A Reflection on The Loopy Self

"I Am A Strange Loop" - By Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books) - Out Now

Twenty-eight years after publishing his wildly successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” Douglas Hofstadter has produced a piece that is beyond brilliant. The book sits on shelves with its cover proclaiming, “I Am a Strange Loop.” And, as we would expect, Hofstadter’s new masterpiece is indeed a strange loop, but one that deserves close attention.

“I Am a Strange Loop” sets out to probe the essence of the soul—in a philosophical, cognitive sense, not a religious one. Consciousness, soul, and “a light on inside” are all terms referring to the essential “I” which somehow composes an individual human self.

The book argues that this “I” is a kind of loop, leading to its title—which, the author is quick to admit, is a bit “clunky.” “Might as well call it ‘I Am a Lead Balloon,’” he writes.

The author is a multilingual Physics Ph. D and an eminent professor, but you wouldn’t know it from his writing style. “Strange Loop” reads like a fascinating series of accessible musings, but still successfully argues new, concrete points every step of the way.

Hofstadter explains that the human self or “I” is very self-referential, and that any explanation of the concept bends back onto the same concept again. The resulting loop, though, isn’t like most loops caused by self-reference, since there’s no feedback as in a noisy heavy metal performance or an infinite corridor of TV screens on videotape. So consciousness isn’t a regular loop; it’s a strange loop.

Meanwhile, while presenting arguments of logic, clever bits of analogy here and there add up to reveal that the book itself is more than just a friendly essay: everywhere you turn, “Strange Loop” is drawing back on itself, too. For example, the book’s arguments are made almost entirely through symbols, analogies, and tales of personal experience. Appropriately, Hofstadter devotes much discussion to the reasons that symbols, analogies, and empathy (or, as he calls it, “Varying Degrees of Being Another”) actually work. This book is a work of art, unabashedly self-referential on every level.

Along the way, by the method of argument through anecdotes, we learn a lot about the author and his own journey through life, as he ceaselessly ponders questions about the fundamental nature of conscious existence. During his childhood, little Doug’s family realized that his younger sister was mysteriously incapable of understanding or using any language, a fact which raised multitudes of troubling questions about consciousness and the self in precocious young Douglas’s mind. As an adult, Hofstadter is an academic by day, but even as he drives to work, his mind fires off fervent chains of questions about the similarity between complex traffic systems and the human brain.

The author also examines the effects that the personal tragedy of his wife’s sudden death have had on his philosophy of the mind. Any criticism of the presence of personal drama would be foolish, however, because the subject matter of the book is extremely relevant to everyone’s personal life: Hofstadter is leading an investigation of the elusive nature of subjective experience.

Hofstadter has a gift for articulating the complex with wit, clarity, and accessibility. When he includes a relevant excerpt from the work of a less down-to-earth academic, one realizes that any other writing seems like a textbook compared to Hofstadter’s fluid, everyday prose. “I Am a Strange Loop” feels like the kind of intellectually thrilling late-night dorm room conversations which don’t happen nearly as often as they should.

This conversation is presented in pleasant bite-sized chunks, with each chapter divided into sections with clever headings. The concepts set forth in each segment of a chapter magically coalesce into a clear set of logical ideas which are easy to understand, but hard to articulate.

Although Hofstadter is no longer as young as he was during the creation of “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” “Strange Loop” strikes me personally as an eloquent explanation of the proto-philosophical quandaries I found myself in during my childhood. Such universal questions seem impossible to tackle, but Hofstadter leads us through them in a book overflowing with colorful anecdotes and thought experiments. He doesn’t pretend to know all the answers—as he puts it, “I don’t think one can truly prove anything in philosophy; I think one can merely try to convince”—but his arguments are always valid and persuasive.

The book has been edited and reworked with great care, so much that an anecdote in the middle of the book can begin, “While I was working on the last few chapters of ‘I Am a Strange Loop’...”. Hofstadter originally expected to publish the book as a rehash of “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” but right in line with the theme of self-reference, the experience of writing this book effected major changes in its aims and content, and we as intimate readers are privy to that fact. Hofstadter has had the time to write and rewrite this book until it stands alone perfectly.