You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into

Jonathan Swift? Fisher Ames? Lyman Beecher? Jonathan Farr? Samuel Hanson Cox? Sydney Smith? Sidney Smith? Ben Goldacre?

maze09Dear Quote Investigator: Jonathan Swift was a prominent literary figure who authored “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”. He has been credited with an elegant thought about the limitations of persuasion via logical argument:

You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

I have not found a convincing citation for the words above, and similar expressions have been ascribed to Sydney Smith, Fisher Ames, and many others. For example, a recent book titled “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre presented this version: 1

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1721 a slim volume titled “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality” was published. The author was Jonathan Swift, and the following salient phrase was included: 2

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired

QI conjectures that Swift’s words initiated an efflorescence of related expressions with varying ascriptions such as:

1786: Men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. (Fisher Ames)

1795: Reasoning will never make a man correct an opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1804: As they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. (Fisher Ames)

1823: How little ground there can be to hope that men may be reasoned out of their errours, when in fact they were never reasoned into them. (Lyman Beecher)

1831: What is not reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Jonathan Farr)

1833: He cannot be reasoned out of error, if he was not at first reasoned into it! (Samuel Hanson Cox)

1838: What men are not reasoned into they will not be reasoned out of.

1852: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1852: We may never reason a man out of an opinion which he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1865: You cannot reason a man out of what he never reasoned himself into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1869: What has not been reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Attributed to Sydney Smith)

1881: Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was never reasoned into him and it never can be reasoned out of him. (Attributed to Sidney Smith)

1885: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of anything he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

The evolution of the expression has continued up to modern times. QI believes that most of the statements ascribed to Jonathan Swift over the decades have been inaccurate. The correct version appeared in the key 1721 citation which was identified by top researcher Stephen Goranson.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1682 the English poet John Dryden presented a different and more optimistic notion of the powers of reason to sway an individual, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

A Man is to be cheated into Passion, but to be reason’d into Truth.

In 1721 a letter of religious advice from Jonathan Swift was published. He sharply criticized “Free Thinkers”, and he employed an instance of the expression as mentioned at the beginning of this article: 4

It is from such Seminaries as these, that the World is provided with the several Tribes and Denominations of Free Thinkers, who in my Judgment, are not to be reformed by Arguments offered to prove the Truth of the Christian Religion, because Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired: For in the Course of Things, Men always grow vicious before they become Unbelievers. . .

Swift’s letter was included in several of the compilations of his works that were published in later years. Hence, the passage above has been reprinted many times enabling a direct and indirect influence on other writers.

In 1786 U.S. Congressman Fisher Ames, an influential voice of the Federalists, wrote a version of the saying, but he disclaimed credit with the phrase “I have heard it remarked”: 5

I have heard it remarked, that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. The case, though important, is simple. Government does not subsist by making proselytes to sound reason, or by compromise and arbitration with its members; but by the power of the community compelling the obedience of individuals.

In 1795 “Memoirs of the Life, Studies, and Writings of the Right Reverend George Horne” was published, and the tome provided evidence that the linkage to Swift was not forgotten. A slightly simplified version of Swift’s words with the word “ill” removed was ascribed to him: 6

Swift assures us from his own observations, and I believe very truly, that a man was always vicious before he became an unbeliever; and that reasoning will never make a man correct an opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.

In 1804 a speech by Congressman Fisher Ames was published, and the popular orator included a variant of the saying: 7

They will not yield to argument; for, as they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. They are higher than a Chinese wall in truth’s way, and built of materials that are indestructible.

In 1823 the notable minister Lyman Beecher delivered a sermon in Worcester, Massachusetts that included an instance of the saying. The spelling “errours” was used for “errors” in the original text: 8

They are perfectly aware how little ground there can be to hope that men may be reasoned out of their errours, when in fact they were never reasoned into them, but adopted them from prejudice, passion, or policy.

In 1831 “Plain Letters on Important Subjects” by Jonathan Farr was published. The didactic volume included the following: 9

Your wife is an ignorant woman, not a scholar nor a theologian. ‘What is not reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out.’

In 1831 a book discussing Quakerism by Samuel Hanson Cox included the following unattributed instance of the saying: 10

Now, it is a known principle in the philosophy of mind, that a man can seldom be by evidence corrected from that course of which he was not by evidence convinced; he cannot be reasoned out of error, if he was not at first reasoned into it!

