Research Is to See What Everybody Else Has Seen and Think What Nobody Has Thought

Arthur Schopenhauer? Albert Szent-Györgyi? Erwin Schrödinger? Anonymous?

duck08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a brilliant remark about scientific, artistic, and intellectual progress. Here are four versions:

Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody has thought.

Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no one else has thought.

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.

The task is, not so much to see what no one has seen yet; but to think what nobody has thought yet, about what everybody sees.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger, and the Nobel-Prize-winning physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1851 Arthur Schopenhauer published a two volume work written in German titled “Parerga und Paralipomena” which contained a collection of long essays together with a series of short numbered passages. The piece numbered 76 included the following. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Daher ist die Aufgabe nicht sowohl zu sehen was noch keiner gesehen hat, als bei Dem was Jeder sieht, zu denken was noch Keiner gedacht hat. Darum auch gehört so sehr viel mehr dazu, ein Philosoph als ein Physiker zu seyn.

Here are two possible translations into English:

1) So the problem is not so much to see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought concerning that which everybody sees. Also for this reason, it takes so very much more to be a philosopher than a physicist.

2) Therefore the problem is not so much, to see what nobody has yet seen, but rather to think concerning that which everybody sees, what nobody has yet thought. For this reason, it also takes very much more to be a philosopher than a physicist.

Albert Szent-Györgyi printed a concise instance of this saying in his 1957 book “Bioenergetics”; however, he placed the statement between quotation marks which signaled that he had not originated the expression. A detailed citation is given further below. The attribution to Erwin Schrödinger appears to be spurious.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1934 “Phytography as a Fine Art” by the botanist Jan Willem Moll was published posthumously. The volume referred to Schopenhauer and included an English translation of the quotation under examination: 2

In Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena, there occurs a curious passage, in which we find clearly expressed the essential character of the method of pen-portraits. He says: to the discovery of the most important truths the observation of the rare and hidden phenomena, only to be produced by experiments, does not lead; but rather the observation of the openly displayed phenomena, accessible to everybody. Therefore the problem is not so much, to see what nobody has yet seen, but rather to think concerning that which everybody sees, what nobody has yet thought.

In 1957 the scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi released a book called “Bioenergetics” which contained a part titled “Biological Structures and Functions”. The following statement without attribution was employed as an epigraph for this part: 3

“Research is to see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought.”

In 1958 the epigraph in Szent-Györgyi’s book was ascribed directly to him in a Missouri newspaper. The statement was slightly modified with the addition of the word “else”. In later decades the ascription to Szent-Györgyi became common: 4

Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prize winner: Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody has thought.

The linkage to Schopenhauer was not forgotten. In 1962 a paper in the journal “Current Anthropology” was supplemented with a commentary section in which John Cassel of the University of North Carolina wrote a comment that referenced the words of Schopenhauer: 5

To a certain extent we may be in a similar position to the science of genetics before Mendel or to bacteriology before Pasteur. If this is the case, we can agree with Schopenhauer when he says, “Thus, the task is, not so much to see what no one has seen yet; but to think what nobody has thought yet, about what everybody sees.”

In 1968 an instance of the saying was included in the compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes” by the collector Evan Esar: 6

Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.
– Albert Szent-Györgyi

In 1974 a translation by E. F. J. Payne of Schopenhauer’s “Parerga and Paralipomena” was published. The book was reissued by Oxford University Press in 2000. The key passage of section 76 of the second volume was rendered as follows: 7

Therefore the problem is not so much that of seeing what no one has yet seen, but rather of thinking in the case of something seen by everyone that which no one has yet thought. For this reason, it also takes very much more to be a philosopher than a physicist.

In January 1984 the notable science fiction writer Alfred Bester wrote a letter to the comics magazine “Heavy Metal”, and he attributed an instance of the saying with the word “discovery” to an unnamed biologist: 8

I quote a great biologist who was asked what discovery was. He said, “Discovery is seeing what everyone else sees but thinking what no one else has thought.”

