Bill Benzon

This post contains five things things: 1) a list of my online venues, 2) brief sketches of major pieces of work I've done, 3) a briefly annotated list of the 10 books that have been most influential for me, 4) a brief intellectual biography oriented around my work in cognitive science, which is followed by 5) a list of posts about my intellectual life, with links.


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World-Sized Projects

Throughout my career I have undertaken “world-sized” projects encompassing a wide scope of information and knowledge while still remaining in touch with the details that define success. This is a brief chronological list of those projects.

Cognitive Science and Literary Theory, 1978: What do the cognitive and neuro-sciences tell us about a Shakespeare sonnet and literature in general? My Ph.D. dissertation asked and in part answered these questions thirty years before it became fashionable, and thus envisioned a whole new field of study.

NASA-Wide IT Strategy, 1981: I was a member of the team charged with developing strategic recommendations about NASA-wide computer use and acquisition. I led the information systems group, developed reports and presentations with the team, and I also prepared a special report, “An Executive Guide to the Computer Age.”

Natural Intelligence and Cognitive Evolution, 1985-1995: Is the computer the natural result of primate evolution? I think so. In conjunction with David G. Hays, I published a series of articles in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems covering the development of cognition in the brain from primitive vertebrates through primates and in human culture from the preliterate world through the development of computing. Online at:

Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution, 1989, published by Harry N. Abrams: Working with Richard M. Friedhoff, I prepared a general-interest introduction to computer graphics and image processing that was favorably reviewed in publications such as Scientific American and The Whole Earth Review.

Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, 2001, published by Basic Books: How does music work at the neural level? How did it work on groups to help catalyze the evolution of clever apes into human beings? Science and Nature thought my book was innovative, insightful, and thought-provoking. It was translated into Chinese and Japanese.

Governors Island as a World Resource Center, 2006: It’s just sitting there, in the middle of New York Harbor, unused, waiting to be developed for the benefit of the world. I helped develop a proposal for the multi-use development of Governors Island as a model city within a city submitted by the World Development Endowment Foundation.


1973-78 Ph.D., English, State University of New York at Buffalo.
1970-73 M.A., Humanities, The Johns Hopkins University.
1965-69 B.A., Philosophy, The Johns Hopkins University.


As a jazz musician, I play trumpet and flugelhorn and have shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Frank Foster, Al Grey, and Nick Brignola. I have exhibited computer art in the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island.
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10 Influential Books

Urged on by a reader, Tyler Cowen seems to have started a books meme: What 10 books have influenced you the most? This sort of thing is something of a crapshoot, yadda yadda, but why not? I’ve limited my list to non-fiction.

My Teacher

David Hays, Cognitive Structures. Hays was my teacher, and most of what I learned from him I learned directly from him. His aim in this book was to integrate the analog and servomechanical model of William Powers (see below) with the propositional and digital style of his own earlier work in computational linguistics. It is embodied cognition before the term was coined and gained currency. I believe this is the most profound such attempt to date (Hays wrote the book in the Spring of 1976), but, of course, I am biased. It is also, alas, rather obscure in points, no bias.

Some Others

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked. I’ve read a good deal of Lévi-Strauss, and this wasn’t the first. But it has had the most lasting effect on my thinking, which I’ve discussed at The Valve. Lévi-Strauss sees that there is a rigorous, but hidden, logic to a body of South American myths. He evokes this hidden logic by careful comparisons between myths, while discussing them in their larger socio-cultural context.

John Bowlby, Attachment. I read this in typescript under the tutelage of the late Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby set out to reconstruct psychoanalytic object relations theory using systems models (TOTE from Miller, Gallanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior) and evidence from ethology, especially of primates. This became my model of biologically-based psychology.

Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. I’ve read a good deal of Piaget, and this wasn’t the first (most likely that was The Origins of Intelligence in Children.) Though now somewhat eclipsed, his concept of developmental stages was enormously useful and, I believe, still holds water. But be careful. (Given its subjects, this book connects nicely with an interest in literature.)

