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I really liked GEB a few years ago, and have been following up with "I am a Strange Loop" recently. In the book, Douglas Hofstadter tries to better explain his concept of symbols and in particular the strangely loopy symbol of "I" or self.

In the earlier parts of the book (with his careenium analogy), he describes symbols as something that emerges from our choice of level-of-description of a physical system. In that reading, I would assume he believes the symbols to not really exist, but just be a convenient way for us as observers to summarize our knowledge of the system.

However, later in the book, he seems to give them more and more weight, and talks about them as entities in their own right (transplanting approximate or course-grained symbols between brains or minds, etc). With the ability to reflect on ourselves, the role of observer also becomes very hairy and it seems that he starts to push symbols (especially the strangely loopy kind) as things that really exist.

Which is it? What is Hofstadter's ontology for symbols?

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Hofstadter is a positivist, as all physicists, and would not accept your question as legitimate. –  Ron Maimon May 13 '12 at 3:57
@RonMaimon: especially in light of the phrase "just a convenient way for us as observers to summarize our knowledge of the system", anyone from Bohr onwards who takes a more or less epistemic view of quantum mechanics could be taken as counterexamples to your claim. –  Niel de Beaudrap May 15 '12 at 12:11
@NieldeBeaudrap: I didn't mean it in a strict sense, I just meant Hofstadter doesn't have an abstract ontology for symbols, he works within a computational model of the mind, and the ontology is the same as the ontology of any data structure. Did the notion of a "double" exist before ANSI defined it? Who cares, the question is positivistically meaningless. –  Ron Maimon May 16 '12 at 8:31

1 Answer 1

I haven't read Hofstadter in ages, so I can't comment on his particular ontological commitments, but I can say that it is standard, since the time of Saussure, to distinguish between the signifier (that is to say, the sensible portion of the sign) and the signified (that is to say, the intelligible part of the sign.) The materiality of the signifier is generally without question, and thus has the same ontological status as any other material object. The signified, on the other hand, is pure thought, and thus would have the ontological status of any other thought.

Does this help?

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Not really unfortunately :(. Hard to say what the signifier would be for symbols, but I guess that would be sense data. However, for signified "have the ontological status of any other thought" is just pushing the question around. As far as I understand, for Hofstadter thought is just symbols interacting with each other... so saying that symbols have the same ontological status as other symbols interacting with each other doesn't quiet answer my question. –  Artem Kaznatcheev May 13 '12 at 18:23
True; Hofstadter's redefinition of thought doesn't do much to clarify things ontologically. The careenium analogy seems (to me) to respond to a physicalist/reductionist view of thought, which would argue that consciousness can be reduced to (and is perhaps epiphenomenal to) physical brain states. –  Michael Dorfman May 14 '12 at 6:53

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