I Am a Strange Loop I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter
Publisher: Basic Books
Year: 2008
Pages: 436

I was vaguely aware of Douglas Hofstadter by reputation: his reputed magnum opus, a dense 1970s work called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Brain Braid, has been the subject of much praise and adulation. My brother, who read the work in question in the context of a college course, read and apparently enjoyed this new work by Hofstadter somewhere in the time surrounding the death of our father. It is from that recommendation that I picked the book up.

Before I started throwing adjectives or grades around, I should expand upon the context at play here: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BrainBraid was, if I may condense it thus, an exposition of Hofstadter’s thoughts on conscious and the nature of Self-with-a-capital-S. Despite the acclaim which this book earned him, Hofstadter was perturbed that much of his thesis was largely ignored or misunderstood, and so almost 30 years later comes this latest book about Self, and if I might guess1, I would wager that none of the imprecision or vagueness or…. opaqueness… has been resolved in that span.

I picked up I Am a Strange Loop because it ostensibly sought to understand how the “strange loop” of human consciousness managed to worm its way into surrounding consciousness—essentially, how one mind continues to inhabit, influence, or inform another, even long after it’s gone. You can imagine the interest of such a book to a person experiencing the loss of a loved one. In fact, Hofstadter’s wife passed away suddenly at the age of 43 from the brain tumor, and so Hofstadter more than anyone has a particular investment in the concept of a sort of continuity of consciousness.

Here’s the issue: Hofstadter is not, to me, a good writer. He goes to great pains to be accessible, taking a page from Stephen Hawking’s book and speaking in clear English, with plenty of visual language, examples, and metaphor. But (and isn’t there always a but), Hofstadter takes so long to actually make a point that by the time he does so, it’s underwhelming and foregone. The first half of the book, literally, is spent in short, digestible little sections which are generally rambling tangents about whatever ill-chosen metaphor Hofstadter chose to illustrate his point. Let me do a bit of summary (with page numbers fudged because I can’t be arsed to be exact):

  • Introductions – page 15: “I’m smart.”
  • Page 16 – page 40: The principle of gestalt will be at play in this book” (that is, Hofstader will not concern himself with the biochemistry or cellular biology of the brain; rather, its ending effect—that of thought, which is the level upon which most of us experience our brain—will be his focus.
  • Page 41 – page 150: “Strange loops” are a curious artifact that scare mathematicians (Bertrand Russell in particular), Gödel is a genius who formulated theories about such self-referencing loops. I will illustrate these by way of totally ridiculous metaphors which only serve to confuse and obfuscate my point by virtue of the metaphors’ sheer shallowness and unnecessary length and complexity.
  • Page 151 – end: Who the hell knows?

Let me profess at this point that Douglas Hofstadter is a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and I am a schmuck with a blog. It is entirely possible—nay, likely—that I Am a Strange Loop is a brilliant book, full of both technical insight and philosophical comfort, but I confessed to being left flat and underwhelmed by the whole book. It seemed to me a long and arduous (not to say semantically-tricky) way of talking about memes, the psychosocial behaviors which are passed onto progeny, and first proposed (using such a word) by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Granted, there are differences between a multi-generational look at common behaviors and a more invasive exposition on the idea of “I”-ness or the sense of self, and how it self-creates and propagates, but it seems to me as though Hofstadter’s point actually proposed very little about the human brain except that its capacity of self-reference currently escapes our ability to describe mathematically with any kind of philosophical comfort2.

So, my immediate opinion as a self-admitted schlub with no formal philosophical or mathematical training is that I Am a Strange Loop is an explanation without a question. Ostensibly, it seeks to correct misunderstandings about Gödel, Escher, Bach, though I think Hofstadter’s tendency toward obfuscatory is apparently as present as ever, and so I Am a Strange Loop ends up a sort of rambling and ultimately cloudy sort of book that gives vague impressions rather than any sort of resounding point. I liken it to watching clouds float by, anthropomorphizing shapes and meaning out of the random or the otherwise-structured. Its mission to give the consciousness the quality of a self-referencing mathematical loop is by and large a silly exercise, like trying to put a Halloween costume on a household pet: its owner may ultimately feel proud that Rover is dressed like Darth Vader, but no one else is very impressed.

Continuity of consciousness? Identity of Self? All very interesting, and none of which are covered to my satisfaction in I Am a Strange Loop. With the caveat that there is a distinct possibility that I am a mouth-breathing and just don’t “get it” when it comes a mind like Douglas Hofstadter’s, I have to say that I fail to be impressed. Everything that Hofstadter says seems like old news to me; the difference is that he takes forever (and a lot of mediocre writing and bad analogies) to get there, rendering any such epiphanies tempered by frustration and disincredulity.

