We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are

Anaïs Nin? Babylonian Talmud? Immanuel Kant? G. T. W. Patrick? H. M. Tomlinson? Steven Covey? Anonymous?

ninvision16Dear Quote Investigator: Our preconceptions can dramatically alter the way we perceive the world. There is a saying attributed to the prominent writer Anaïs Nin that reflects this idea:

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

These words have also been assigned a Talmudic origin. In addition, the popular motivational author Steven Covey used this maxim. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Anaïs Nin did employ this statement in her 1961 work “Seduction of the Minotaur”. She also presented two illustrations of distinctive perceptions in passages that occurred shortly before she wrote the adage. In the first example, two characters named Lillian and Jay reacted very differently to the Seine River in France: 1

Lillian was bewildered by the enormous discrepancy which existed between Jay’s models and what he painted. Together they would walk along the same Seine river, she would see it silky grey, sinuous and glittering, he would draw it opaque with fermented mud, and a shoal of wine bottle corks and weeds caught in the stagnant edges.

In the second example, Nin described a homeless woman who slept in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the Panthéon in Paris:

…when they tried to remove her to an old woman’s home she had refused saying: “I prefer to stay here where all the great men of France are buried. They keep me company. They watch over me.”

When Nin wrote the adage she did not take credit for the notion. Instead, she pointed to a major religious text: 2

Lillian was reminded of the talmudic words: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

In 2005 an article in Newsweek magazine contained an epigraph that matched the adage under investigation. The statement was identified as an English translation of a comment from a section within the Talmud: 3

“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)

This modern citation may help to give insight into the recurrent ascriptions to the Talmud in previous decades. However, the referenced part of the Talmud was concerned with the interpretation of dreams. Another translation indicated that the original statement was within this domain of dream analysis. Thus, the Newsweek translation may be somewhat loose: 4

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts…

The maxim has a long history and close matches in English were in circulation by the 1800s as detailed below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1801 a sermon by the cleric Sydney Smith of the University of Oxford was published. It included a thematic precursor to the adage which warned about bias in decision making. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 5

It is, then, a matter of sovereign necessity, before we decide on great, and momentous questions, which affect our own happiness, and the peace of the world, to make a wise, and virtuous pause, and review, with an honest severity, those peculiarities of disposition, situation, and education, which may communicate an unfair bias to the mind, and induce us to decide, not as the truth of things is, but as we are ourselves.

In 1876 “Nicolai’s Marriage: A Picture of Danish Family Life” by Henrik Scharling was translated from Danish to English and published in London. The author included an instance of the adage and credited the words to the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant: 6

To which I responded that it was necessary, in order to understand the great and noble, to have some of those qualities one’s self; but to a Philistine, the most brilliant achievement in history would appear only a paltry, commonplace event, for, I exclaimed, concluding my attack by a quotation which no antagonist could gainsay, “It is well known, as the great thinker Kant has it: we see things not as they are, but as we are.”

QI has not yet located a version of this maxim in the writings of Kant.

In 1890 “The Popular Science Monthly” printed an article titled “The Psychology of Prejudice” by G. T. W. Patrick which included a version of the adage. A few months later the periodical “Current Literature” reprinted an excerpt with the saying: 7 8

The results may be summed up in the form of two laws:

1. We see only so much of the world as we have apperceptive organs for seeing.

2. We see things not as they are but as we are–that is, we see the world not as it is, but as molded by the individual peculiarities of our minds.

In 1891 an instructor of elocution at Harvard College published a textbook about oratory which included the following: 9

It has been well said that we do not see things as they are, but as we are ourselves. Every man looks through the eyes of his prejudices, of his preconceived notions. Hence, it is the most difficult thing in the world to broaden a man so that he will realize truth as other men see it.

In 1914 a newspaper column presenting homilies contained an instance of the expression: 10

As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. As a man sees in his heart, so he sees. Through unclean windows, lenses, senses, we see things not as they are but as we are.

In 1931 a collection of short stories by H. M. Tomlinson was published. The maxim was printed in a tale called “The Gift”: 11

Last week even the sky had a darkened light, the town was grey, and I will not say my own mood was much less critical than old Gollop’s. This was a winter visit, with the wind north-west. We see things not as they are, but as we are ourselves.

