Danny at the Grand Canyon

by Possible Modernist

A few days ago, Collin wrote about ways in which experiences get generalized into categories, and mentioned Douglas Hofstadter’s example of Danny at the Grand Canyon. Collin notes that he’s never actaully seen the original example himself, so quotes a second hand account of it. According to that account, Hofstadter uses the exmaple of his one year old son facing away from the Grand Canyon and starting at ants” as an example of how a very specific experience can be generalized into an abstract idea (in this case, ignoring what others consider special and concentrating on what you find interesting).

Although I couldn’t rememeber the details, I knew immediately that I had encountered this example in Hofstadter and Sander’s Surfaces and Essences. Above all, I remembered it as being one of many (many!) examples in the book, of short narratives that represent specific scenarios that can be grouped together as more or less homologous on a more abstract level. Hofstadter and Sander often present several of these together, with varying degrees of similarity, from only changing small details, to showing only a loose abstract resemblance.

Dusting off my copy, I found Danny at the Grand Canyon via the index. It’s worth quoting the passage in full:

Doug and Carol arrive with their son Danny, fifteen months old, at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. While his parents are captivated by the huge chasm, Danny is riveted by a few ants and a leaf on the sandy ground, fifty feet from the canyon’s edge. For a moment Doug is surprised, but then he realizes that such a young child is unable to appreciate entities of dimensions greater than ten or twenty feet, let alone miles (and the Grand Canyon is many miles wide). Although his infant son’s reaction now makes perfect sense, Doug cannot suppress a smile at the irony of the situation.

Fast forward roughly fifteen years. Doug and his two children get off their cruise ship on the Nile in the city of Luxor. They are with their friends Kellie and Dick, and the whole group sets off on foot for the famed Temple of Karnak. While the other visitors are soon absorbed by the splendor of the great columns that surround them and by the erudition of their guide, Dick is irresistibly drawn to a few bottlecaps he spots lying in the dirt, and he leans down with joy to pick them up, thereby augmenting a modest collection that he’d started when they landed in Egypt just a few days earlier.

This act, reflecting Dick’s fascination with rusty knickknacks on the ground as opposed to the splendor of the ancient ruins soaring above, reminds Doug of something far back in his past: the time when his tiny son was engrossed by a handful of insects scuttling about on the ground rather than by the awesome sights surrounding him.”

A few things about this are notable. First, we can see that the original text is not explicit who these characters are, though one would still presume it is likely autobiographical if one has read Hofstadter’s other books.1 (And in case there is any doubt, the index makes it explicit.2)

Second, it’s interesting what details get included in the notes, and what gets left out. The notes that Collin quotes only mention the ants, but not the leaf (which is also true of Doug’s own description of his later recollection), and seemingly introduces the detail about facing away” from the Grand Canyon, which did not exist in the original.3

More importantly, however, we can see that Hofstadter is deploying this narrative in a slightly different way than it was interpreted by Collin, based on his distant encounter with it. Collin emphasises that it wasn’t generalized by joining an appropriate category; it instantiated a new one”. And yet, in the original text, it seems like Hofstadter’s point is actually that it was only when he encountered a similar situation (but similar how?), fifteen years later, that the combination of the two events, and the resonance between them, became a kind of novel category.4

Even this isn’t quite right, however. Hofstadter notes later that there are many different ways we might generalize from these two situations. For example, both involve a famous tourist site, but is that a necessary part of the abstract concept?

At the most general level, Hofstadter notes a resemblence with the well known expression casting pearls before swine”, suggesting that in some sense this was not the invention of a new category, but rather a resonance bewteen two experiences leading both to be grouped into a familiar one.

In the meantime, something similar has happened to me in reading and writing about this. As mentioned, there are numerous such stories in Surfaces and Essences (most much shorter than the one quoted above). I’d previously stuggled to find the right term to describe these. They are usually stories, but that doesn’t quite capture their essence. They are something like parables, but the point is typically not a moral lesson (but rather the way in which they exemplify a category).

In seeing Collin’s reference to one particular story, however, I realized that Danny at the Grand Canyon is perhaps now the canonical example of these stories, in part because it explicitly describes the meaning making from examples that is implied by all the others, and in part because of its growing familiarty through references to it.

For me, Danny at the Grand Canyon is now primarily an example of how a brief narrative can be used to illustrate an unusual or nuanced concept. I don’t know that we yet have a name for this phenomenon exactly, but having shared references is a useful starting point.

Perhaps this is to miss the point of the example. After all, for Hofstadter this example presumably has especially deep personal resonance. And yet, I wonder, even for him, to what extent Danny and the Grand Canyon is first and foremost and example of category formation, and only secondarily a sweetly tragic reminiscence.

  1. In particular, Hofstadter writes with great vulnerbaility about his wife, Carol’s, death in I am a Strange Loop.↩︎

  2. Danny at the Grand Canyon” gets its own entry in the index, which includes see also Hofstadter, Danny”. That, in turn, includes entires for eating water”, and playing with ants and leaves at the edge of Grand Canyon”.↩︎

  3. As per their method, Hofstadter and Sanders include around a dozen such exmaples to illustrate the range of ways in which stories might be similar, such as A young mother is more absorbed in the photos of her baby than in the baby itself”, A graphic artist is reading a famous novel but is paying less attention to the plot than to tht typsetting and page layout”, and the possibly also autobiographical Two intensely motivated scholars spend all their days and nights in a tiny cramped office working on a specialized treatise, when all of Paris, with its magnificent monuments, museums, cafés, and restaurants, is out there, just begging to be explored.”↩︎

  4. Indeed, Hofstadter places greatest weight on the mystery of this a couple of pages later: While they were on their Nile cruise, the furthest thing from Doug’s mind was this memory. How, then, could such a distant, shadowy memory have been so rapidly and easily brought back to life in Doug’s mind?”↩︎

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