The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot asked a deceptively simple question: How long is the coast of Britain? The answer depends on how you measure it. You get a much shorter distance if you fly from one end to the other than if you drive a road that follows the island's contours. The road gives a shorter answer than if you walk the edge of the coast. An inchworm that worked its way around every rock on every beach would travel yet a longer distance. As your measuring rod becomes shorter, the coastline becomes longer and there can be no truthful answer to the question: How long is the coast of Britain? But the truth of the length of Britain's coastline does not matter. What matters is its meaning, because meaning is where the action is. For example, step into this house:
The small house says it's the most they can afford. The mess of toys speaks to lives out of control. The Spartan furnishings tell the story of just making it. The clothes on the clothesline mutter working poor. The stench of garlic shouts low class.
The size of the house says financial prudence. The toys on the floor proclaim that it's a child-centered family. The openness of the living room declares that they value not things, but people. The clothes on the line smile comfort and lack of pretension. The scent of garlic invites that they know how to cook and that they eat well.
Both paragraphs describe the same facts, the same truth. The house is the same, but that is not what matters. What matters is the interpretation, and that is the important difference between the two paragraphs. In other words, as literary scholar Erich Heller warned, "Be careful how you interpret the world: It is like that." The idea that texts or facts speak for themselves--interpret me no interpretations--is weapons-grade stupidity.
So? Gadamer argued that you understand something when you can apply it to your present situation. In other words, you understand it by putting it to use. The bottom line, to stay within the accounting metaphor, is William James' concept of the cash value of a theory. The cash value of the differing interpretations of the house lies, among other places, in that one interpreta¬tion leads a salesperson to pass the house by while the other interpretation leads to the potential sale of toys, prudent investment opportunities, and good food. The concept of cash value provides a way to answer the question: How long is the coast of Britain? The way is to ask: Why do you ask? If you want to fly it, the best answer is one length. If you want to drive it, the best answer is another length. If you want to walk it, the best answer is yet another length. In short, you measure the cash value of a theory with its practical consequences, and that plays out in its meaning.
Gadamer, H. 2004. Truth and Method. Translation revised by J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Continuum.
Heller, E. 1952. The Disinherited Mind. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes.
James, W. 1978. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, Edited by J. McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mandelbrot, B. 1967. "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Sta¬tistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension." Science. Vol. 156, No. 3775. pp. 636-638.
Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington. To find out more, go to http://www.lastingcontribution.com.