I Am a Strange Loop


By Douglas R. Hofstadter

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One of our greatest philosophers and scientists of the mind asks, where does the self come from — and how our selves can exist in the minds of others. Can thought arise out of matter? Can self, soul, consciousness, “I” arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here? I Am a Strange Loop argues that the key to understanding selves and consciousness is the “strange loop”-a special kind of abstract feedback loop inhabiting our brains. The most central and complex symbol in your brain is the one called “I.” The “I” is the nexus in our brain, one of many symbols seeming to have free will and to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse. How can a mysterious abstraction be real-or is our “I” merely a convenient fiction? Does an “I” exert genuine power over the particles in our brain, or is it helplessly pushed around by the laws of physics? These are the mysteries tackled in I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter’s first book-length journey into philosophy since Gödel, Escher, Bach. Compulsively readable and endlessly thought-provoking, this is a moving and profound inquiry into the nature of mind.


Praise for I Am A Strange Loop
"[F]ascinating . . . original and thought-provoking . . . [T]here are many pleasures in I Am a Strange Loop."
Wall Street Journal
"I Am a Strange Loop scales some lofty conceptual heights, but it remains very personal, and it's deeply colored by the facts of Hofstadter's later life. In 1993 Hofstadter's wife Carol died suddenly of a brain tumor at only 42, leaving him with two young children to care for . . . I Am a Strange Loop is a work of rigorous thinking."
"Almost thirty years after the publication of his well-loved Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter revisits some of the same themes. The purpose of the new book is to make inroads into the nexus of self, self-awareness and consciousness by examining self-referential structures in areas as diverse as art and mathematics. Hofstadter is the man for the job. His treatment of issues is approachable and personal, you might even say subjective. His discussion is never over technical and his prose never over-bearing. He stays close to the surface of real life at all times, even as he discusses matters of the highest level of abstraction, and his book is full of fresh and rich real-life examples that give texture and authenticity to the discussion."
Times Literary Supplement, London
"[P]leasant and intriguing . . . Hofstadter is a supremely skillful master of an educational alchemy that can, at the turn of the page, transform the most abstract and complex of thoughts into a digestible idea that is both fun and interesting . . . Hofstadter's good humor and easygoing style make it a real pleasure to read from start to finish."
Times Higher Education Supplement, London
"I Am a Strange Loop contains many profound and unique insights on the question of who we are. In addition, it is a delightful read."
Physics Today
"I Am a Strange Loop is vintage Hofstadter: earnest, deep, overflowing with ideas, building its argument into the experience of reading it — for if our souls can incorporate those of others, then I Am a Strange Loop can transmit Hofstadter's into ours. And indeed, it is impossible to come away from this book without having introduced elements of his point of view into our own. It may not make us kinder or more compassionate, but we will never look at the world, inside or out, in the same way again."
Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Nearly thirty years after his best-selling book Gödel, Escher, Bach, cognitive scientist and polymath Douglas Hofstadter has returned to his extraordinary theory of self."
New Scientist
"I Am a Strange Loop is thoughtful, amusing and infectiously enthusiastic."
Bloomberg News
"[P]rovocative and heroically humane . . . it's impossible not to experience this book as a tender, remarkably personal and poignant effort to understand the death of his wife from cancer in 1993 — and to grasp how consciousness mediates our otherwise ineffable relationships. In the end, Hofstadter's view is deeply philosophical rather than scientific. It's hopeful and romantic as well, as his model allows one consciousness to create and maintain within itself true representations of the essence of another."
Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"[Hofstadter's] new book, as brilliant and provocative as earlier ones, is a colorful mix of speculations with passages of autobiography."
— Martin Gardner in Notices of the American Mathematical Society
"Why am I inside this body and not in a different one? This is among the most irresistible and fascinating questions humanity has ever asked, according to Douglas Hofstadter. His latest book I Am a Strange Loop asks many more challenging questions: Are our thoughts made of molecules? Could a machine be confused? Could a machine know it was confused? — until it ties you in loops. If you enjoy such brain-bending questions and are willing to struggle with some deep mathematical ideas along the way, then you'll certainly enjoy this book . . . (I)f this book works its magic on you, you will no longer want to ask 'why am I inside this body and not a different one?' because you'll know what it means to be just a strange loop."
BBC Focus
"Hofstadter introduces new ideas about the self-referential structure of consciousness and offers a multifaceted examination of what an 'I' is. He conveys abstract, complicated ideas in a relaxed, conversational manner and uses many first-person stories and personal examples as well as two Platonic dialogs. Though Hofstadter admits he writes for the general educated public, he also hopes to reach professional philosophers interested in the epistemological implications of selfhood."
Library Journal
"Hofstadter explains the dynamics of [the] reflective self in refreshingly lucid language, enlivened with personal anecdotes that translate arcane formulas into the wagging tail on a golden retriever or the smile on Hopalong Cassidy. Nonspecialists are thus able to assess the divide between human and animal minds, and even to plumb the mental links binding the living to the dead . . . [E] ven skeptics will appreciate the way he forces us to think deeper thoughts about thought."
Booklist Starred Review

