[lit-ideas] When do we know enough?

  • From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 14 Dec 2005 12:25:55 +0900

On a delightful blog (http://savageminds.org), new contributor Anru
Lee asks a question to which I reply. Any and all comments are


Anru asks, at what point can I claim that I have a full understanding
of the subway system in Taipei—or Kaohsiung?

The answer is simple—Never. In an infinitely interesting universe
there is always another angle, another set of questions to be asked.
Think how boring it would be otherwise!

It is better, I believe, to reframe the question as,

"At what point do I have enough to say that I have made a significant
addition to understanding whatever it is that I have chosen to study?"

I often begin my classes by noting to my students that to claim
understanding we often say that we have created a picture of
something. But what kind of picture is it?

For elementary subjects in well-defined fields, we assume that the
picture is like a jigsaw puzzle. The image is predefined, the number
of pieces is finite, it is easy to see if the picture is complete or
not and, if not, how much remains to be done. This picture is very
convenient for teachers since it facilitates grading.

Consider, however, an artist standing in front of a blank canvas,
trying to produce a painting, a nude perhaps, a vase full of
sunflowers, or a pond filled with waterlilies, or the sea as dawn
breaks in the middle of a storm. It isn't just that the subjects
differ, the artist may be a Michaelangelo, a Van Gogh, a Manet, or a
Turner. The artist might also be a Picasso or Klee (times change) or
(place changes, too) a Hokusai or someone with an unpronounceable name
from someplace we know nothing about.

The result will be very different, depending on the artist as well as
the subject. The artist may always wonder, is the painting good
enough? Will the critics or potential buyers see it as bad, mediocre,
good or insanely great? Will one more brushstroke or some other
modification make it even better?

From my work in advertising, I suspect that one of two things happens.
There may be a magic moment, a sudden feeling of wholeness and
completion and a sense that any further change will destroy what has
been discovered. There may also be a deadline, so that pressure builds
to say, "Good enough" (even if the result has flaws). Neither,
however, should be considered the last word, the definitive answer.

I often conclude this riff by pointing to Claude Levi-Strauss's
description in the "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked. In a
wonderful image he compares the creation of knowledge to the formation
of a galaxy from a cloud of gas and dust. As the cloud condenses and
begins to spin, the first stars form toward the center. As time goes
on more and more stars appear. And, yes, I say to myself, it isn't at
all likely that all of the gas and dust will be turned into stars. As
new stars form toward the edges, old ones are dying at the center.
Some will collapse and explode into novas, some will fade into red
dwarfs, some will disappear into black holes. The learning never

Definitive? No way.


John Mc

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