In Spring 1984 a well-known science writer named Lewis Thomas penned an article for the journal “Foreign Affairs”, and he credited the remark to “Albert Szent-Georgi” which is an alternate spelling of “Albert Szent-Györgyi”: 9

Albert Szent-Georgi once remarked: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

In 2008 the third edition of “Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists” was released and the reference included an entry for the well-known physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The entry began with a quotation which the reference attributed to Schrödinger together with a citation: 10

Thus the task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.
—Quoted by L. Bertlanffy in Problems of Life (1952).

Unfortunately, there was a problem with the above citation. The author of “Problems of Life” was Ludwig von Bertalanffy and not “Bertlanffy”. In addition, Bertalanffy’s book ascribed the quotation to Schopenhauer and not to Schrödinger. The two names Schopenhauer and Schrödinger are close to one another lexicographically and that may have facilitated an error.

In 2009 an article on the website Lifehack included an instance of the saying with the word “genius”: 11

Albert Szent-Gyorgy, who discovered Vitamin C, said, ‘Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no-one else has thought.’

In conclusion, Arthur Schopenhauer crafted the earliest version of this saying and placed it in “Parerga und Paralipomena” in 1851. The citations in 1934 and 1974 presented two different translations of Schopenhauer’s words. Albert Szent-Györgyi expressed the thought concisely in his 1957 work “Bioenergetics”, but he enclosed the expression in quotation marks to indicate he was not the coiner.

Image Notes: Portrait of Albert Szent-Györgyi when he was a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. The image which can be seen as a duck or a rabbit appeared in an 1899 issue of “Popular Science Monthly”. Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer circa 1815 by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl. The three images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to J. C. Smith whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Amy West who provided the first of the two translations of Schopenhauer’s statement given above. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1851, Title: Parerga und Paralipomena: Kleine Philosophische Schriften, Author: Arthur Schopenhauer, Volume 2, Section: 76, Quote Page 93, Publisher: A. W. Hayn, Berlin. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1934, Phytography as a Fine Art by J. W. Moll (Jan Willem Moll), Foreword by J. C. Schoute (Johannes Cornelis Schoute), Quote Page 13 and 14, Publisher by E.J. Brill, Leyden (Leiden), The Netherlands. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1957, Bioenergetics by Albert Szent Györgyi, (Epigraph for Part II: Biological Structures and Functions), Quote Page 57, Published by Academic Press, New York. (Internet Archive Full View) link
  4. 1958 December 29, The Daily Standard, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 14, Column 4, Sikeston, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1962 April, Current Anthropology, Volume 3, Number 2, Health and Human Behavior: Areas of Interest Common to the Social and Medical Sciences by Steven Polgar, Section: Comments, (Comment by John Cassel of Chapel Hill, North Carolina), Start Page 159, Quote Page 181, Column 2, Published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Research, Quote Page 676, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2000 reissue (First published in 1974), Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2, Arthur Schopenhauer, Translator: E. F. J. Payne, Passage Number 76, Quote Page 110, Reissue published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Preview)
  8. 1984 January, Heavy Metal, Volume 7, Number 10, Chain Mail (Letters Section), (Letter from Alfred Bester of Bucks County, PA), Quote Page 6, Published by HM Communications, New York: Subsidiary of National Lampoon, Inc. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1984 Spring, Foreign Affairs, Volume 62, Number 4, Scientific Frontiers and National Frontiers: A Look Ahead by Lewis Thomas, Start Page 966, Quote Page 966, Published by Council on Foreign Relations. (JSTOR) link
  10. 2008, Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists, Edited by John Daintith, Third Edition, Entry: Erwin Schrödinger, Quote Page 680, Published by CRC Press: A Taylor & Francis Book, Boca Raton, Florida. (Google Books Preview)
  11. Website: Lifehack, Article title: How to Think What Nobody Else Thinks, Author: Paul Sloane, Date on website: March 3, 2009 (Date from web.archive.org snapshot on March 5, 2009), Website description: “Lifehack is your source for tips to help improve all aspects of your life”. (Accessed lifehack.org on July 4, 2015) link