5: A tale of two yams

Two yams

Over time, we build up knowledge about the world. For instance, we know what a yam looks like. However, if we expressed this knowledge in a picture, it probably wouldn’t look much like a flesh and blood yam. Somehow our knowledge gets in the way of seeing the world that is right before our eyes. What can yams teach us about experiencing reality unfiltered?

Meet the yams

Most of us have had some experience of yams, enough to have a reasonably accurate mental picture of what one looks like. Take the yams in the images below. Which one would you say looks more yam-like? Now, which one do you think was drawn based on the idea of a yam and which was drawn from a real live yam?

Yam 1:

Yam from knowledge

Yam 2:

Yam from life

Answer: the top yam is drawn from my “knowledge” of yams and the bottom yam is drawn from a yam in my larder. If you correctly identified this, how did you draw this conclusion? Similarly, if you chose incorrectly what was your reasoning?

However you answered, you’ll notice one key difference between the two yams: one has distinctly more detail than the other (my inchoate drawing skills notwithstanding). The yam drawn from my prior knowledge of yams leaves out a lot of details, instead containing just those elements that can be expected to be present in any given yam. In contrast, the yam drawn from life contains information gleaned from just the particular yam pulled from the cupboard.

This is a little peculiar. On the one hand, I know what a yam in general looks like. On the other, I know what this yam looks like. However, these yams look notably different from each other. Yet, in both cases I can say that I “know” a yam. What’s going on here?

The ideal yam

So, we’ve seen two yams. In each case, a yam is “known”, but clearly in different way in each case. These different ways of knowing are identified by Bert Dodson as knowing and seeing. [1] The yam we know is based on a mental picture. The yam we see is based on the immediate physical presence of an actual yam (or “yam body” if you like). How do we acquire the a mental image of the known yam and why does it differ so much from the seen yam?

As noted above, the yam we know omits many details that may be revealed by the yam we see. This is because the former arises through a process of abstraction. That is, we build up a mental image by observing several of the thing in question and retaining what is common to each one.

In the case of the yam, the common elements appear to be its round, tapered shape, its spots, and the line-shaped depressions across its body. If this were a painting and not a drawing, there would also be a certain earthy, dull, brown color and, if the yam was cut, a bright orange fleshy interior.

All of these attributes are seen in the seen yam as well, though they look much more varied and less uniform in that case. Nonetheless, if I picked a second yam out of the larder, it would have the same kind of markings, but in different shapes, quantity, patterns, etc. All this detail is a lot to remember, and not especially useful most of the time, so we tend to forget most of it.

What is important, however, is “abstracted” away from the particular yams of my experience and into the mental picture of an “ideal” yam, i.e. the idea of a yam. If we consider the etymology of these words - “abstract” and “idea” - we can see that they quite literally articulate the process at work here.

First, “abstract” comes from the Latin prefix “abs-”, meaning “away”, and verb “traho”, meaning “to draw” or “to pull”. So, “to abstract” from something means to “draw away”. More specifically, it means to “draw away” the elements of a thing that are common to all such things. In the context of the yams, our known yam consists of the tapered shape, spots, and lines “drawn away” from a number of particular yams seen in the course of life.

Second, the word “idea” comes from the Ancient Greek idéa. This, in turn, is derived from the Ancient Greek verb eídō, which means “to see”. In other words, an idea is literally “what is seen” of a thing. Putting this into more idiomatic English, we can say that the idea is the look of a thing.

Putting all this together, we can say that the drawing of the known yam depicts the idea of a yam, the look of a yam comprised of the various common elements abstracted from some fleshy yams. Typically, the idea of a yam is sufficient for doing anything we care about with yams [2], but nevertheless omits a rich variety of information. Can we do without this extra detail, or might it be useful to reverse the process of abstraction and see things as they are?

Seeing the yams for the sack

For the draughtsman or painter, seeing things as they are is an important part of the craft. Indeed, this is the intent behind Dodson’s seeing vs. knowing distinction. However, this distinction is useful in other domains as well and, in fact, constitutes an entire discipline itself under the heading of “phenomenology”. Before surveying these other domains, let’s lock in our understanding of the technique of reversing abstraction to see things as they are.

Now, the process of abstraction is typically involuntary, occuring without the deliberate creation of a mental image. Moving in the other direction, however, does require focused effort. For instance, I was able to draw the known yam in a few short minutes from a pre-existing image of yam in memory. The seen yam, on the other hand, took me several times as long and a lot of voluntary concentration to take mental notes. All this and the drawing still omits a wealth of detail.

The extra time and effort was a product of a process of setting aside my pre-conceived idea of a yam and looking at the yam before me. Rather than a whole picture coming in a flash of memory, I had to actively examine the yam in front of me, articulating its various elements first in sight and then on paper.