To my sister Laura,
who can understand,
and to our sister Molly,
who cannot.

A note from the Publisher
Doug Hofstadter, who over the years has been a friend to Basic Books in so many ways, has kindly lent us this page to remember a late colleague. We gratefully dedicate this book
To Liz Maguire
who lives on in all of us.

SINCE my teen-age years, I have been fascinated by what the mind is and does, and have pondered such riddles for many decades. Some of my conclusions have come from personal experiences and private musings, but of course I have been profoundly marked by the ideas of many other people, stretching way back to elementary school, if not earlier.
Among the well-known authors who have most influenced my thinking on the interwoven topics of minds, brains, patterns, symbols, self-reference, and consciousness are, in some vague semblance of chronological order: Ernest Nagel, James R. Newman, Kurt Gödel, Martin Gardner, Raymond Smullyan, John Pfeiffer, Wilder Penfield, Patrick Suppes, David Hamburg, Albert Hastorf, M. C. Escher, Howard DeLong, Richard C. Jeffrey, Ray Hyman, Karen Horney, Mikhail Bongard, Alan Turing, Gregory Chaitin, Stanislaw Ulam, Leslie A. Hart, Roger Sperry, Jacques Monod, Raj Reddy, Victor Lesser, Marvin Minsky, Margaret Boden, Terry Winograd, Donald Norman, Eliot Hearst, Daniel Dennett, Stanislaw Lem, Richard Dawkins, Allen Wheelis, John Holland, Robert Axelrod, Gilles Fauconnier, Paolo Bozzi, Giuseppe Longo, Valentino Braitenberg, Derek Parfit, Daniel Kahneman, Anne Treisman, Mark Turner, and Jean Aitchison. Books and articles by many of these authors are cited in the bibliography. Over the years, I have come to know quite a few of these individuals, and I count the friendships thus formed among the great joys of my life.
On a more local level, I have been influenced over a lifetime by thousands of intense conversations, phone calls, letters, and emails with family members, friends, students, and colleagues. Once again, listed in some rough semblance of chronological order, these people would include: Nancy Hofstadter, Robert Hofstadter, Laura Hofstadter, Peter Jones, Robert Boeninger, Charles Brenner, Larry Tesler, Michael Goldhaber, David Policansky, Peter S. Smith, Inga Karliner, Francisco Claro, Peter Rimbey, Paul Csonka, P. David Jennings, David Justman, J. Scott Buresh, Sydney Arkowitz, Robert Wolf, Philip Taylor, Scott Kim, Pentti Kanerva, William Gosper, Donald Byrd, J. Michael Dunn, Daniel Friedman, Marsha Meredith, Gray Clossman, Ann Trail, Susan Wunder, David Moser, Carol Brush Hofstadter, Leonard Shar, Paul Smolensky, David Leake, Peter Suber, Greg Huber, Bernard Greenberg, Marek Lugowski, Joe Becker, Melanie Mitchell, Robert French, David Rogers, Benedetto Scimemi, Daniel Defays, William Cavnar, Michael Gasser, Robert Goldstone, David Chalmers, Gary McGraw, John Rehling, James Marshall, Wang Pei, Achille Varzi, Oliviero Stock, Harry Foundalis, Hamid Ekbia, Marilyn Stone, Kellie Gutman, James Muller, Alexandre Linhares, Christoph Weidemann, Nathaniel Shar, Jeremy Shar, Alberto Parmeggiani, Alex Passi, Francesco Bianchini, Francisco Lara-Dammer, Damien Sullivan, Abhijit Mahabal, Caroline Strobbe, Emmanuel Sander, Glen Worthey — and of course Carol's and my two children, Danny and Monica Hofstadter.
I feel deep gratitude to Indiana University for having so generously supported me personally and my group of researchers (the Fluid Analogies Research Group, affectionately known as "FARG") for such a long time. Some of the key people at IU who have kept the FARGonauts afloat over the past twenty years are Helga Keller, Mortimer Lowengrub, Thomas Ehrlich, Kenneth Gros Louis, Kumble Subbaswamy, Robert Goldstone, Richard Shiffrin, J. Michael Dunn, and Andrew Hanson. All of them have been intellectual companions and staunch supporters, some for decades, and I am lucky to be able to count them among my colleagues.
