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What Is A Problem?

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: March 19, 2021

The word “problem” stems from the Greek word “proballein” with “pro” meaning “before” and “ballein” meaning “to throw.” In that context, “proballein” really suggests an idea of throwing something, as in throwing forth a question or throwing forth a situation. A problem, in this view, is nothing more than a question, or idea, proposed.

It is interesting to note that, “ballein” (to throw) is also the origin of “ballistic” (as in, to throw an object). It is also the origin of “metabolism” (to throw over, or bring forth change). The idea of change or the idea of movement is tied to these words, and tied to the idea of “to throw”. A problem, then, is similar in that there is some sort of action.

With that in mind, how do we get from there to the current definition where a problem implies a challenge or difficult situation?

It wasn’t until the 1400’s when problem really began to also mean “a difficulty”. In the 1500’s, a problem became connected to math problems. (Does that help to explain why problem was associated with “difficulty”? Hmm.) It wasn’t until 400 years later that “problem” began to mean some type of ongoing, possible insurmountable difficulty. Before this, a “problem” suggested putting forth a question, or riddle.

Now, the modern definition and concept of a problem softens this “throwing” or “difficulty” to focus on the act of “consideration”:

“A question to be considered, solved, or answered.” (Source)

Or, a thing to be perception as in:

“A perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo.” (Source)

Again, even in the modern definition there is this idea of some action: “to be considered” or “a gap to be perceived”.

I like all of these definitions, and personally I prefer to think of a problem as some type of combination of the ancient view and the modern view of this word. Something like:

A problem isn’t a state of being or a thing unto itself. Instead, a problem is the act of bringing forth a question about a situation for consideration. The process of consideration results in an understanding of the current and desired states of that situation.

It is also worth noting in here that the definition of “problem” doesn’t suggest a solution. At best, it suggests an understanding of the situation, not the act of resolving the problem.

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