To See and to Know

While thinking about the upcoming semester (the cycles of the year go on and on, and I sit here today repeating the cycle once more as a new crop of students is about to break forth on the Luther College campus) I happened upon this little anecdote recorded by Ezra Pound in his  ABC of Reading:

“No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and dip­lomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with the des­cription of the lchthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish. The student produced a four-page essay.

Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.”

This story — concerning what it is to see and to know — reminds me a great deal of something from Walker Percy that I’ve blogged on before.  As much as one might be able to give a Latin name of a biological specimen, and even give precise expression to scientific measurements of various quantities that characterize its physical form, this is but part of the picture.  My family and I were driving home this past weekend from some time away, and en route Heather and I at one point were talking about the beauty of the southeastern Minnesota landscape and the many shades of green we saw in the hills and forests around us.  One could obtain a spectrograph, and point it at the landscape, and create a plot of the intensities of the green light observed as a function of wavelength or frequency.  Would that capture the beauty of the range of color?   It would give us partial information, sufficient for some things, to be certain – perhaps even important information for some applications.  What such precise measurement lacks, however, is a human quality that, for example, the words of the poet or the musical theme that the composer can supply, each giving voice to their perception of that glimpse of nature.  As human beings we need this beauty — and we need to express our reaction to it every bit as much as to express the results of our scientific explorations.  We need the humane as well as the scientific — the poetic as well as the precise.