Douglas Hofstadter: The Smartest Man Alive

October 18th, 2000 | Category: Essays

Douglas HofstadterDouglas Hofstadter, College Professor of cognitive science and computer science, director of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition, adjunct professor of philosophy, psychology, history and philosophy of science, and comparative literature at Indiana University, never sleeps. The man is always thinking. About thinking.

Hofstadter is the author of several books that probe the interworkings of high-level perception, analogy making, the upper levels of creativity and the emergent self. The most popular of which is his first: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979).

This sprawling opus contains nearly 800 pages of meta-analysis of mind, machine, art, language and everything else crossed-self-referenced with chaos theory, AI methodology and Hofstadter’s downright blistering wit. Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls him a “real, practicing phenomenologist,” and this book alone proves that in spades.

It maintains a thread through the mathematical theories of Kurt Gödel, the dimension-bending art of M.C. Escher and the self-referencing compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach that eventually leads to the uniting concepts of emergent consciousness. A must-read for sure.

But Hofstadter has written several other weighty books worth attention as well. His second book, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (Basic Books, 1985) collects his columns of the same name from Scientific American magazine. The name “Metamagical Themas” is an anagram for “Mathematical Games” which was the name of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American column which preceded Hofstadter’s. I told you, the man never sleeps.

The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul (Harvester Press, 1981) which he wrote with colleague and friend Dennett, is an essay collection that analyzes the sense of self from every angle, including Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” and Richard Dawkins’ original concept of memes.

Hofstadter headed up the Fluid Analogies Research Group (FARG) at The University of Michigan and now at Indiana University. He and his fellow “FARGonauts” co-authored the essays in his book Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought (Basic Books, 1995) which looks back from the perspective of having grappled with many ideas introduced in his previous books after implementing actual computer models based on said ideas.

His two most recent books — Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (Basic Books, 1997) and his verse translation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (Basic Books, 1999), about which Hofstadter says, “Russians nearly universally regard [Eugene Onegin] as the greatest work of literature in their language (and probably, for that matter, in any language, although other nations would surely dispute that opinion).” In the introduction to Le Ton beau de Marot, he refers to it as “most likely the best book I will ever write.”

Not afraid of the difficult questions and always working on the answers, Douglas Hofstadter may be the smartest man alive today.

[Disinformation, October 18, 2000]

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