Maturana & Varela on Knowledge & Cabbages

What cabbages do you insist upon carrying with you?

Perhaps this question will make more sense if you read a Sufi story told by Maturana & Varela:

A story is told of an island somewhere and its inhabitants. The people longed to move to another land where they could have a healthier and better life. The problem was that the practical arts of swimming and sailing had never been developed – or may have been lost long before. For that reason, there were some people who simply refused to think of alternatives to life on the island, whereas others intended to seek a solution to thier problems locally, without any thought of crossing the waters. From time to time, some islanders reinvented the arts of swimming and sailing. Also from time to time a student would come up to them, and the following exchange would take place:

“I want to swin to another land.”

“for that you have to learn how to swim. Are you ready to learn?”

“Yes, but I want to take with me my ton of cabbages.”

“What cabbages?”

“The food I’ll need on the other side or wherever it is.”

“But what if there’s food on the other side?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not sure. I have to bring my cabbages with me.”

“But you won’t be able to swim with a ton of cabbages. It’s too much weight.”

“Then I can’t learn how to swim. you call my cabbages weight. I call them my basic food.”

“Suppose this were an allegory and, instead of talking about cabbages we talked about fixed ideas, presuppositions, or certainties?”

“Hummm… I’m going to bring my cabbages to someone who understands my needs.”

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. [p. 249-250]

Shah, I. (1971). The Sufis. New York: Anchor Books. [p. 2-15]

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