I have long felt part of the family at Basic Books, and am grateful for the support of many people there for nearly thirty years. In the past few years I have worked closely with William Frucht, and I truly appreciate his open-mindedness, his excellent advice, and his unflagging enthusiasm.
A few people have helped me enormously on this book. Ken Williford and Uriah Kriegel launched it; Kellie Gutman, Scott Buresh, Bill Frucht, David Moser, and Laura Hofstadter all read chunks of it and gave superb critical advice; and Helga Keller chased permissions far and wide. I thank them all for going "way ABCD" — way above and beyond the call of duty.
The many friends mentioned above, and some others not mentioned, form a "cloud" in which I float; sometimes I think of them as the "metropolitan area" of which I, construed narrowly, am just the zone inside the official city limits. Everyone has friends, and in that sense I am no different from anyone else, but this cloud is my cloud, and it somehow defines me, and I am proud of it and proud of them all. And so I say to this cloud of friends, with all my heart, "Thank you so very much, one and all!"

An Author and His Book

Facing the Physicality of Consciousness

FROM an early age onwards, I pondered what my mind was and, by analogy, what all minds are. I remember trying to understand how I came up with the puns I concocted, the mathematical ideas I invented, the speech errors I committed, the curious analogies I dreamt up, and so forth. I wondered what it would be like to be a girl, to be a native speaker of another language, to be Einstein, to be a dog, to be an eagle, even to be a mosquito. By and large, it was a joyous existence.
When I was twelve, a deep shadow fell over our family. My parents, as well as my seven-year-old sister Laura and I, faced the harsh reality that the youngest child in our family, Molly, then only three years old, had something terribly wrong with her. No one knew what it was, but Molly wasn't able to understand language or to speak (nor is she to this day, and we never did find out why). She moved through the world with ease, even with charm and grace, but she used no words at all. It was so sad.
For years, our parents explored every avenue imaginable, including the possibility of some kind of brain surgery, and as their quest for a cure or at least some kind of explanation grew ever more desperate, my own anguished thinking about Molly's plight and the frightening idea of people opening up my tiny sister's head and peering in at the mysterious stuff that filled it (an avenue never explored, in the end) gave me the impetus to read a couple of lay-level books about the human brain. Doing so had a huge impact on my life, since it forced me to consider, for the first time, the physical basis of consciousness and of being — or of having — an "I", which I found disorienting, dizzying, and profoundly eerie.
Right around that time, toward the end of my high-school years, I encountered the mysterious metamathematical revelations of the great Austrian logician Kurt Gödel and I also learned how to program, using Stanford University's only computer, a Burroughs 220, which was located in the deliciously obscure basement of decrepit old Encina Hall. I rapidly became addicted to this "Giant Electronic Brain", whose orange lights flickered in strange magical patterns revealing its "thoughts", and which, at my behest, discovered beautiful abstract mathematical structures and composed whimsical nonsensical passages in various foreign languages that I was studying. I simultaneously grew obsessed with symbolic logic, whose arcane symbols danced in strange magical patterns reflecting truths, falsities, hypotheticals, possibilities, and counterfactualities, and which, I was sure, afforded profound glimpses into the hidden wellsprings of human thought. As a result of these relentlessly churning thoughts about symbols and meanings, patterns and ideas, machines and mentality, neural impulses and mortal souls, all hell broke loose in my adolescent mind/brain.

