Knowing the Name of Something vs. Knowing How To Identify Something

Richard Feynman: The Difference Between Knowing the Name of Something and Knowing Something

From the post:


In this short clip (below), Feynman articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.

Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it. We talk in fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities to cover up our lack of understanding.

You won’t get to see the Feynman quote live because it has been blocked by BBC Worldwide on copyright grounds. No doubt they make a bag full of money every week off that 179 second clip of Feynman.

The stronger point for Feynman would be to point out that you can’t recognize anything on the basis of knowing a name.

I may be sitting next to Cindy Lou Who on the bus but knowing her name isn’t going to help me to recognize her.

Knowing the name of someone or something isn’t useful unless you know something about the person or thing you associate with a name.

That is you know when it is appropriate to use the name you have learned and when to say: “Sorry, I don’t know your name or the name of (indicating in some manner).” At which point you will learn a new name and store a new set of properties to know when to use that name, instead of any other name you know.

Everyone does that exercise, learning new names and the properties that establish when it is appropriate to use a particular name. And we do so seamlessly.

So seamlessly that when called upon to make explicit “how” we know which name to use, subject identification in other words, it takes a lot of effort.

It’s enough effort that it should be done only when necessary and when we can show the user an immediate semantic ROI for their effort.

More on this to follow.

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