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?

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a famous thing Pólya may or may not have said. $\endgroup$ – Francois Ziegler Sep 11 '17 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 '17 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. $\endgroup$ – José Carlos Santos Sep 12 '17 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. $\endgroup$ – RP_ Sep 12 '17 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 '17 at 13:04

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

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.