Lev Vygotsky, Language and Thought. Vygotsky argued that children acquire language by completely internalizing what started as interaction with another. First the parent uses language to direct the child’s attention and behavior. Over time the child becomes able, first to use his own speech for those tasks, and then becomes able to dispense with external speech entirely.

Karl Pribram, Languages of the Brain. Pribram was a champion of the notion that the brain processes and stores information holographically. You’ll find that idea here, plus much more besides. Pribram was, and remains, one of our most comprehensive thinkers about the brain and its mind. But this book’s a tough read.

Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood. Medievals and Early Moderns didn’t think about children as we do, which Ariès argued from paintings, diaries, and other sources. The basic idea is that people way back when didn’t think and act about something very basic in the way we do. Children are children, no? Well, biologically, yes. Culturally, no.

William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception. Powers has two ideas, both from control theory (& one of them is more or less given in his title), and both quite elegant. This is how to go about theorizing, be as clear as you can and use elegant examples. FWIW, Powers was an engineer and very much concerned with building real things.


Except for the Powers, all of the above books came to me within a minute or two. Then I drew a blank for a couple of minutes. “But you know,” says I to myself, “I was quite influenced by some philosophers early on, even if I no longer read philosophy. Oo why not mention them.” So I will. That I had to kick Merleau-Ponty into the omissions pile, rather than one of these, is somewhat arbitrary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Two things got me, the rigorous order of the whole affair, each proposition numbered in outline form. And the mysticism.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. Read a lot of Nietzsche too. But his account of the birth of tragedy linked up with other things in a powerful (including two of the books in the omissions pile.) And, of course, the Apollonian and Dionysian.


Since the exercise limited us to ten I didn’t list Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Walter Wiora, The Four Ages of Music, or Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion. The more I think about this, the longer this list will get. Some Freud belongs on the list (The Interpretation of Dreams?). & Gregory Bateson, Bertrand Russell. Well, I know why Russell didn’t make the list. I read a lot of his stuff in my mid-teens, but not after. I hadn’t started “serious” thinking when I left off reading him.
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On the Differences between Artificial and Natural Minds: Another version of my intellectual biography

A couple weeks ago Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures announced an interest in funding work in artificial intelligence (AI). I decided to apply. The application was relatively short and straightforward: Tell us about yourself and tell us what you want to do. So that’s what I did. I ended up recounting my intellectual career from “Kubla Khan” to attractor nets.

So, I’ve reproduced that narrative below, except for the final paragraph where I ask for money. It joins the many pieces I’ve written about my intellectual life. I list most of them, with links, after the narrative.

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In a recent interview with Karen Hao, Geoffrey Hinton proclaimed, “I do believe deep learning is going to be able to do everything” (MIT Technology Review, 11.3.2020). His faith is rooted in the remarkable success of deep learning in the past decade. This notion of AI omnipotence has deep cultural roots (e.g. Prospero and his magic) and is the source of both wild techno-optimism and apocalyptic fears about future relations between AI and humanity. Momentum seems to be on Hinton’s side. I believe, however, that by establishing a robust and realistic view of the actual difference between artificial and natural intelligence, we can speed progress by tamping down both the hyperbolic claims and the fears.

In the 2010s I employed a network notation developed by Sydney Lamb (computational linguistics) to sketch out how salient features in the high-dimensional geometry of complex neurodynamics could map into a classical symbolic system. (Gary Marcus argues that Old School symbolic computing is necessary to handle common sense reasoning and complex thought processes.) My hypothesis is that the highest-level processes of human intelligence are best conceived in symbolic terms and that Lamb’s notation provides a coherent way of showing how symbols can impose high-level organization on those “big vectors of neural activity” that Hinton talks about.

Here is a quick account of how I arrived at that hypothesis.

For my Master’s Thesis at Johns Hopkins in 1972 I demonstrated that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” was a poetic map of the mind, structured like a pair of matryoshka dolls, each nested three deep. It “smelled” of an underlying computational process, nested loops perhaps. Over a decade later I published that analysis in Language and Style (1985) – at the time perhaps the premier journal about language and literature.

