A few years ago, my oldest son — then about two years old — was tearing and crumbling Play-Doh on the kitchen table. He’d made a mess with lots of little pieces that I was busy collecting and re-squishing into bigger ones. At some point, holding a piece in each hand, he asked for another ball of Play-Doh. “You can only have two pieces at a time,” I told him arbitrarily. Without pausing he looked at his hands, smashed the two lumps together, and held out a free hand.
In almost the blink of an eye, somehow, my son’s mind connected the physical rules of Play-Doh with a non-obvious, arbitrary mathematical request to get what he wanted. And he did it all without knowing exactly what he’d done.
The philosopher Bernard Lonergan described insights as a “pivot between images and concepts.” In my son’s case, insight was making a mental connection — by a mysterious “looking” back-and-forth-and-back — between an image of me squishing Play-Doh and a concept of unity. The answer to his question wasn’t evident from either, but he nevertheless arrived at it with no trouble at all.
The result was more than simple satisfaction in the moment. Now my son could manipulate Plah-Doh to comply with more and more stringent (and sometimes still arbitrary) requests by me. Three years later, we still end up with messes on the kitchen table, but my son has what Lonergan calls a “higher viewpoint” about Play-Doh. He’s figured out new “rules” about how Play-Doh works that allow him to skip over thinking about the basic mechanics of squishing and tearing to get more quickly to elaborate ways of building and manipulating and — sometimes — cleaning up.
As fascinating as this is, there’s even more at stake in such a simple act of insight. But it’s a little harder to talk about. It’s the question itself. It’s the void, or need, or desire, or something, that insight responds to. It’s what sets the standard that insight must abide by. Put another way, it’s a sense that an insight is possible without knowing just what it is. My son had first to incline that there was an insight available to him at all before he could “pivot” and make the important connection that solved his problem. It’s the same something that also told him to stop once he’d found an answer.
How did he know he had the right answer if he didn’t know he had a reasonable question?
This is where our understanding leads: not merely to useful, true answers, but to realizations about their significance that lie somewhere outside of us. Toddlers adapt it to make bigger messes. But we can adapt it to help clean them up.