  1. Please note, I have not read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Brain Braid[]
  2. If that phrase doesn’t make you pause, I don’t know what will[]
§2680 · September 19, 2008 · Tags: , , , , ·

10 Comments to “I Am a Strange Loop”

  1. Nicholas Tam says:

    Hmm. I Am a Strange Loop is on my shelf unread, but I’ve read a significant chunk of Hofstadter’s works (and am in fact working through his book on translation, Le Ton beau de Marot, this week). Curiously, I’ve always felt that he offers his best explications of human cognition not when he is talking about human consciousness in and of itself, but when he coaxes it out as a conclusion to some statement or other that he makes about a work of art, music, or literature.

    I think you would be more satisfied with a work like Metamagical Themas, his collected essays as a Scientific American columnist in the 1980s. There, he focuses on tight, manageable examples in small packages, and he also has room to go into a bit more detail than he does in his longer works. The attraction of behemoths like GEB is as much the intricate structural composition as the ideas themselves (you can probably tell he’s big on toying with the form/content boundary, as anyone serious about music appreciation needs to be), but if that’s a bit too circumlocutory for your tastes, Themas will be more to your liking. I happen to like Hofstadter’s digressions, but that’s my fetish for wordplay talking.

  2. Brady says:

    You know, you don’t have to be so apologetic if you don’t like a book that I do like. I appreciate the attempt at being diplomatic, though.

    The previous commenter is right in that Hofstader is more profound when he’s obliquely referring to ideas of consciousness through his thoughts on math, music, language, and art than when he is trying to be "straightforward" about it.

    Your criticism of his writing is valid, because you tend to favor clarity in writing whose goal is to clarify, and Hofstader, while accessible, is not exactly what I would call clear. However, something about Hofstader’s inability to get to the core of the thing, the way he eternally seems to dance around a clear, concise theory of consciousness, appeals to me. His corny, complex, convoluted wordplay appeals to my love of the same, and the paradoxes he explores have the function of a Zen koan on me, not handing me truth on a platter but putting me into "feeling" of it beyond words, something on the tip of my tongue but never further.

    Thanks for taking my suggestion though- I’ll try to hit closer to your mark next time.

  3. Ben says:

    Don’t worry: I’m not being so diplomatic because I fear criticizing your suggestion; I just understand that Hofstadter is very smart, and I might have enjoyed the book more had I the time and expanded facilities to fully appreciate it.

    Not to be too timely, but I compare Hofstadter’s verbosity against the similar verbosity of the late, great David Foster Wallace, and I can’t help but feel as though every single word of Wallace’s verbosity was necessary and great. Hofstadter, by comparison, seems a bit convoluted, as though caught in an endless loop of statement and clarification.

    Wait, maybe it’s all just meta-irony?

  4. Brady says:

    Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but I think the idea of being "caught in an endless loop of statement and clarification" applies fairly well to the human experience.

    "And that’s like us, isn’t it?"

  5. Steve says:

    Unless you were trying to be funny, "an eternal golden braid" is quite different from an "eternal golden brain". Re-read the book . . . it might make more sense to you if you s l o w down and read the actual words . . .

  6. Ben says:

    That would be the danger of mistyping once and copying and pasting multiple times.

  7. adam says:

    I put GEB back on the shelf 4 or 5 years ago after reading the introduction. Might pick it up again this winter, but I said the same about Gravity’s Rainbow last year (which I liked, it’s just so very long, and I was still recovering from the Baroque Cycle).

  8. […] “Left flat and underwhelmed“: Here’s the issue: Hofstadter is not, to me, a good writer. He goes to great pains to be accessible, taking a page from Stephen Hawking’s book and speaking in clear English, with plenty of visual language, examples, and metaphor. But (and isn’t there always a but), Hofstadter takes so long to actually make a point that by the time he does so, it’s underwhelming and foregone. The first half of the book, literally, is spent in short, digestible little sections which are generally little ramblings tangents about whatever ill-chosen metaphor Hofstadter to illustrate his point. … […] Let me profess at this point that Douglas Hofstadter is a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and I am a schmuck with a blog. It is entirely possible—nay, likely—that I Am a Strange Loop is a brilliant book, full of both technical insight and philosophical comfort, but I confessed to being left flat and underwhelmed by the whole book. It seemed to me a long and arduous (not to say semantically-tricky) way of talking about memes, the psychosocial behaviors which are passed onto progeny, and first proposed (using such a word) by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Granted, there are differences between a multi-generational look at common behaviors and a more invasive exposition on the idea of “I”-ness or the sense of self, and how it self-creates and propagates, but it seems to me as though Hofstadter’s point actually proposed very little about the human brain except that its capacity of self-reference currently escapes our ability to describe mathematically with any kind of philosophical comfort. […]

  9. […] reviews I am a Strange Loop by Douglas […]

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