Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!
Did Einstein really say that?
Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”
This book contains the earliest version of the quotation that QI has located. It occurs in a chapter called “Hunger Instinct” [EIN1]:
Furthermore, this impatient, greedy attitude is responsible more than anything else for the excessive stupidity we find in the world. Just as such people have no patience to chew up real food, so they do not take sufficient time to “chew up” mental food.
As modern times promote hasty eating to a large extent, it is not surprising to learn that a great astronomer said: “Two things are infinite, as far as we know – the universe and human stupidity.” To-day we know that this statement is not quite correct. Einstein has proved that the universe is limited.
The quote is attributed to “a great astronomer.” The theories of Einstein did have important astronomical implications, but it is odd to label him an astronomer. Also, the subsequent comment by Perls depicts Einstein’s results disagreeing with the quotation. However, it is conceivable that Perls is referring to Einstein. On page 86 of the book Perls discusses astronomy and credits Einstein with advances in the field [EIN1]:
Freud has shifted the orientation of our personal existence from the periphery of consciousness to the Unconscious, just as Galileo dethroned the Earth from the centre of the Universe. And just as astronomy—having to acknowledge ever more “fixed points” and systems as merely relatively “absolute”—had previously taken its stand on the conception of the ether, so Freud created his libido-theory. …
An observation of Leverrier gave Einstein the basis for exploding the phantasy of the ether.
The first citation is arguably ambiguous or misleading. However, in later books Perls unambiguously attributes the saying to Einstein. Two books were published by Perls in 1969, and the following excerpt is from “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”. Note that Perls has simplified the original quote by deleting the phrase “as far as we know” [EIN2]:
As Albert Einstein once said to me: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” But what is much more widespread than the actual stupidity is the playing stupid, turning off your ear, not listening, not seeing.
Also in 1969 Perls published “In and Out the Garbage Pail” which is labeled a “novel autobiography” in an advertising blurb in “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”. The quotation presented in this work is a new extended version. The tagline included at the end brings this statement closer to the one that cartoonist Bill Griffith uses in the Zippy comic [EIN3]:
I spent one afternoon with Albert Einstein: unpretentiousness, warmth, some false political predictions. I soon lost my self-consciousness, a rare treat for me at that time. I still love to quote a statement of his: “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.”
In conclusion, this quotation has evolved over time in the books of Frederick S. Perls. A sub-phrase was deleted and a sub-phrase was added. Also, the initial attribution in 1947 is not very clear. The accuracy of the saying apparently depends on the mutable memory of Perls.
(This question was inspired by a posting on the ADS list from linguist Arnold Zwicky.)
[EIN1] 1947, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method by Frederick S. Perls, Page 111, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified on paper in 1947 London edition. An earlier edition was published in 1942 in Durban, South Africa; QI has not checked the 1942 edition.) link
[EIN2] 1969, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Frederick S. Perls, Page 33, Real People Press, Lafayette, California. (Verified on paper in 1969 edition) link
[EIN3] 1969, In and Out the Garbage Pail by Frederick S. Perls, Page 52 (Pages are not numbered in this 1969 edition. The number 52 was obtained manually counting), Real People Press, Lafayette, California. (Verified on paper in 1969 edition)