In 1973 I started studying for a PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. The department was in the forefront of postmodern theory and known for its encouragement of interdisciplinary boldness, with Rene Girard, Leslie Fiedler, Norman Holland and several prominent postmodern writers on the faculty. There I met David Hays in the linguistics department. He had led the RAND Corporation’s team on machine translation in the 1950s and 1960s and later coined the term “computational linguistics.” I joined his research group and used computational semantics to analyze a Shakespeare sonnet, “The Expense of Spirit.” I published that analysis in 1976 in the special 100th anniversary issue of MLN (Modern Language Notes) – an intellectual first. Much of my 1978 dissertation, “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory,” consisted of semi-technical work in knowledge representation, including the first iteration of an account of cultural evolution that Hays and I would publish in a series of essays in the 1990s.

Prior to meeting Hays I had been attracted by a 1969 Scientific American article in which Karl Pribram, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that vision and the brain more generally operated on mathematical principles similar to those underlying optical holography, principles also used in current convolutional neural networks. Neural holography played a central role in a pair of papers Hays and I published in the 1980s, “Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process” (American Journal of Semiotics, 1987), and “The Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence” (Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 1988). Drawing on a mathematical formulation by Miriam Yevick, both papers developed a distinction between holographic semantics and compositional semantics (symbols) and argued that language and higher cognitive processes required interaction between the two.

I spent the summer of 1981 working on a NASA project, Computer Science: Key to a Space Program Renaissance, leading the information systems group. I left the academic world in 1985 – I’d been on the faculty of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – and collaborated with Richard Friedhoff on a coffee-table book about computer graphics and image processing, Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution (Abrams 1989). During this period Hays and I began publishing our articles on cultural evolution, beginning with “The Evolution of Cognition” (Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 1990). We argued that the development of a major new conceptual instrument, such as writing across the ancient world, enabled a new cognitive architecture, and that new architecture in turn supported new modes of thought and invention. When Europe had fully absorbed positional decimal arithmetic from the Arabs, the result was a new conceptual architecture which enabled the scientific and industrial revolutions and indirectly, the novel. The twentieth century saw the development of the computer, first conceptually, and then implemented in electronic technology at mid-century. Another new cognitive architecture emerged, but also modernism in the arts.

At the end of the 1990s I entered into extensive correspondence with Stanford’s Walter Freeman about complex neurodynamics. That work became central to the account of music I developed in Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books, 2001). Meanwhile literary scholars were finally discovering cognitive science. I jumped back into the fray and published several articles, including a general theoretical and methodological piece, “Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form” (PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, 2006). I argued, among other things, that literary form could be expressed computationally in the way that, say, parentheses give form to LISP expressions. My early work on “Kubla Khan” and “The Expense of Spirit” exemplifies that notion of computational form, which I also discussed in “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self” (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 1993). Over the last two decades I have described and analyzed over 30 texts and films from this perspective, though most of that work is in informal working papers posted to where I rank in the 99.9 percentile of publications viewed.

I am now who knows how many miles into my 1000-mile journey. The full range of the work I’ve done over a half century, all of it with computation in mind – language, literature, music, cultural evolution ¬– remains open for further exploration. I am now ready to make significant progress on the problem that started my journey: the form and semantic structure of “Kubla Khan.” In so doing I intend to clarify the difference between natural and artificial intelligence.

“Kubla Khan” is one of the greatest English-language poems and has left its mark deep in popular culture. It has a rich formal structure and through that draws on the full range of human mental capacities. By explicating them I will propose a minimal, but explicit, set of capabilities for a truly general intelligence and show how they work together to produce a coherent object, a poem. I expect to show – though I can’t be sure of this – that some of those capacities are beyond the range of silicon.

I undertake to do so, not to save the human from the artificial, but to liberate the artificial from our narcissistic investment in it - the tendency to project our fears of the unknown and anxieties about the future onto our digital machines. Only when we have clarified the difference between natural and artificial intelligence will we be able to assess the potential dangers posed by powerful artificial mentalities. Artificial intelligence can blossom and flourish only if it follows a logic intrinsic and appropriate to it.

As futurist Roy Amara noted: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. So it is with AI. Fear of human-level AI is short-term while the transformative effects of other-than-human AI will be long term.

