Today, we wonder where knowledge comes from. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Let me try a question on you:
Was Sherlock Holmes a Platonist or an Aristotelian?
Speaking simplistically, a Platonist deduces the
truth of the surrounding world, and an Aristotelian
expects the world to reveal itself. Observational
sciences tend to be Aristotelian, while much of
math and art is Platonist. Artists create realities
in their heads before they present them to the
Now, on to Sherlock Holmes: A woman walks in his
door. Before she says anything to reveal herself,
Holmes tells her that she's married, but estranged
from her husband, that she wasn't able to hail a
cab on the way over, and that she's deaf in her
right ear. Has he shown great powers of observation
or of deduction?
Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see
that he's used both, and he's used them very well
indeed. It is precisely the use of these two
opposing modes of thinking that makes Holmes such a
fascinating creation. We everyday humans let our
thinking polarize. Holmes shows what we
might accomplish by being less one-sided.
The much-used Meyers-Briggs temperament test
dramatizes all this. The Meyers-Briggs test
identifies us by dichotomies in our thinking. One
of its four categories is the so-called
N-S dichotomy -- literally
Sensate. Actually, those are
unfortunate words because they pit the mystic
against the tactile. What's really involved is the
way we expect to gain knowledge.
Aristotelians will read the manual. Platonists
expect to be able to figure things out on their
own. Platonists shake their heads over the time
wasted by Aristotelians. Aristotelians wonder why
Platonists won't take the time to get it right the
The rest of the Meyers-Briggs test speaks to much
more obvious matters: introversion vs.
extroversion, objectivity vs. subjectivity,
the need for closure vs. the need to keep
the case open. But the N-S or
Platonist-Aristotelian division is harder for us to
see in everyday life. As a result, it divides us
Test results show that three-quarters of our
American population is Aristotelian --
S-type. Practical economics leads to
public school systems that speak that way to
students. They're taught to learn from their books
and from their teachers.
You'll surely wonder, "Is that bad?" Well, of
course not. But, like Sherlock Holmes,
well-educated students will also trust their
ability to figure things out. They'll notice that
the woman coming in the door has no wedding ring.
But they'll also figure out that the crease around
her finger means that she did wear one until
Einstein did that: claimed little interest in
knowledge he didn't create in his head, yet his
powers of observation were Holmesian. Our
students must also be bilingual in their language
of learning. Math and science in particular demand
that they access knowledge by two vastly different
avenues. They must be both able to read the manual
and able to figure it out for themselves as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds