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The jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for knowledge.

We commonly say that something is "a puzzle," or we are "puzzled" by something. A puzzle can actually be a very large and indeterminate situation, which stops us dead in our tracks because we don't know what to do. Sometimes I think that Nature itself is a large puzzle, which we can put together in various ways, achieving different lifestyles for ourselves depending on how we "solve" the "puzzle."

It is useful to have a metaphor like "puzzle" to describe such an indeterminate situation. Puzzles are indeed important things. They played a role in many ancient myths, which involved having the protagonists figure out some riddle or puzzle before being allowed onto the next stage of their journey.

And so when I was putting together a series of jigsaw puzzles, at one point in my life, I took the opportunity to think about puzzles in general. The jigsaw puzzle itself, the cardboard-and-paper collection of differently shaped and colored pieces, was an embodied metaphor. It embodied, in physical form, a large metaphorical concept. Within limitations, it provided fruitful material for thinking about the process of solving puzzles of all kinds.

You start, of course, with a large pile of randomized pieces. Thousands of them. It looks hopeless. Disorder reigns supreme.

But you do have a couple of things going for you. First, there's the picture on the box - you actually know what the answer will look like, in a large sense. You can get hints about the general groupings of the differently colored pieces - those blues will represent water, these blues are the sky, these buildings are brown and tan, and so on. The result will be a Mediterranean seashore scene, with boats and buildings under a blue sky.

Is this an accurate metaphor for our situation when faced with puzzles in life? Sometimes, yes. We often have a general sense of what is going on, what should be happening we just don't know the details. We don't know how it can be brought under control. We don't have all the pieces filled in yet.

In life, our fantasies, theories, ideologies are the pictures on the box. We try to put together the pieces of our lives so they will match these dreams.

So in an important way, in solving puzzles, we work backwards from solutions. This goes counter to our expectations of moving logically, step by step, from premises to conclusions. Logically, we are supposed to work forward from premises, not backwards from solutions. But in real life, as in the embodied metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle, we often do not proceed logically.

We have another thing going for us as we tackle our jigsaw puzzle. The boundaries of the puzzle are straight lines. We can separate out the edge pieces because they are usually the only ones with straight edges.

Is this an accurate metaphor for solving puzzles in life? It can be, if we assume that our conceptual boundaries are like the straight line borders of our puzzle. We understand certain concepts up to a limit. That limit is the edge of our puzzle.

And so we work in from the edges of our puzzle. As we do, certain outlines appear, and we search for pieces which will fit them. We work in from the context, try to fill in the blanks.

Again, this is different from how we conceive "logical" "problem-solving" to work. We usually think of going to the "heart of the matter" and "building upon what we already know." This might be analogous to finding a bunch of pieces which are the same color, and which obviously belong together. We put them together into a tan building, say. They are then a "sub-assembly" ready to be "plugged in" when the rest of the puzzle is ready. But the main action is working in, bit by bit, from the edges.

Early in the puzzle-solving process, there are lots of pieces lying around. The job is to classify them, group them together. Broad categories are formed - edge pieces, blue-sky pieces, blue-water pieces, etc. This is similar to the taxonomic work which occurs at the start of any endeavor to increase knowledge.

Slowly, patiently, you move from disorder to different stages of order, from randomness to regularity. The frame is put together. Certain prominent "subassemblies" get assembled.

It is interesting to watch as individual pieces disappear when they are fit into place. At first, there is a clear shape waiting to be filled. We search for a piece with a good fit. Many are close, but do not fit. Then, when we find the right piece, it goes in effortlessly, and blends in so quickly that a gestalt is formed. We no longer see the piece which a moment before we were so glad we found. It has become another part of the growing context, as we work in from the edges.

This phenomenon of the disappearing pieces is similar to what happens to many subsidiary discoveries after a general puzzle is solved. Who now remembers those experiments on gravity or optics which preceded Newton's laws? They have faded into the background, as it were, and all we see is the completed puzzle.

As we progress in our puzzle-solving venture, we increasingly experience the pleasures of closure. "Aha," "That's it," "there you are, you little bugger." And we are rewarded with a growing unity, a clearer picture, increasing order, decreasing random piles of pieces. We are working against entropy, against randomness, a process which is necessary for life itself and inherently rewarding.

As we get farther along, we go faster. Whole subassemblies can be put into place, increasing our coverage in large chunks. The remaining tasks become sharper, more clearly defined. The pesky ambiguous pieces start to be put into their places.

At this later stage of puzzle-solving, the broad taxonomies of the early stage are less useful. We are now down into the details, into the local questions.

We still must rely on trial and error. Sometimes we get a piece that almost fits, but not quite. The problem is that this is the last one like it. That means some other piece is in the wrong place. We have to find it, and then all the earlier fits off that wrong piece have to be moved as well. There is magnification of errors, though the jigsaw puzzle usually stops you before you get too far.

Finally, the puzzle is completed. The last piece is ceremoniously put into place, even though the end has been apparent for some time. The big picture is before us: a Mediterranean seashore with boats and buildings under a blue sky. All the individual pieces which so occupied our time have vanished, all the piles of pieces have disappeared. Instead we see a unified whole.

This is the hope of everyone who needs to solve a puzzle in real life. That, through patience and trial and error and luck, we may come to understand a larger process, a more comprehensive whole. When the puzzle is solved, we will know what to do, how to act, how to overcome whatever is stopping us.

And what are the puzzles of everyday life that we need to solve? I would say that language is probably the most common. We have lots of words and pieces of language lying around. We need to put them together into the proper shapes so they will help create the big pictures we desire.

Whether it is as simple as asking for something in a store, or as complex as asking someone to marry us, language provides the pieces for a puzzle which, if we put it together properly, can make our lives a whole lot better. Or, if we never do solve the puzzles of language and how they are related to social and natural "realities," our lives will be the poorer for it.

Dr. Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor in the Television-Radio Department at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.
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Author:Gozzi, Raymond, Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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