Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Review article: Surfaces and Essences (2013)

Thinking about things like Analogies

The Philosopher's verdict: a snowball of a book

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking,
by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Basic Books (2013), about 600 pages, about £20 ISBN 0465018475

Behind every word in our language, from nouns such as teapot to connectors such as and or but, by way of adjectives and verbs such as blue or to paint, 'there lurks a blurry richness'. Ordinary words don't just have two or three 'but an unlimited number of meanings'. Why do we use dictionaries then, one might ask? But the fault, say Hofstadter and Sander, lies with the philosophers, or rather all of them up to one Ludwig Wittgenstein in the 1950s. For them, it was this genius who freed us from the long intellectual legacy of Plato and his notion of heavenly forms for things like, well, chairs and teapots.

The everyday concepts band, chair, teapot, mess and letter A are very different from specialized notions such as prime number or DNA. The latter also have unimaginably many members, but what is shared by all their members is expressible precisely and unambiguously.

Expressed how? In words? Here's a good word for Scrabble enthusiasts: zeugma. A zeugma is a sentence such as Dickens’ remark about Miss Bolo, that she 'went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair', where one word ('in') is made to do two jobs.

Unfortunately, the first example given, 'I'll meet you in five minutes and the garden', is barely comprehensible - at least to me. At least a better one follows a few lines later: 'She restored my painting and my faith in humanity'. But the authors qualify this one as 'slightly humorous’.

The book is full of examples illustrating the complexity and fecundity of language - but after 500 or so pages one despairs for a little more selection, a little less repetition. The text is reminiscent not so much of long, learned lectures but of earnest seminars with a white-board on which everyone's suggestions has been carefully written up. In places, the book (metaphorically speaking) lists like the a great ocean liner grounded on the rocks, and for much the same reason - the captain has paid too much attention to entertaining the passengers and too little to navigating the great vessel…

Zeugmas or similar to anaphora, another venerable (medieval) term referring to the way words can 'refer back' to terms used earlier. The fact that the term exists shows how long a history the philosophy of language has too, but little of that of is reflected here, which is a shame.

The book notes briefly that Plato used many analogies, but seem to hold against him that he warned that 'likeness is a most slippery tribe'. Kant, on the other hand, is applauded for counting analogy as the wellspring of creativity, and Nietzsche for describing truth as 'a mobile army of metaphors'. I suspect that Nietzsche was casting his usual aspirations on conventional values tough, and Plato's warning is scarcely incompatible with the authors' own thesis. They are on stronger ground when they fault the English empiricists, like Locke and Hobbes, the latter of whom, they recall, wrote: 'metaphors, and senseless and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities.'

For Hobbes, the mental discourse is true, and the problem comes with 'translation' into words, yet the authors' own arguments leans this way, except when conceptual imprecision allows for grand creative leaps.

The authors say that they intend to offer 'an unconventional viewpoint concerning what thought itself is.' The first part of the book aims to show how 'concepts designated by a single word are constantly having their boundaries extended by analogies'. But whoa! What is the relation between the concept and the ‘thing out there' - is it one to one? As the word is used more widely, does the concept too cover more ground? If words 'designate' concepts, what use is the (ah) 'concept' of concepts?

The authors look at what they call the development of concepts, for example that of Mommy. This they see being extended over time from being a label attached to a specific human to an allegorical relationship, seen in words like motherland, They extend the debate (and this seems to be one of the novel features of the book) from nouns to the many assemblages of language - such as after all, sour grapes and my Achilles heel.

As the authors warm to their theme, they look at how 'human cognition relies profoundly on our ability to move up or down the ladder of abstraction' (ladder) which they illustrate with a peculiarly parochial example: 'For instance, while one is drinking, one will take care to distinguish between one's own glass and that of one's neighbor, but afterwards, when one is placing them in the dishwasher, that distinction will be irrelevant.'

