Andrew Hodges

  • Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern by Douglas Hofstadter
    Viking, 852 pp, £18.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 670 80687 0
  • Ada: A Life and a Legacy by Dorothy Stein
    MIT, 321 pp, £17.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 262 19242 X

These two books are completely different in form and content, but one common thread is the concern of both writers to combine a logical discourse with a social critique. Dorothy Stein brings psychological and historical understanding to an important topic in the modern development of logical ideas, while Douglas Hofstadter tries to bring logic and mathematics to bear upon the human condition. Both writers also share a panoramic, polymathic, total vision of their tasks.

The second is the more familiar to us. Hofstadter attained great fame with his Gödel, Escher, Bach, which appeared in 1979. Gödel was the logician who in 1931 showed the extraordinary implications that follow from the ability of a logical system to refer to itself. Hofstadter found new ways to explain these ideas and to ask what, if anything, they could tell us about mind and its ability to think about itself. He went on to co-edit with the philosopher Daniel Dennett an annotated anthology of essays, The Mind’s I. Meanwhile, between 1981 and 1983, he wrote a sequence of some twenty-five columns for Scientific American, adopting the heading of Metamagical Themas – an anagram of the formula ‘Mathematical Games’ used by his predecessor Martin Gardner, but also referring to the ‘metamathematics’ rooted in Gödel’s discovery.

These columns are now collected together in this new book. But there is more to it than this, not only because of its new postscripts, but also because it embraces some seven further essays, including some of the most striking pieces in the book. Some of this will appear as familiar territory to readers of Hofstadter’s earlier books. In particular, there is much material revolving around the ideas of self-reference and its relationship to consciousness. Here, to give an example of hardcore Hofstadterismus, is a telling passage buried for the assiduous or serendipitous reader to spot in the bibliography:

Gebstedter, Egbert B. Thetamagical Memas: Seeking the Whence of Letter and Spirit. Perth: Acidic Books, 1985. A curious pot-pourri, bloated and muddled – yet remarkably similar to the present work. This is a collection of Gebstedter’s monthly rows in Literary Australian together with a few other articles, all with prescripts. Gebstedter is well-known for his love of twisty analogies, such as this one (unfortunately not found in his book): ‘Egbert Gebstedter is the Egbert Gebstedter of indirect self-reference.’

It must be explained that even the jokes, the groan-worthy crossword-clue puns, have a serious content, for they relate to the questions Hofstadter raises in the text about what it means to ask for ‘the opposite of’ or ‘the analogy of’ – and to how such questions bear on the nature of mental faculties. And it is typical of, and important to, Hofstadter’s style of communication that such questions should infiltrate themselves into the reader’s mind from oblique, quizzical angles, as well as from direct confrontation. Such obliqueness is itself a reflection of his picture of mind – a picture which constantly defies the restrictions on communication imposed by standard academic styles and textual forms.

It is not a picture which lends itself to economy or conciseness. Hofstadter is, of course, perfectly aware of this. Anyone attempting a criticism of his writing should note the appearance in this extract of Professor Gebstedter (of Pakistania University, Wiltington, Pakistania – work it out), Gebstedter being the alter ego through whom Hofstadter acknowledges these criticisms. ‘Bloated and muddled’, Hofstadter calls Gebstedter, and many readers may agree. The book is long. It is a pot-pourri. It is repetitive. The structure is haphazard. These are fair criticisms, but they are criticisms which miss one essential point of what is new and interesting in the Hofstadter phenomenon. This is a quality perhaps better described as moral than as intellectual.

Douglas Hofstadter wants to give a true picture of thought. The book must not be merely about thought: it must in itself be a true representation of thought. If thought is complex, paradoxical, humorous, sprawling, the book must be complex, paradoxical, humorous, sprawling. Every pun and allusion is relevant because it reflects a truth about how his mind works in writing and rewriting. Even in bibliography and index, the process of brain-dumping must go on. Such an approach is very different from the style of scientific papers – a style intended to present conclusions in a manner bearing no relation to the personal thought-processes by which they were actually arrived at.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in