It’s said that we couldn’t describe the color blue until recently despite the fact modern humans have nearly the same biology as ancient ones. That suggests there are gaps between the existence of something, our ability to notice it (and understand it) and our capacity to give it a name or explain it. Sometimes, in a timeline of events, those gaps can be huge. However, the fact we can’t describe a concept doesn’t mean we cannot understand it. Many times in life, meaning comes before words.
Knowledge versus understanding
“We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate.” says Nassim Taleb on his book ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder’. ‘Antifragile’, by the way, is a neologism that describes the opposite of fragile: concept well understood heuristically, but lacking a word for it. For example, certain things like our muscles need stress to become better. They are not fragile, nor robust, but ‘antifragile’. Again, the lack of a word doesn’t preclude understanding.
Language is a fundamental instrument of communication: words that give meaning to things and are well understood by a group of people make peer to peer communication and transference of knowledge possible. However, while ever evolving and incorporating more words into its thesaurus, it will never be able to fully capture the entire human psyche. As a matter of fact, we may get farther from true understanding if we deem words and the knowledge they represent sufficient of everything there is to know.
It’s one of the tolls of modernity. We increasingly rely on knowledge, especially from the media (more social, connected and omnipresent than ever), to extract everything we know, to explain everything we know, to share, to comment and to form opinion. Actually, it seems, nowadays, we spend more time trying to explain, to convince and to prove a point than we try to understand what is really going on. It’s like I am trying to convince you my blue is better than your blue, but the truth is we will always perceive it differently.
And just to be clear, as I am writing this on an internet blog and will probably share it on some social network, I am not trying to criticize the media (social or not), but the phenomena of ‘platonification’ catalyzed by it. ‘Platonification’ is another term introduced by Mr. Taleb in his book ‘The Black Swan’ to define our tendency to simplify complex topics inevitably missing the whole story. With the omnipresence of the media, it’s so much easier to get carried away by ‘platonified’ (and sometimes misinformed) versions of the facts than it’s to really try to think and understand them.
The fact is meaning not only precedes words, but is also much more powerful. We need to be extremely thoughtful in order to avoid abnegating understanding in favor or the simplification offered by narratives. Make no mistake, knowledge is important, but it’s not everything. And that’s the first think we have to understand to keep learning and evolving.
I can’t explain it
Have you ever caught yourself in a situation where you cannot explain something, but you understand exactly what it is and what to do about it? Paradoxically, have you also ever made a mistake by overanalyzing a situation? Let’s get to the color blue for a moment. You don’t need to have a name for blue to perceive the color. Also being extremely specific using terms such as ‘mediterranean sea morning light blue’ misses the point as it adds no real meaning for those who have not ever experienced it.
Many times, understanding requires no explanation and any attempt to do so is a waste of effort that eventually leads to frustration. Ask a ceramist how to make delicate artifacts or a carpenter how to make intricate and beautiful wood work? The chances are they can’t explain it to you but rather show you how they do it. And even if they do explain, there are even smaller chances that you are going to master their craft just from what they told you. That’s because craftsmanship is one of domains where there’s usually a gap between knowledge and understanding, mostly filled by a simple heuristic: discovery by trial and error. Those who master a craft over time end up becoming experts on what ‘not to do’. Their commitment to their craft and to make it right ensures they learn from every mistake. Throughout the process, they increase their chances of success at every failed attempt by removing imperfections from their own technique, eventually being able to achieve mastery.
However, mistakes are less and less tolerated in a world where knowing, explaining and fitting in has become more important than learning, understanding and thinking. But, like the artisans, we improve and evolve at every mistake we make, eventually reaching that level of deep understanding that cannot be possibly expressed in words. When that happens, an inattentive observer will confuse the lack of explanation, the hesitation or the thoughtful procrastination that comes with experience with what will be deemed as mystic as things like guts, sixth sense, superstition or intuition. But I assure you, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Interestingly enough, blue has always been my favorite color. I just love it. I always have. No explanation required.