Friday, November 26, 2010

Hofstadter, Dennett and the "rough ground"

I have always been fascinated by philosophy about the mind and about human thinking. A great moment for me was when the book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter was published in 1979. The book was so different from anything else I had read in philosophy or any other academic field. The writing was so clear! It was direct, challenging, and provocative. Hofstadter took on questions about the mind in a logical and beautiful (!) way. The book made me continue to read other philosophers and particularly Daniel Dennett.

The book "The Mind's I" (1981) by Dennet and Hofstadter had probably an even greater impact on my thinking and I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric, the argumentation, and the logical reasoning. Over the years I have continued to read Dennett, maybe less for the ideas themselves (even though they are interesting) but more for the style, the logic, and the reasoning. I have always strived to be able to argue in a similar fashion in my own works, sadly with little result.

What Dennett and Hofstadter (and others) are so good at, is to reduce the complexity of an issue to a well defined logical question or distinction. They make questions "clean" and clear. They operate with surgical precision. They remove the fluff and the unnecessary, they unfold and make visible what is covered, and reveal what is confused by our intuitive ways of understanding things. They work with logical definitions and mostly with thought experiments. It is a wonderfully skilled exercise in precise definitions and argumentation. At the same time it is salutation to the power of thinking. I was charmed and impressed and enjoyed reading their works. But over the years I have realized that even if my own  work to some extent has to do with how people think and also with concepts such as intention and reasoning, I have never used these theories in my work.

I have on my desk the latest of Hofstadter's books "I am a strange loop" from 2007. I have read parts of the book and while reading the last chapter the Epilogue, I realize that the text does not provoke me, challenge me, or intrigue me, in the way I expected. I do find the reading enjoyable. But I find it difficult to care about the "problem" that Hofstadter is struggling with.  Why is that? I deliberately added the notion of the "rough ground" in the name of this post. Dealing with design and with creating real thing in the real world, struggling with issues that all have to do with richness, messiness, complexity, all manifested more or less physically in the world of the ultimate particular has influenced my interest to be directed towards ideas and theories about human thinking that addresses that richness. So, while I still find these thinkers (Dennett and Hofstadter) to be exciting on a personal level, I realize that others better serve thinking about the "rough ground".

No comments:

Featured Post

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all expl...