Tomlinson’s use of the expression was remembered, and in 1950 a New Jersey newspaper featured the phrase credited to Tomlinson in a short item called “Quotable Quotes”: 12

“We see things not as they are, but as we are.” — H. M. Tomlinson.

In 1961 the volume “Seduction of the Minotaur by Anaïs Nin was released, and it included an instance of the saying as noted previously.

In 1970 a columnist in “The Greensboro Record” newspaper of North Carolina stated that he saw the saying handwritten in a friend’s book: 13

Recently a friend handed me one of his books to look through. Turning to a place where there was an obvious bookmark, I found these words penciled in, “We never see anything as it is, but as we are.” Whether this was original or a quotation I don’t know.

In 1991 an edition of the famous self-help book “Think and Grow Rich” written for black Americans included an instance of the maxim: 14

To put it plainly, seeing is not believing—believing is seeing. We see things not as they are, but as we are. Our perception is shaped by our previous experiences.

The best-selling self-help volume “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey included an instance: 15

Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.

In conclusion, this saying has been used by Anaïs Nin, H. M. Tomlinson, Steven Covey, and others. However, its origin is not known, and it is not possible to provide a precise ascription. Hence, the expression should be labeled anonymous. The assignment to the Talmud does not have strong support. Perhaps future discoveries will help clarify matters.

Image Notes: Anaïs Nin portrait; attribution: Elsa Dorfman; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license; image has been cropped and resized. Multi-colored eye from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Thanks to Bob Page, Mark Hanen, Wikicitas, and Linda Leinen whose inquiries gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Daniel H. Weiss of Cambridge University for his analysis of this saying on the H-Judaic mailing list. Some citations above were located by Weiss.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 copyright, Seduction of the Minotaur by Anaïs Nin, Quote Page 124, The Swallow Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Afterword added in 1969; sixth printing in 1972) (Verified on paper in sixth printing 1972)
  2. 1961 copyright, Seduction of the Minotaur by Anaïs Nin, Quote Page 124, The Swallow Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Afterword added in 1969; sixth printing in 1972) (Verified on paper in sixth printing 1972)
  3. 2005 January 9, Newsweek, How We See Sharon—and Israel by Marc Gellman (Newsweek Web Exclusive) (Online Newsweek archive at newsweek.com; accessed January 14, 2014) link
  4. Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth, Folio 55b, Translated into English by Maurice Simon, Under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein. (Online at halakhah.com – accessed March 8, 2014) link
  5. 1801, Sermons by the Reverend Sydney Smith (Late Fellow of New College, Oxford), Second Edition, Volume 1 of 2, On the Predisposing Causes to the Reception of Republican Opinions, Start Page 102, Quote Page 103 and 104, Printed for Longman & Rees by Mundell & Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1876, Nicolai’s Marriage: A Picture of Danish Family Life by Henrik Scharling, (Translated from Danish), Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 211, Richard Bentley and Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1890 March, The Popular Science Monthly, The Psychology of Prejudice by G. T. W. Patrick (Professor of Philosophy at the State University of Iowa), Start Page 633, Quote Page 634, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1890 June, Current Literature, Random Reading–Current Thought and Opinion, (Reprint of excerpt from “The Psychology of Prejudice” by G. T. W. Patrick in “The Popular Science Monthly” of March 1890), Start Page 439, Quote Page 440, The Current Literature Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1891, The Province of Expression: A Search for Principles Underlying Adequate Methods of Developing Dramatic and Oratoric Delivery by S. S. Curry (Samuel Silas Curry) (Dean, School of Expression: Instructor of Elocution, Harvard College), Quote Page 392, Published by School of Expression, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1914 June 8, Jersey Journal, Christian Endeavor Activities, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Jersey City, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1931, Out of Soundings by H. M. Tomlinson (Henry Major Tomlinson), The Gift, Start Page 148, Quote Page 149, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1950 November 30, Trenton Evening Times, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1970 January 17, Greensboro Record, A Happening: We Only See As We Are by Dr. Joseph Garrison, Quote Page A7, Column 2, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1991, Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice by Dennis Kimbro and Napoleon Hill, Quote Page 245, Published by Fawcett Columbine, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 2004, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey, Quote Page 28, Free Press: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)