I don’t intend to craft code. I’m looking to define boundaries and mark trails. I have spent a career examining qualitative phenomena and characterizing them in terms making them more accessible to investigators with technical skills I lack. I seek to provide AI with ambitious and well-articulated goals that are richer rather than simply “bigger and still bigger.”

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The break – How I ended up on Mars

Here’s one way I’ve come to think about my career: I set out to hitch rides from New York City to Los Angeles. I don’t get there. My hitch-hike adventure failed. But if I ended up on Mars, what kind of failure is that? Lost on Mars! Of course, it might not actually be Mars. It might be an abandoned set on a studio back lot. Ever since then I’ve been working my way back to earth.

This material is about how I ended up on Mars while on the way to LA. That is, it is about I set out to analyze “Kubla Khan” within existing frameworks but ended up outside those frameworks.

Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life

This is about my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins and my years as a master’s student in the Humanities Center, where I wrote my thesis on “Kubla Khan.” This is how I became an independent thinker with my own intellectual agenda. Among other things, I talks about the role that some altered mental states – two having nothing to do with drugs, one about and LSD trip (that wasn't trippy in the standard sense) – in my early intellectual development. If you read only one of these pieces, this is the one.

Into Lévi-Strauss and Out Through “Kubla Khan”

This is a story told in diagrams, about how I went from Lévi-Strauss style structuralism to the computationally inspired semantic networks of cognitive science. Read this second.

How I discovered the structure of “Kubla Khan” & came to realize the importance of description

And this continues the previous story and explains how I realized that the key to a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of literary texts is to think about their form, not their semantics.

Why I’d Abandoned Chomskian Linguistics before I Got to Graduate School and Where I am Now

I learned about Chomsky as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. But I really needed semantics so I could understand meaning in literary texts. Chomsky’s generative grammar didn’t have much semantics. Other things looked more promising.

Early years

This is a miscellaneous set of posts, but they’re mostly about things that happened before I turned 30. Except for the last one.

Seeds of Recursion in the Child's Mind

About ideas I had when I was 6 or 7, precursors to things I’ve been thinking about most of my adult life.

William Benzon, 1912-1998: He Went Out Swinging and Smooth Shaven [born on Jan 31, 1912]

My father taught me to think. When I came to him for help with my homework, he worked Socratically, asking me questions that nudged me closer figuring out an answer.

Cleaning Coal: An Informal Study of Ecological Design

I think of my intellectual method as speculative engineering. I learned that from my father, he was an engineer. This is an example of his thinking.

10 Influential Books, aka What goes around comes around

What the title says, all books I read before I turned 30, most of them before 25.

My First Muse, and My Second

Love letters, how I used them, what they taught me. How to write, for one thing. [The deep psychological core of my intellectual life?]

Growing Minds: You Can’t Get There from Here, Anymore

You can’t get your mind back to a place it had once been. Strange periods in my life where things opened up, did some things, then closed down. But the things I did had lingering effects


Music has been very important to me. Beyond my activities and experiences as a musician, I’ve taken music as an object of thought, eventually writing a book about it, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001).

My Early Jazz Education 7: Learning to Improvise 1

This is about music as well, how I came to improvise and what it meant to me. A really good party, for one thing. A mystical experience. More food for thought.

It Shook Me, the Light

This is about that mystical experience I just mentioned. It happened while I was playing trumpet in the St. Matthew Passion, a jazz-rock band I was a member of in the early 1970s. It changed how I thought about myself, the world, and myself.

A White Blackman

This isn’t directly about music. It’s about my identification with black Americans, and that is very deeply through music.

A few of my teachers

“It got adults off your back” – Richard Macksey remembered

Richard Macksey got me though my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins. He had an inventive mind that roamed wide and far. He was a wonder.

Earl Wasserman, a lifelong student, a scholar’s scholar

Wasserman introduced me to “Kubla Khan.” He was generously enough to afford me hours of conversation in his office.

Courtesies and Seams: My relationship with David Hays, teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend

Hays was my teacher and mentor in graduate school and became my friend and colleague. The most brilliant man I’ve ever worked with.