Writing about language is all about the quality of examples, Hofstadter and Sander are lucky in that they have enough space in this book to run through many bad examples and still offer (for the diligent reader) enough to count as a profound and thought provoking examination, and their subsequent analysis is usually clear and precise. The dishwasher analogy is an example of what they call caricature analogies 'analogies that one dreams up on the spur of the moment in order to convince someone else of an idea in which one believes.'

Some of the most interesting analogies though are the scientific ones. The authors argue that 'the history of mathematics and physics consists of a series of snowballing analogies'. (Snowballing.) For Poincaré, a great thought experimenter as well as a mathematician, analogy is the route towards mathematical discovery.

Naturally, they cite Einstein as a great metaphorical thinker, praising his thought experiments and saying that they helped lead him towards his view of light as particles (rather than waves. But wasn't one of Einstein's key analogies (that he himself credits as leading to his later insights) the analogy of himself as a boy running down a pier with light as a series of waves rolling in from the sea?

Einstein 'was driven by an unstoppable desire to seek out profound conceptual similarities, beautiful, hidden analogies.' The equation E=mc2, that is, energy = mass times the velocity of light squared, is analogous to the rather mundane relationship in mechanics: kinetic energy = mass times velocity squared (albeit with the whole lot divided by two). Equally, as Bengamin Lee Whorf pointed out rather earlier than Wittgenstein, words can mislead us. How can light 'weigh' something? Our words (concepts ) confuse us. Light is quintessentially weightless. (Whorf appears here, but only as a brief aside recalling the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.)

There is a long and substantial discussion of Einstein's arrival at his theory of the inter-relatedness of mass and energy, but earlier debates in the history of science are sketchily dealt with. The authors explain at length that Galileo's discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter led to the lowercasing of the Moon and the birth of 'the concept moon'. Yet, isn't it the literal fact that the word moon has its roots in the concept of measurement - the moon's monthly cycle being a measure of time. The Moon (capital letter) is derived from this older sense, and so talk of 'the concept of moon' being born is misleading. Of course, I think I can guess what they mean - the concept of rocky celestial objects that circle other, larger ones. Yet this is a book about words and analogies - and even if, at the time that Galileo discovered Jupiter's moons, the Sun was politically obliged to orbit the Earth, the Moon was still supposed to be circling around us, so again what exactly is new in that concept?

The authors condemn attempts to put inverted commas around words, in order to finesse their meanings - but offer themselves a 'typographical convention', whereby when speaking about a word it goes in quote marks but when speaking about a concept it goes in italics.

... this is an important distinction, because whereas a word is a sequence of sounds, a set of printed letters, or a chunk of silent inner language, a concept is an abstract pattern in the brain that stands for some regular, recurrent aspect of the world and to which any number of words ... can be attached.

This is mentioned in passing - but if it were really so straightforward, the problems of philosophy would seem to be swept away - and rather in the manner Plato imagines. Concepts seem to have the same role in Hofstadter and Sander's books as 'the Forms' did in the Plato's.

The argument is put that concepts are mental categories made up of many allegorical experiences. Thus a child may call a large, fluffy white dog a sheep, or describe peeling a banana as 'undressing' it instead. These are 'semantic approximations', the 'concepts silently hidden behind these words will continue to develop in the minds of all these children'.

Could it in fact be the case that the tiny child's act of calling an everyday object by its standard name is a close cousin of the genius's act of creating a new concept that revolutionize human life?

However, later we are told that the 'classical view of categories' is now perceived as a dead end (a dead end) and so contemporary psychologists 'have tackled the challenge of making the very blurriness and vagueness of categories into a precise science'. Out go precise membership criteria and in come instead the notion of prototypes. What are these? They are generic mental entities 'found in long term memory' which summarises all someone's experiences, which consists of a full set of exemplars encountered over a lifetime, and finally, we are told that 'certain regions of the brain that were once stimulated by the closest experiences to the current stimulus' are re-stimulated. This part of the book seems to swim against the current that has guided the rest of the book.

Reviewed by Martin Cohen

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