Heldt, Isabelle

Isabelle Heldt

Isabelle Heldt responds to the question: Are some things unknowable?

Object 1: Quipu Counting System

Quipu is a counting device made of cotton strings. Quipus were founded and utilized by the quipucamayocs, an Inca tribe. Each string of cotton is attached to a primary cotton ring and has sections of knots representing a number digit. For example, the number 283 would be represented on one string with two knots located high up, eight knots in the center and three knots closer to the end[2]. Quipus were used for the monetization of tax obligations, calendrical information and military organization.

 The Quipucamayocs left no evidence behind as to how the quipu counting system worked. In 1912 Leslie Leland Locke, a professor of history of mathematics at Brooklyn university, claimed to have discovered how the quipu counting system worked and published a book on the system[3]. Locke claimed that the quipu knots located at the top of the strings represent the hundreds, the knots in the middle the tens and the knots made at the bottom represent ones. However, his interpretation of the quipu function is an assumption with no evidence. Locke claims the quipucamayocs knot sections represent numbers of different numerical values; hundreds, tens and ones. Locke’s interpretation was purely logic based rather than evidence based as suggested by the fact that he was a mathematician. The numerical value of each individual knot and the true reason as to why the dots are separated is unknowable, the separation could be according to the date of documentation.

The Quipu was invented hundreds of years prior to Locke’s existence and it is unknowable  whether the founders of the quipu were mathematicians, indicating that it is unknowable whether the Quipu is systematic. British and South American cultures are very different, thus suggesting that Leslie Locke and the Inca people had different schemas of the world. This suggests that people of different cultures interpret information differently making it unknowable whether Locke’s interpretation was correct.


Object 2: Painting called “Realignment of Resignation”

Paintings include elements of magical realism which at times get mistaken for reality. “Realignment of Resignation” is a painting by myself. The term “realignment” refers to the acknowledgement of self-inflicted consequences thus making adjustments in one’s own life to prevent a recurrence. The hole on the right wall opens up to a new dimension and acts as a symbol of liberty enabling a new destiny of opportunities. The painting attempts to depict the beauty and wisdom of recognizing personal weaknesses through the painting.

Resignation is interpreted differently to every individual of different cultures. As a person of two diverse cultures, acknowledging weakness is recognized as an act of growth and wisdom from my Zimbabwean side, but recognized as a personal weakness from my Swedish side. It is unknowable whether the viewer will interpret the artist’s message as the  viewer is unaware of the context of the painting. The extent of realism in this painting is unknowable as there is no tool to measure it. How can one know for certain that the dimension I drew is not representative of something in the real life world?

It is unknowable whether it is possible for a viewer to interpret the meaning of the painting correctly without the context as it is derived from past experiences and the viewer might not have had the same experiences. It is unknowable whether the viewer would know that the king figurine is suspended between a limbo of temptation and liberty. Resigning could be recognized as an act of wisdom and acknowledgement of loss. Although resignation is recognized as an acknowledgement of loss, the interpretation from the viewer is unknowable, can it be recognized as an act of humiliation depending on the viewer’s cultural schemas?


Object 3: “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“The Case for Reparations” is by Ta-Nehisi Coates published by The Atlantic in 2014. The article focuses on how black Americans should be paid for their suffering of past discriminatory violation. The article has a particular central focus during the early 1900s and centered around a black American named Clyde Ross. The article discusses the evolution of racism in the United States and measures it through black employment rate, minimum wage, the Federal Housing Administration neighborhood rating based on black inhabitants,  and acknowledges the suffering of black people.

The reparation money value is unknowable because there is no tool that is capable of calculating the discrimination charges. Boris Bittker, Yale law professor, calculated in the 1970s that a rough price tag for reparations was $34 billion and determined by the number of African Amiercans in the population by the difference in white and black per income in each capita4. In 2011, the Bank of America came to an agreement of $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against the entire country4. There is no tool to calculate the extent of harm done to the ancestors of African American people, therefore, discrimination charges are unknown. The proper method to make up for the discrimination faced is unknowable as there is no tool that can determine how it should be done. In order for racism to be ended, must not the reason for racist schemas and racist perceptions of individuals in society not first be understood?

The logic of things that are not socially constructed is unknowable because it is not possible to verify something with evidence if its origin is unknown. Individuals attempt to come up with evidence supporting their viewpoints and tend to let on their cultural schemas influence their perceptions, thus their interpretations of the real life world. It is unknowable whether it is even possible to determine the reparation money value as there is no logic to verify the methods of calculation to determine the value.



“Inca Quipu” Quipu, Wikipedia, 29 Oct. 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Inca_Quipu.jpg.

O’Connor, J J, and Robertson, E F. “Inca Mathematics.” Maths History, MacTutor, https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/HistTopics/Inca_mathematics/.

“Locke, L. Leland (Leslie Leland), 1875-.” Locke, L. Leland (Leslie Leland), 1875- – Social Networks and Archival Context, SNAC Cooperative, https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w67w6jv2.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Feb. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.