Art Efron: An Ethical Critic

From him I learned about the ethical demands of being a literary critic.

Body and Spirit: A Story of Fathers and Sons

This is another post about my relationship with David Hays. It’s about his interest in ballet and mine in music.

Connections: Wittgenstein ... Lévi-Strauss ... [Shakespeare] ... [Haiku] ... [Jeopardy!]

Some of my intellectual lineage, laid out in three diagrams accompanied by explanatory prose.


These posts are about my relationship with intellectual institutions.

The Hunt for Genius, Part 5: Three Elite Schools [RIP #RichardAMacksey]

Thumbnail sketches of 1) Johns Hopkins University, where I did my undergraduate work and a masters’ degree, 2) the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I got my PhD, and 3) Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I held my first and only faculty post.

Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri

I explain my intellectual career in a letter to Charlie Altieri, with whom I studies at SUNY Buffalo. Contains links to a bunch of papers, practical criticism and more theoretical work.

The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over the course of 50 years [& related matters]

An annotated list of papers and posts I’ve written about literary criticism. That list overlaps with this one.

Rejected @NLH! Part 4: Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History + Welcome to the club, Franco! [#DH #Canon/Archive]

I write about how my first paper about “Kubla Khan” was rejected at MLN in the early 1980s, and I include a bit from the referee’s report. More recently, a couple of years ago, I was rejected at NLH, in roughly similar terms.

The changing terms of my Socratic bargain with the American Academy [and the larger search for truth]

This is a long post about my problematic relationship with the American academy. I explain that, while I recognize my obligation to the demands of life in an intellectual community, I have decided that that community cannot be the academic world as it currently exists. I’m looking for that community.

Space Travel

No, I didn’t hitch a ride with Bezos, Branson, or Musk, but the possibility and reality of space travel have been important to me.

A Child of the Space Age

I grew in the dawn of the space age. This is how it affected me, movies and moon launch alike.

Summer 1981, When I advised NASA on their computing infrastructure

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I abandoned that dream in my teens. But eventually I did spend a summer working with NASA.

Computing and the Internet

Personal Observations on Entering an Age of Computing Machines [WP]

I talk about how my conception of academic publishing has changed as a consequence of the internet and how the personal computer has changed my working methods. It’s deeper than the convenience of word-processing. This is a link to a working paper stored elsewhere, though it is a compilation of posts here at New Savanna.

A decade of New Savanna: 2010-2019

I present some simple statistics about what I’ve published at New Savanna in a decade.

A Mind Over the Long Haul: My Posting Patterns

I look at the number of blog entries I post each month over the course of ten years. What are those period slumps about?

Over the course of my career

I comment on various long-term phenomena in the course of my career.

How Failure Led Me to Appreciate the Importance of Description in Literary Study

Early in my career I believed that one day I would be working with a powerful computer system that could “read” literary texts. That has never happened, nor do I expect it to in the future. What did I learn from that? And what does it have to do with the importance of describing literary texts?

Why, in the course of an intellectual life, can it take years to see the obvious?

Though I was interested in literary form starting in my undergraduate years, it isn’t until the mid 1990s that I explicitly recognized and conceptualized that. Why? It’s not as though I finally had a revelation that made it possible for me to “see” form. I saw it when I did my early work on “Kubla Khan.” That’s one example. There’s a second, more recent one, which is about the impossibility of direct brain-to-brain communication.

Things change, but sometimes they don’t: On the difference between learning about and living through [revising your priors and the way of the world]

Example: I grew up during the Cold War. I fully expected to die with that war grinding on. Then the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. What’s the difference between having lived through that kind of event and merely reading about it in a history book?

The machine in my mind, my mind on the machine: Will we ever build a machine to equal the human brain?

How have I thought about the relationship between natural and artificial minds, starting with seeing Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956 when I was nine years old?

Reflections on entering my eighth decade and why it portends to be the most productive one of my life

A long post from December of 2017 about a whole bunch of stuff: intellectual work, graffiti, Jersey City, the World Island project, this and that. A major summing up.