Others Have Seen What Is and Asked Why, I Have Seen What Could Be and Asked Why Not
This quote by Pablo Picasso poses the question of how one best goes about acquiring and expressing new knowledge. However, when examining the quote, it's clear that he is referring to two different time periods and two different forms of existence.
In order to fully understand what is meant by this quote, first we must examine the basic distinction between what is being asked by the question “Why?” and what is being asked by the question “Why Not?” After that, we’ll examine the two questions and their meaning as they apply to the here and now vs. the future. Finally, we’ll look at the form of knowledge each of these questions represents in terms of what is real, concrete and actual vs. what is abstract or speculative in nature.
Why vs. Why Not: The Basic Form of the Question
In the most basic form of this distinction, the question “Why?” compared to the question “Why not?” can be seen in terms of the quality and depth of the terms used. Anyone who has spent time around young children will have gotten into a game of “why” with them. This is when small children will ask you a question, and when you answer, ask “why,” continuing to do this until you simply can’t come up with anything else and give an answer along the lines of, “Because it is, alright?”
While this can become annoying on the part of the adult forced to come up with answers for things they likely haven’t thought about since they were very young, for the child, it displays how their curiosity to learn new information guides so much of their focus. They won’t stop asking about something until it makes sense to them.
When thinking about how one truly has acquired a new piece of information, it isn’t until we not only fully understand it and can explain it or express it to others that we truly can say we “know” something. So even when we know a fact about something that can be memorized, asking ourselves, “But why is that so,” helps us learn it in a more comprehensive manner (Kolakowski 2017).
On this level, the question, “Why not?” takes the acquisition of new knowledge a step further. If examining knowledge acquisition on a continuum, the first level of knowledge would be the memorize a fact. The second level would be to explore why it is that this is the case to add a level of understanding to factual knowledge.
The third level attempts to differentiate this piece of knowledge from other pieces. So, here we are asking, “Why this, why not that?” Once we can explore this level of knowledge we have a deeper understanding of a concept because we still know about the concept without confusion even when it is no longer by itself but instead mixed up with other knowledge back in the world.
Why in the Here and Now, Why Not in the Future
A distinction can also be made between knowledge that is real, concrete, or actual, and that which is abstract, or that exists only in thought or as an idea that has no physical existence. These are two different types of knowledge. One is in a real physical existent form, and the other is something that we know within us but that others can’t actually perceive without our doing something to bring it into existence for them.
This distinction is one that would have been paramount for Picasso or any artist or innovator. This is the difference between knowledge that already exists in the here and now compared to potential knowledge that exists in the future. It is this second type of knowledge that would most interest those who engage primarily in creative endeavors.
To take something that exists already, as it has been conceptualized and developed by someone else, and apply your own creative spin or small changes to it would not be something that a person who is truly innovative would likely enjoy. These individuals are more interested in creating “something from nothing,” or taking pure potential, which by definition is something that exists only in the future, and bringing into reality.
While artists and innovators may believe they are creating something from nothing, in reality, they still need the knowledge that exists in the here and now to build from. Even if only as something to move away from, in terms of light, color, form, etc. they still must have some kind of body of knowledge to use as a jumping-off point.
Picasso and other Cubists were believed to have created a completely new and different expression of art. However, the Cubists broke from centuries of tradition in their painting by rejecting the single viewpoint.
In order to break from this, they first had to fully know it. (O'Brien 2018). So even when we believe we are developing potential knowledge and creativity in a way that hasn’t been done before, we have to have some kind of knowledge as we are most likely either taking pieces that already exist and combining them differently or rejecting what is to create a new concept or area of knowledge.
Picasso’s challenge was to take what was conceptual and abstract in his mind and create an artistic expression of it in a way that communicated the concept to others to understand and appreciate. In order to do this, he took from the fields of science and engineering to demonstrate how art can improve the human condition and in turn spark innovation in science and engineering.
While asking “why” and “why not” are both very essential questions to obtaining and understanding knowledge about life, they are very different. “Why” is a question that expounds upon facts and asks about things that already exist, in a concrete way in the here and now. The question “why not” deepens our understanding of areas of knowledge by not just asking about those things that we know to be characteristics of something but why other characteristics aren’t features.
“Why not,” also queries the non-existent, potential, abstract potential of information that can bring something knew into the world. For there to be comprehensive knowledge both of these types need to exist and each supplement the other. It provides a starting base with the building blocks of a knowledge system that we can all share then lets us move from there to our own unique way of creating knowledge by combining what has been with our unique perspective to create something new.
Casadio, F., Walton, M., & Andral, J. L. 2018, February. Analyzing Picasso: Scientific Innovation, Instrumentation, and Education. In the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. AAAS.
Kolakowski, L. 2017. Why is there something rather than nothing?: questions from great philosophers. Penguin UK.
O'Brien, D., 2018. Cubism: Art and Philosophy. ESPES, 7(1), pp.30-37.
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