I have an approximation of a quote lodged in my brain, and I'm looking to source it:

Whenever you don't understand something, there is a simpler thing that you also don't understand.

I am almost certain this quote was due to a mathematician or physicist, but I can't track it down. Does it ring a bell for anyone?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a famous thing Pólya may or may not have said. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2017 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Am I correct in that the above quote implies that either the set of "things" has no well-ordered subsequence or that there is not even a single thing that can be understood? And if so, does that mean that the quote was intended to be ironic? $\endgroup$
    – yoniLavi
    Sep 11, 2017 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @yoniLavi I use it often, under the form “If you can't solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can't solve: find it.”, without any irony. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2017 at 8:53
  • $\begingroup$ This seems to be a well-known principle among teachers. An instance of awareness of a lack of understanding is almost always preceded by an instance of unconscious non-understanding. $\endgroup$
    – R.P.
    Sep 12, 2017 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @JoséCarlosSantos, and sorry to be so literally minded, but with your phrasing I also still hit the same paradox of infinite regress. As I see it, at some point in the process, even though there might be an even easier problem, the student has to decide to put their mind into addressing this problem, otherwise they would never get anywhere. So maybe, to (poorly) paraphrase your sentence, “If you can't solve a problem, then there is an easier related problem you can solve: find it, and then build on it to solve the original.” $\endgroup$
    – yoniLavi
    Sep 12, 2017 at 13:04

1 Answer 1


Accordin to THIS, Pólya included "Solve a simpler problem" as one strategy in his book How to Solve It.


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