Category Archives: Henry Thomas Buckle

The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Daniel J. Boorstin? Stephen Hawking? Henry Thomas Buckle? Anonymous?

boostin11Dear Quote Investigator: Widely accepted false beliefs can hinder progress and new discoveries. For example, the mistaken belief that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible or impractical deterred requisite financing and investigation. This thought has been expressed as follows:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking and the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin have both been credited with this statement, but I am having trouble finding good citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Stephen Hawking by 2001, but QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that he actually employed it.

The best-selling author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin was interviewed in “The Washington Post” in January 1984. He modestly referred to himself as an amateur historian because his primary background was the legal profession. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What an amateur is, is a lover of a subject. I’m a lover of facts. The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

Boorstin employed different versions of the saying over the years, but he did not assert that the underlying idea was his own. Indeed, he once ascribed a similar notion to the well-known historian Edward Gibbon, and on another occasion, he called it an aphorism. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, The 6 O’Clock Scholar: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin And His Love Affair With Books by Carol Krucoff, Start Page K1, Quote Page K8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

Eleanor Roosevelt? Charles Stewart? Henry Thomas Buckle? James H. Halsey? Hyman G. Rickover? Anonymous?

topics08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is largely used to deride people who are preoccupied with gossip:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

The words are attributed to social activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have been unable to find a solid supporting citation. Similar statements have been ascribed to philosopher Socrates and U.S. Naval engineer Hyman Rickover. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

Stewart was pleased with Buckle’s adage, but he did not let its implicit guidance dictate his conversations. He wished to avoid the tedium of monotonous dialogues:

The fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.

Buckle’s tripartite remark specified the categories: persons, things, and ideas. The questioner’s statement used the division: people, events, and ideas. So the statements did differ; indeed, the remark evolved during decades of circulation, and it was reassigned to a variety of individuals.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1901, Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart, Quote Page 33, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link