I recently got a message from a fellow member of MetaFilter saying “Don’t know what you think about Douglas Hofstadter but his address to Stanford ["Analogy as the Core of Cognition"] just came up on my radar…. Wondered what you thought about his insights on language/cognition in that address.” That set me off, and I thought I’d repeat my answer here to see what the assembled multitudes think:
I’ve liked Hofstadter ever since I read GEB many moons ago, and I continue to like him and respect his very interesting mind and ability to present unusual ideas in readily graspable (and enjoyable) ways. However, I’ve gotten increasingly irritated with him over the years as he’s gotten more and more involved with subjects about which he simply doesn’t know enough: linguistics and poetry. Here, I like his thesis that “thinking (at least when isolated from external influences) is a series of leaps involving high-level perception, activation of concepts in long-term memory, transfer to short-term memory, partial and context-dependent unpacking of chunks, and then further high-level perception, and so forth.” That’s the kind of thing he knows about.
But when he writes “the standard model of language that has been built up this century by linguists is hugely impoverished,” he’s simply talking through his hat (just as Wittgenstein is when he attempts to do linguistics without knowing what he’s talking about), and it pisses me off. And I’m getting tired of people recommending Le Ton beau de Marot to me; as far as I’m concerned, it’s an enthusiastic but wrong-headed amateur’s approach to poetry and translation, and the sample of his approach he gives in this article (the stanza of Pushkin) demonstrates his failure. I’ve tried to write about Pushkin’s greatness and untranslatability at LH, e.g. here and here. Obviously people should and will continue to attempt the impossible, with varying degrees of success, but Hofstadter’s version is one of the worst. Of his dreadful “And saw in books no cause for dread;/ Instead, because he never read,” he says: “the internal rhyme of ‘instead’ with ‘dread’ preceding it and with ‘read’ following it somehow carried the day in my mind”; in other words, he’s especially proud of exactly the feature that makes it so terrible. He simply has a tin ear for poetry. No harm in that, many excellent people do, but I wish he’d stop writing about it!
Anyway, as long as he sticks to cognitive science, I have no problem with him, and I thank you for the thought-provoking link…
I will repeat (because I know there are a lot of Hofstadter fans out there) that I am very fond of his writing; he’s a brilliant and funny guy, and I’m glad he exists. And I am happy to agree that he, or anyone, could respond with “Oh yeah? Who says your ear for poetry is better than his? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there’s no accounting for taste, and so’s your old man!” All of which is irrefutable. But being the self-confident fellow I am, I nevertheless stand by my unprovable take on the matter. As always, I welcome all commentary.