Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression 5: Each Problem contains its own Solution.

Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the universal art of expression.

Sullivan’s student complains… “You have the singular habit of assuming, when you suddenly make a compact statement, novel in character, that I am capable of digesting it at once. I am puzzling over your statement–I can’t see that a problem contains its solution; still less that it suggests it… It is not self-evident to me. My training tended the other way. And yet the suggestion excites my vivid curiosity. It sounds neat if nothing more.”

I admit the impeachment. It is likely to happen, when one has given years of thought to a particular subject, that his working idea concerning it is apt to concentrate into a statement so terse that, while self-evident to himself, it is not self-evident to others.

I have come to regard as valuable those truths only which are universal. And it is a bit surprising to note how many truths are universal or may be expanded into a universal application. [Use only universal principles.]

I don’t suppose that anyone who succeeds in solving a problem really goes out of it for the solution; and this assumption doubtless also accounts for innumerable failures. And the failures certainly are self-evident: the world is full of debris of this sort. Particularly is this characteristic of the intellectuals. The unsophisticated man is often better qualified to go straight to the core of a matter: by a process of feeling to sense its reality. [Focus on the problem itself; ignore all arbitrary things said about it.]

Now to give a very simple case: if you are given a peanut-pod and the problem is to find the peanut, you simply open the pod and there is your peanut. The conditions are extremely simple, but the truth is there: the germ of a universal truth, which, with sufficiently extended experience will formulate itself into a law. If we gradually enlarge out problem, we find its husk of conditions becoming complicated, and its contained germ of solution less and less obvious. But when we have solved our problem by confining our attention to it, we find the law holds good. And we have had further experience, we become aware that the very nature of limiting conditions suggest to us what must be the nature and the limitations of the solution. Thus a given problem takes on the character of individuality, of identity. And you become aware that your solution must partake of that identity. [The process of limiting the nature of a problem to a sufficient degree of precision leads to its solution.]

If you come across a problem which does not possess identity, you know by such token that the problem is not a problem but a figment. [Most of so called “problems” are arbitrary assertions. They cannot be solved because they are not problems. The process of limiting shows that they have no identity.]

As the problem becomes more complex it becomes necessary to know all the conditions, to have all the data, and especially to make sure as to the limitations. [Complex problems have multiple limits. Wider limits need to be figured before narrower. Limiting process is hierarchical.]


Now suppose we extend the problem to its broad human limit and pose it as a problem of the nature of civilization: What is the nature of civilization? The conditions seem enormously complicated and complex, and sternly limited by what is called human nature; the solution not only doubtful but nowhere in sight. Yet, let us but patiently stick to our law, and we finally, perhaps after many years, penetrate this vast husk of humanity and fictions, and find the germ of the solution to be individual man himself, and the fundamental nature of man within him. Having discovered one man, his spirit and his powers, we have discovered all men. Having discovered man, the problem reverses, takes on a new, a constructive aspect; an aspect and purpose born of the desire to create–[leading to creation of a truly Human Civilization based squarely on the true nature of man–unencumbered by the soul-mind-heart-body-wealth crushing institutions and practices of past civilizations based on cornucopia of fictions.]

[The text is from Kindergarten Chats, selected, condensed and edited, with additional notes added in square brackets.]

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5 Responses to Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression 5: Each Problem contains its own Solution.

  1. Catiusca says:

    this is a great post. I’m going to do my best to spread it. I acipeprate you taking the time to create this. being a father of a daughter, the baby, and three boys I say well done

  2. Shrikant Rangnekar says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    1. Like any fundamental principle, this principle does require considerable context to grasp and disciplined application to master. Sullivan’s writings provide a large range of examples of such application.

    2. You are right that a major value of the principle is that it exhorts one to confine one’s attention to the facts of reality giving rise to the problem–eschewing all arbitrary ideas. As most of the ideas in the field of humanities are arbitrary, it sweeps the mind clean of this massive historical debris enabling one to look at the problem first-hand.

    3. In addition to the above, Sullivan is arguing for a method of systematically, patiently and hierarchically limiting a problem to arrive at its solution. I am planning a post showing how “The Father of Skyscraper” solved the problem of skyscraper design using this principle–which wonderfully illustrates the power of this principle. It is based on Sullivan’s essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” which is included in the Dover edition of Kindergarten Chats.

    4. The principle is a general orientation towards issues and always applies–the complexity or straightforwardness of its application depends on the complexity or straightforwardness of problem at hand.

  3. Jack Gardner says:

    I suggest that the phrase “problems contain their solutions” is useful shorthand only after you grasp the idea it is referencing, but not very useful as an explanation. It represents a process and an important truism, meant to counter notions of improper focus or of mysticism: demons as causes, and prayer as a solution; or individual poverty is due to weather patterns or business cycles, and the solution is government planning, redistribution, and deficit spending, rather than insurance and individualism; or architecture should proceed from observing popular esthetic fads, rather than a focus on purpose and geologic conditions.

    The phrase “form follows function” is explanatory and captures the idea being referenced: identify the fundamental issues and tailor processes to the nature of the primaries involved. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Whether designing buildings or educating children, first understand the functioning and goals of those who will use it. Observe actual physical and psychological functioning, not the Bible, Quran, or Psychology Today.

    The required process is to refine one’s focus by more precisely defining problems, limiting the scope of considerations and solutions. That is, focus on the child’s needs, not society’s needs for the child – and the result will be a better functioning society. Is that Sullivan’s (and/or Rand’s) position? Always applies straightforwardly, or more of a general orientation toward issues?

    Valuable food for thought in any case.

  4. Shrikant Rangnekar says:


    The idea that a problem contains its own solution is Sullivan’s idea. Ayn Rand discovered Sullivan and his ideas during her research on The Fountainhead, directly and through the writings of Sullivan’s student, Frank Lloyd Wright. I am sure she learnt the idea through Sullivan. she paid the ultimate complement to Sullivan by adopting Sullivan’s ideas about architecture as Howard Roark’s ideas on architecture, culminating in “Form follows Function.”

  5. In the course of discussing another subject, Ayn Rand once remarked, “The solution to a problem is always contained in the problem.” That struck me as a wonderful insight and I began applying immediately to all my problems from debugging a computer program to balancing my checkbook.

    I know Ayn Rand read Kindergarten Chats, and I wonder if she got that insight from Louis Sullivan.

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