The Mirage

One day when I was around sixteen or seventeen, musing intensely on these swirling clouds of ideas that gripped me emotionally no less than intellectually, it dawned on me — and it has ever since seemed to me — that what we call "consciousness" was a kind of mirage. It had to be a very peculiar kind of mirage, to be sure, since it was a mirage that perceived itself, and of course it didn't believe that it was perceiving a mirage, but no matter — it still was a mirage. It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called "consciousness" lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing, and then disintegrated back into nothing whenever one looked at it more closely.
So caught up was I in trying to understand what being alive, being human, and being conscious are all about that I felt driven to try to capture my elusive thoughts on paper lest they flit away forever, and so I sat down and wrote a dialogue between two hypothetical contemporary philosophers whom I flippantly named "Plato" and "Socrates" (I knew almost nothing about the real Plato and Socrates). This may have been the first serious piece of writing I ever did; in any case, I was proud of it, and never threw it away. Although I now see my dialogue between these two pseudo-Greek philosophers as pretty immature and awkward, not to mention extremely sketchy, I decided nonetheless to include it herein as my Prologue, because it hints at many of the ideas to come, and I think it sets a pleasing and provocative tone for the rest of the book.

A Shout into a Chasm

When, some ten years or so later, I started working on my first book, whose title I imagined would be "Gödel's Theorem and the Human Brain", my overarching goal was to relate the concept of a human self and the mystery of consciousness to Gödel's stunning discovery of a majestic wraparound self-referential structure (a "strange loop", as I later came to call it) in the very midst of a formidable bastion from which self-reference had been strictly banished by its audacious architects. I found the parallel between Gödel's miraculous manufacture of self-reference out of a substrate of meaningless symbols and the miraculous appearance of selves and souls in substrates consisting of inanimate matter so compelling that I was convinced that here lay the secret of our sense of "I", and thus my book Gödel, Escher, Bach came about (and acquired a catchier title).
That book, which appeared in 1979, couldn't have enjoyed a greater success, and indeed yours truly owes much of the pathway of his life since then to its success. And yet, despite the book's popularity, it always troubled me that the fundamental message of GEB (as I always call it, and as it is generally called) seemed to go largely unnoticed. People liked the book for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d'être! Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn't seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB.
In 1999, GEB celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and the folks at Basic Books suggested that I write a preface for a special new edition. I liked the idea, so I took them up on it. In my preface, I told all sorts of tales about the book and its vicissitudes, and among other things I described my frustration with its reception, ending with the following plaint: "It sometimes feels as if I had shouted a deeply cherished message out into an empty chasm and nobody heard me."
Well, one day in the spring of 2003, I received a very kind email message from two young philosophers named Ken Williford and Uriah Kriegel, inviting me to contribute a chapter to an anthology they were putting together on what they called "the self-referentialist theory (or theories)" of consciousness. They urged me to participate, and they even quoted back to me that very lamentation of mine from my preface, and they suggested that this opportunity would afford me a real chance to change things. I was genuinely gratified by their sincere interest in my core message and moved by their personal warmth, and I saw that indeed, contributing to their volume would be a grand occasion for me to try once again to articulate my ideas about self and consciousness for exactly the right audience of specialists — philosophers of mind. And so it wasn't too hard for me to decide to accept their invitation.