In phenomenological lingo this process is called epoché or “bracketing”. The core of this technique is to identify our underlying assumptions, expectations, and images of things, set them aside or “bracket” them, and allow things to simply show themselves as they are. In a Beatles song title, the essence of epoché is to “Let It Be”, whatever “it” (or “who”) is. [3]

However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds, since we carry around with us many preconceived notions and abstractions that we are totally unaware of. Setting aside our assumptions requires, to some degree, that we know we have them.

So, the first step is to take a step back, breathe, and open one’s mind and senses to what is in front of you. Questions can be quite effective for fostering this openness, e.g. “What do I see?”, “What shape is it?”, “How does it smell?”, etc. From there, you can begin to articulate what you’re experiencing in the medium of your choice, whether that be images, words, gestures, etc. The aim is to see each yam in the sack, rather than knowing the sack to contain a number of idealized, essentially interchangable yams.

The value of this phenomenological procedure of seeing is revealed in cases where an exhaustive, natural scientific examination is either impossible or impractical. Scientific research is very handy for developing rigorous knowledge of nature, but such rigor is often impractical for laypeople and those without the often immense financial resources required to conduct this research. [4]

Perhaps more significantly, scientific knowledge is impossible when it comes to knowing individual human beings or sufficiently complex systems, neither of which can be rigorously tested. You can’t have randomized control studies of your grandmother, since there is only one of her, rendering a control group impossible. Who grandma is is a question that can only be answered by getting to know her, as she is.

Have a little yampathy

As implied in the discussion of grandma above, the value of reversing of abstraction is especially useful when it comes to understanding other human beings. This value is underscored by the fact that we tend to have more assumptions about others than we do about any kind of natural objects likes yams. Hence, we may miss the individual for the crowd if we approach from the standpoint of an abstracted knowing rather than one of immediate seeing. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call this seeing “yampathy”.

By letting ourselves see a person rather than assuming we know them on the basis of abstractions drawn from many people, we’re apt to be surprised and, if we’re lucky, to forge a powerful connection with them in that very moment. This holds true both for people we’ve known for a long time and for total strangers.

Indeed, it is possible that over time, a relationship can be crusted over with rigid assumptions and expectations based on past behavior that paper over the living, breathing person before us. On the one hand, this can cause us to box in and suffocate people close to us. On the other, it can seduce us into living in deceptive fantasies where we primarily relate to an idea of the other instead of the other themself. Of course, the same issues can arise in how we relate to ourselves as well.

Instead, we can choose to see the other, to let them be and show themselves as they are. Such seeing, if it is mutual, is a foundation for deep, resilient relationships. It can also help to restore distressed relationships to a lost foundation or, alternatively, to show a baseless relationship for what it is.

So, there is value in seeing others as they are both from the standpoint of caring for them as well as from the standpoint of caring for ourselves. In some sense, this is simply empathy. However, the difference is that this “yampathy” doesn’t just pertain to emotions but to the other as a whole, making it more broadly applicable.

See for yourself

Whew, that was quite an exposition. However, we’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to see and to let be. In future posts I’ll go into greater depth on the processes of seeing and knowing, and provide some touchpoints in the history of thought to tie these together in context. For now, I’ll leave you with the exercise that inspired this post, courtesy of Mr. Dodson, to help crystallize the distinction through creative practice:

Make a pair of drawings of a green pepper. In the first drawing, create a mental image of the pepper and draw it as accurately as possible from that. Do the first drawing from memory without the pepper being present. Supply whatever details you can recall without having looked at it for some time. In the second drawing, place an actual pepper in front of you and draw it as accurately as you can while observing it…. [5]

If you don’t have a pepper, try a yam. [6]


[1] Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1990.

[2] Short of cooking and eating them, of course.

[3] A fully phenomenological approach is much more rigorous, insofar as it entails explicitly identifying and bracketing many layers of assumptions down to the very foundations of human experience and knowledge. For our purposes, however, simply getting to a state of openness to the world and the things and people in it is worthwhile.

[4] One might think that laypeople can simply rely on scientists to do the science for them. However, such an approach doesn’t result in knowledge, but only belief on the basis of assumed authority. Such a procedure is nothing other than an case of the fallacy of argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. Rather, to aquire scientific knowledge requires actually doing science, that is, conducting research in accord with scientific method. At the very least, such knowledge requires reading and evaluating the scientific literature and understanding the reasons why any given conclusion is drawn. However, due to the specialized nature of much science these days, this is often impractical both for laypeople and scientists practicing in different domains. For example, an astrophysicist isn’t necessarily an expert on the mating behaviors of tree frogs, despite being able to rightly claim the title of “scientist”. To become an expert in tree frog mating would require the astrophysicist to go through a process of reviewing, understanding, and evaluating the relevant biological literature, at minimum. More on this in a later post.

[5] Dodson, Keys to Drawing, 1990.

[6] An alternative form of this exercise can be done in words: First, write a desription of a yam or other thing from memory, drawing on all the senses. Then, get an actual yam or other thing and write a description based on what you see, touch, smell, etc. What is common between the descriptions? What is different?