with programming "inspired me to think about cognition, and over the years I've devoted a great deal of my life to thinking about what cognition is," he said.

Central to the ideas Hofstadter presented in the lecture and the discussion is what he described as the mind's capacity to categorize mental representations by their "essences" and to make connections between them. (By "essence," Hofstadter explained, he meant the essence that the observer perceived.)

Analogies—which we make constantly, relentlessly and mostly unconsciously—are what allow categorization to happen, he said. "Our minds are constructed with an unlimited quality for 'chunking' primordial concepts, which then become larger concepts."

Hofstadter used as an example the word "hub," as in "Denver is the hub for United Airlines," and displayed a hand-drawn chart mapping words representing some of the linked concepts that are "chunked" together to make up the commonly used term. His examples ranged from basics like "wheel" and "node" to higher-order concepts like "spoke" and "network." Higher-order concepts are glommed together from lower-order ones, he said.

There's no fundamental difference in thinking with basic concepts and very large concepts because we don't "see" inside them, he said. "We build concepts by putting several concepts together and putting a membrane around them, and kind of miraculously these [interior] concepts disappear."

Hofstadter's voice registered wonder as he listed seemingly mundane expressions that, his tone implied, are near-marvels of complexity. "Gas war. The Final Four. The genetic code. Chick flick," he read from a long, often funny list. "The Fed. Pork belly futures. Phishing."

"Wikipedia! Think of how many levels of structure it would take to explain 'Wikipedia' to someone from 2,000 years ago," he asked.

Although the examples are concepts we deal with easily and fluidly, they are far removed from the concept network of an ant or a dog or a 4-year-old or a 12-year-old, he said. "Concepts expand over our lifetime, for each one of us, and for our culture."

Word blends—Hofstadter provided a long, intriguing list of those as well—are signposts of a "subterranean fight" that occurs every time a speaker tries to figure out which word to use, he said. A blend like "capsi" for "cab" and "taxi," or even a slight hesitation or the lengthening of a consonant, are "revelatory of a fight between words, between analogies that are struggling to take over and beat the other ones out." (Hofstadter once caught himself saying, "I was having trouble ffinding it"—a blend of "finding" and "figuring out.")

This underground competition is going on in every word choice, in every situation and at all times, Hofstadter said. "We are trying to put labels on things by mapping situations that we have encountered before. That to me is nothing but analogy."

A chapter titled "Analogy as the Core of Cognition," written by Hofstadter and previously published in The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science (2001), appears on the Presidential Lectures website at Additional excerpts of Hofstadter's writings, an interview with Hofstadter and an essay by Glen Worthey, who edited the material, also appear on the site.

The Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts are endowed by the President's Office and administered by the Humanities Center.