From the Majestic Dolomites to Gentle Bloomington

I started writing my chapter in a quiet and simple hotel room in the beautiful Alpine village of Anterselva di Mezzo, located in the Italian Dolomites, only a few stone's throws from the Austrian border. Inspired by the loveliness of the setting, I quickly dashed off ten or fifteen pages, thinking I might already have reached the halfway point. Then I returned home to Bloomington, Indiana, where I kept on plugging away.
It took me a good deal longer than I had expected to finish it (some of my readers will recognize this as a quintessential example of Hofstadter's Law, which states, "It always takes longer than you think it will take, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law"), and worse, the chapter wound up being four times longer than the specified limit — a disaster! But when they finally received it, Ken and Uriah were very pleased with what I had written and were most tolerant of my indiscretions; indeed, so keen were they to have a contribution from me in their book that they said they could accept an extra-long chapter, and Ken in particular helped me cut it down to half its length, which was a real labor of love on his part.
In the meantime, I was starting to realize that what I had on my hands could be more than a book chapter — it could become a book unto itself. And so what had begun as a single project fissioned into two. I gave my chapter the title "What is it like to be a strange loop?", alluding to a famous article on the mystery of consciousness called "What is it like to be a bat?" by the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel, while the book-to-be was given the shorter, sweeter title "I Am a Strange Loop".
In Ken Williford and Uriah Kriegel's anthology, Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness, which appeared in the spring of 2006, my essay was placed at the very end, in a two-chapter section entitled "Beyond Philosophy" (why it qualified as lying "beyond philosophy" is beyond me, but I rather like the idea nonetheless). I don't know if, in that distinguished but rather specialized setting, this set of ideas will have much impact on anyone, but I certainly hope that in this book, its more fully worked-out and more visible incarnation, it will be able to reach all sorts of people, both inside and outside of philosophy, both young and old, both specialists and novices, and will give them new imagery about selves and souls (not to mention loops!). In any case, I owe a great deal to Ken and Uriah for having provided the initial spark that gave rise to this book, as well as for giving me much encouragement along the way.
And so, after just about forty-five years (good grief!), I've come full circle, writing once again about souls, selves, and consciousness, banging up against the same mysteriousness and eerieness that I first experienced when I was a teenager horrified and yet riveted by the awful and awesome physicality of that which makes us be what we are.

An Author and His Audience

Despite its title, this book is not about me, but about the concept of "I". It's thus about you, reader, every bit as much as it is about me. I could just as well have called it "You Are a Strange Loop". But the truth of the matter is that, in order to suggest the book's topic and goal more clearly, I should probably have called it "'I' Is a Strange Loop" — but can you imagine a clunkier title? Might as well call it "I Am a Lead Balloon".
In any case, this book is about the venerable topic of what an "I" is. And what is its audience? Well, as always, I write in order to reach a general educated public. I almost never write for specialists, and in a way that's because I'm not really a specialist myself. Oh, I take it back; that's unfair. After all, at this point in my life, I have spent nearly thirty years working with my graduate students on computational models of analogy-making and creativity, observing and cataloguing cognitive errors of all sorts, collecting examples of categorization and analogy, studying the centrality of analogies in physics and math, musing on the mechanisms of humor, pondering how concepts are created and memories are retrieved, exploring all sorts of aspects of words, idioms, languages, and translation, and so on — and over these three decades I have taught seminars on many aspects of thinking and how we perceive the world.
So yes, in the end, I am a kind of specialist — I specialize in thinking about thinking. Indeed, as I stated earlier, this topic has fueled my fire ever since I was a teenager. And one of my firmest conclusions is that we always think by seeking and drawing parallels to things we know from our past, and that we therefore communicate best when we exploit examples, analogies, and metaphors galore, when we avoid abstract generalities, when we use very down-to-earth, concrete, and simple language, and when we talk directly about our own experiences.