In 1838 a writer in “The American Journal of the Medical Sciences” expressed unhappiness with the prevalence of quackery and stated that new laws were required: 11

Quackery cannot be put down by appealing to the judgment of the mass. What men are not reasoned into they will not be reasoned out of. The people must in this instance, as in others, be preserved from themselves and from their own follies by action from without.

In June 1852 an article in an agricultural journal called “The Cultivator” ascribed an instance of the saying to Jonathan Swift; however, the phrasing differed considerably from Swift’s 1721 remark: 12

Dean Swift said with much truth, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into.” The best argument will be thrown away upon a fool.

In July 1852 a closely matching comment was ascribed to Swift in “Scientific American”. 13 Also in July, “The Water-Cure Journal” printed a closely matching statement and credited Swift. 14

In addition, in October 1852 an address was delivered at the College of Medicine and Surgery of the University of Michigan, and another version of the saying was assigned to Swift: 15

Is medical knowledge tabooed from the list by whatsoever medical man? Then we can only say to him, with Swift, “We may never reason a man out of an opinion which he was never reasoned into.”

The precise words of Swift were not forgotten. In 1853 “The Rhetoric of Conversation: Or, Bridles and Spurs for the Management of the Tongue” by George Winfred Hervey was released, and the author carefully presented an accurate quotation for Swift although he was critical of the notion it advocated: 16

Some suppose that prejudices cannot be overcome by mere direct argument. Swift observes, “reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.” This opinion of Swift is not quite conclusive. Would it be fair to argue in what seems an equivalent fashion: “Medicine cannot expel a disease that was never contracted by the use of medicine”?

In 1856 The Economist magazine presented a paraphrase without using quotation marks which was credited to Swift: 17

As Dean Swift has happily remarked, it is useless to endeavour to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.

In 1865 “The Methodist Quarterly Review” ascribed the following words to the famous creator of Lilliput and Brobdingnag: 18

As Dean Swift says: “You cannot reason a man out of what he never reasoned himself into.”

In 1869 a speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society asserted that the saying was an “apothegm of Sydney Smith”. The cleric Smith was a well-known English wit who had died more than two decades earlier in 1845. Currently, this ascription is not very well supported although it is widespread: 19

It is not for us to teach ethics, nor is it worth while to array argument against a mere fabric of emotion—remembering the apothegm of Sydney Smith, that “what has not been reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out.”

In 1872 an address by Henry W. Bellows at a meeting of the American Unitarian Association included the following concise instance: 20

Things not reasoned into men cannot be reasoned out of them.

In 1881 an article in a publication from the “American Institute of Homeopathy” employed the alternative spelling “Sidney Smith”. This version of the saying highlighted the word “prejudice’: 21

Sidney Smith is quoted as saying: “Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was never reasoned into him and it never can be reasoned out of him.”

In 1885 a religious text ascribed the following in instance to Swift: 22

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of anything he was never reasoned into. . . . Reason is a very light rider and easily shook off.—Dean Jonathan Swift.

In 1899 a trade publication called “The National Druggist” credited Swift with the following: 23

“Opinions,” says Dean Swift, “into which men were not reasoned in the first place, can not be reasoned out of them,” and never did a truer thought find happier expression.

The 1908 edition of “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations” compiled by Tryon Edwards included an entry for Swift and for Smith: 24 25

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.—Swift.

Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man.—It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out.—Sydney Smith.

In conclusion, QI suggest that Jonathan Swift should be credited with the words published in 1721. Other figures such as Fisher Ames, Lyman Beecher, and Jonathan Farr also crafted versions of this expression, but QI believes each was indebted to Swift.

