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Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Important disclaimers: I love Hofstadter and could read his musings to no end, and Surfaces and Essences is long and gets deep into the weeds of linguistics and thought.

This has become one of the most important books I've ever read. Hofstadter and Sander are making a very bold claim: all cognition is analogy making. However, if you're like me, this doesn't feel all that unlikely, so they first need to convince you that this claim is quite bold (keying on "all"), and proceed to dismantle beliefs you have about cognition and categorization by slowly chipping away at that mountain.

Thus, their task is large, and the book is very long. At times it feels like it may be going in circles or nowhere in particular. But it's broken my ability to think in categorized binary terms about things. For me, it was an upgrade to my cognitive firmware.

I can't begin to capture everything the book covers. However, one final disclaimer: the core of the argument is in this Hofstadter lecture: Analogy as the Core of Cognition. The lecture is great and far shorter than the book, so is perhaps is a better starting place. If you love it, then tackle this book.


These are entirely subjective, and roughly try to capture my personal enjoyment and usefulness, and how likely I'd recommend it to others. Don't read too much into this unless you love my judgement. Rough guidelines:

A: Top quartile. Changed the way I think about something.

B: Worthwhile. I took away something useful.

C: Didn't hit, wouldn't directly recommend. Likely won't revisit.

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