The Horsies-and-Doggies Religion

Over the years, I have fallen into a style of self-expression that I call the "horsies-and-doggies" style, a phrase inspired by a charming episode in the famous cartoon "Peanuts", which I've reproduced on the following page.
I often feel just the way that Charlie Brown feels in that last frame — like someone whose ideas are anything but "in the clouds", someone who is so down-to-earth as to be embarrassed by it. I realize that some of my readers have gotten an impression of me as someone with a mind that enormously savors and indefatigably pursues the highest of abstractions, but that is a very mistaken image. I'm just the opposite, and I hope that reading this book will make that evident.
I don't have the foggiest idea why I wrongly remembered the poignant phrase that Charlie Brown utters here, but in any case the slight variant "horsies and doggies" long ago became a fixture in my own speech, and so, for better or for worse, that's the standard phrase I always use to describe my teaching style, my speaking style, and my writing style.
In part because of the success of Gödel, Escher, Bach, I have had the good fortune of being given a great deal of freedom by the two universities on whose faculties I have served — Indiana University (for roughly twenty-five years) and the University of Michigan (for four years, in the 1980's). Their wonderful generosity has given me the luxury of being able to explore my variegated interests without being under the infamous publish-or-perish pressures, or perhaps even worse, the relentless pressures of grant-chasing.
I have not followed the standard academic route, which involves publishing paper after paper in professional journals. To be sure, I have published some "real" papers, but mostly I have concentrated on expressing myself through books, and these books have always been written with an eye to maximal clarity.
Clarity, simplicity, and concreteness have coalesced into a kind of religion for me — a set of never-forgotten guiding principles. Fortunately, a large number of thoughtful people appreciate analogies, metaphors, and examples, as well as a relative lack of jargon, and last but not least, accounts from a first-person stance. In any case, it is for people who appreciate that way of writing that this book, like all my others, has been written. I believe that this group includes not only outsiders and amateurs, but also many professional philosophers of mind.


  • "[F]ascinating... original and thought-provoking.... [T]here are many pleasures in I Am a Strange Loop."—Wall Street Journal
  • "I Am a Strange Loop is thoughtful, amusing and infectiously enthusiastic."—Bloomberg news
  • "I Am a Strange Loop scales some lofty conceptual heights, but it remains very personal, and it's deeply colored by the facts of Hofstadter's later life. In 1993 Hofstadter's wife Carol died suddenly of a brain tumor at only 42, leaving him with two young children to care for.... I Am a Strange Loop is a work of rigorous thinking, but it's also an extraordinary tribute to the memory of romantic love: The Year of Magical Thinking for mathematicians."—Time
  • "I Am a Strange Loop is vintage Hofstadter: earnest, deep, overflowing with ideas, building its argument into the experience of reading it-for if our souls can incorporate those of others, then I Am a Strange Loopcan transmit Hofstadter's into ours. And indeed, it is impossible to come away from this book without having introduced elements of his point of view into our own. It may not make us kinder or more compassionate, but we will never look at the world, inside or out, in the same way again."—Los AngelesTimes Book Review
  • "Nearly thirty years after his best-selling book Gödel, Escher, Bach, cognitive scientist and polymath Douglas Hofstadter has returned to his extraordinary theory of self."—New Scientist
  • "His new book, as brilliant and provocative as earlier ones, is a colorful mix of speculations with passages of autobiography."—Martin Gardiner

On Sale
Aug 1, 2007
Page Count
436 pages
Basic Books

Douglas R. Hofstadter

About the Author

Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His other books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid; Metamagical Themas; The Mind’s I; Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies; Le Ton beau de Marot; and Surfaces and Essences, with Emmanuel Sander. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

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