Image Notes: Picture of maze at Glendurgan Garden in Cornwall from LoggaWiggler on Pixabay. Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Daniel Gilligan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who located the crucial 1721 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 2010, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre, Section: Preface, Quote Page xii, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1721, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality (Jonathan Swift), Second Edition, (Letter Dated January 9, 1720), Quote Page 27, Printed for J. Roberts at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. Year: 1682, Title: Religio laici, or, A laymans faith a poem, Author: John Dryden, Section: The Preface, Quote Page Unnumbered, Printed for Jacob Tonson, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
  4. 1721, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality (Jonathan Swift), Second Edition, (Letter Dated January 9, 1720), Quote Page 27, Printed for J. Roberts at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1804, Works of Fisher Ames, Lucius Junius Brutus, (First published in the Independent Chronicle, at Boston, October 12, 1786), Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Printed and Published by T. B. Wait & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1795, Memoirs of the Life, Studies, and Writings of the Right Reverend George Horne (Late Lord Bishop of Norwich), By William Jones (One of His Lordship’s Chaplains), Quote Page 132, Printed for G. G. and J. Robinson, F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1804, The Forum Orator, Or, the American Public Speaker Mr. Ames’s Speech in the Congress of the United States: On the expediency of passing the Laws necessary to carry into effect the British Treaty, Start Page 210, Quote Page 212, Printed by David Carlisle for Joseph Nancrede, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1824 January and February, The Christian Examiner, Volume 1, Number 1, Beecher’s Sermon at Worcester by Lyman Beecher, Title: The Faith once delivered to the Saints, Date: October 15, 1823, Location: Worcester, Massachusetts, Event: Ordination of the Rev. Loammi Ives Hoadly, to the Pastoral Office over the Calvinistic Church and Society, Start Page 48, Quote Page 76, Cummings, Hilliard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1831, Plain Letters on Important Subjects by Jonathan Farr, Letter XL, Start Page 194, Quote Page 194, Leonard C. Bowles, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1833, Quakerism Not Christianity: Or, Reasons for Renouncing the Doctrine of Friends by Samuel Hanson Cox, Quote Page 146, Printed by D. Fanshaw, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1838 August, The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Volume 22, Section: Bibliographical Notices, (Book Review by E. G. D. of “A Popular Treatise on Medical Philosophy or an Exposition of Quackery and Imposture in Medicine” by Caleb Ticknor), Start Page 435, Quote Page 441, Carey, Lea & Blanchard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1852 June, The Cultivator, Volume 9, (Filler item), Quote Page 212, Published by Luther Tucker, Albany, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1852 July 10, Scientific American, Volume 7, Number 43, Genius, Quote Page 338, Column 4, Published by Munn & Company. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1852 July, The Water-Cure Journal: Physiology, Hydropathy, and the Laws of Life, Volume 14, Number 1, Argument, Quote Page 28, Column 1, Fowlers and Wells, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1852 October, Introductory Address to the Third Session of the College of Medicine and Surgery, of the University of Michigan by J. Adams Allen (Jonathan Adams Allen), Second Edition, Quote Page 17, Published by The Class of the University of Michigan, Printed by George E. Pomeroy & Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  16. 1853, The Rhetoric of Conversation: Or, Bridles and Spurs for the Management of the Tongue by George Winfred Hervey, Chapter 6: Religious Conversations with Prejudiced Persons, Start Page 123, Quote Page 125, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  17. 1856 April 12, The Economist, Volume 14, War Prices Fallacy, Quote Page 392, Published at The Economist Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  18. 1865 January, The Methodist Quarterly Review, Volume 47, The Idea of God as a Law of Religious Development, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Published by Carlton & Porter, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  19. 1869, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Start Page 346, Quote Page 350, Column 1, David Clapp & Son, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  20. 1872, Forty-Seventh Anniversary of the American Unitarian Association with the Annual Report of the Executive Committee, Address of Rev. Henry W. Bellows of New York, Start Page 37, Quote Page 38, Published by American Unitarian Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  21. 1881, Transactions of the Thirty-Fourth Session of the American Institute of Homeopathy, Held at Brighton Beach, New York on June 14 to 17, 1881, Prejudice: The Chief Obstacle to the Scientific Investigation of Posology in Clinical Medicine by H. C. Allen, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Printed by Joseph Eichbaum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  22. 1885, The Life of Lives: Being the Records of Jesus Reviewed by a Throng of Recent Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Thinkers by Benjamin F. Burnham and Celeste S. Burnham, Second Edition, Quote Page 12, Cleaves, MacDonald & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  23. 1899 July, The National Druggist, Volumes 29, Number 7, Borax and Boric Acid Once More, Quote Page 221, Column 2, Henry R. Strong, St. Louis, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link
  24. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations, Edited by Tryon Edwards, Topic: Reason, Quote Page 468, Column 2, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  25. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations, Edited by Tryon Edwards, Topic: Prejudice, Quote Page 438, Column 2, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link