Playing card epistemology

I submit that we have a tendency to downplay it when people say that they “learned a lot” if they can’t articulate what they learned.

But I had a very tangible experience with learning recently and I realized that I had learned a lot that I definitely could not put into words. And yet! I am able to use the knowledge I have gleaned in an easily demonstrable way.

For anyone reading this, I submit, I know how to do a thing that I virtually guarantee you can’t. You can’t do it even if I showed you.

Further, It’s plainly evident that I have more to learn, but words aren’t going to have anything to do with that either.

This is all a round about way of saying that I have been futzing about with playing card and it gave me an insight into epistmology. I have been learning tricks with cards, not sleight-of-hand tricks though. I have been learning what are called card flourishes. Card flourishes are moves with cards that are meant to look both impressive and easily done.

Here’s a video about probably three of the most basic card flourishes, starting with the one everyone starts with, the Charlier cut:

As I write this, I can do the Charlier cut nearly as easily as I can shuffle a deck of cards. I lose a little of the smoothness this guy has at the end but I’ve always been rough around the edges of everything. And he has very big hands.

The Charlier cut is pretty easy to describe in words. I won’t do it here because it would make this post unnecessarily long and dull, but you could describe it in words. Its basic moves are simple.

And yet it took me at least a month to learn to do this cut (I am probably slower than most). When I first started trying , it seemed impossible.

And these cuts only get harder from there. At this point, I only really know how to do three moves. The charlier, the spring and the spin cut. Each one took a little longer than the last.

A lot of times when people talk about “learning” to do something physical (like, say, a yoga pose) I often feel that learning is a poor description. What they really need to do is get stronger in some very specific way. It’s not learning. They need to get their body to add actual matter to itself in the right places.

But that’s not right with the Charlier cut. If you have all your fingers and hands that aren’t too tiny, you can do this cut. There’s no strength to it. The charlier is about coordination.

It takes 15 minutes to learn how to do the charlier and weeks to actually be able to do it (your mileage may vary). Your body has to learn a lot of very particular lessons about how to manage the cards through this little shuffle. There’s a good chance those lessons aren’t really transferrable. They are specific lessons about the size of your hands and the stickiness of your fingers and the particular way you kind of let things go (letting go is a big part of these tricks).

There’s all sorts of embodied lessons you pick up while practicing that can’t be put into words.

And yet eventually you can do the cut when you couldn’t do it before. You have new knowledge.

This is a debatable point, but I think it’s right. I think most knowledge, especially the most immediately useful knowledge, cannot be expressed with language. This knowledge is embodied or instinctive or psychic or subconscious.

Will language ever get so good that we can transfer these tiny, basic lessons?

On some level, that’s the belief expressed in The Matrix when Neo looks up at Morpheus and says, “I know Kung Fu."

So far though we don’t have any evidence that that is how language works, though. The fine nuances of so many important life lessons appear to be ones we must learn ourselves, with our hurt bodies and broken hearts.

To me, this raises an important epistemological point: any epistemology that assumes all can be known should be suspect, particular if by all it really means all. Perhaps there is some set of generalized insights that can one day apply to everyone, but when you start to get into specific cases — such as the specific way a deck splits into two packs, one falls into my palm and then the other gets manipulated beneath it — so far those lessons are outside the scope for words.

They remain beyond words, in fact, even once the lessons have been learned.