Marshall McLuhan? Albert Einstein? Pierce Butler? James C. Coleman? John H. Fisher? John Culkin? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes an individual embedded in a particular culture or environment can become blind to the prevailing norms within his or her domain. I have heard a figurative expression that illustrates this predicament. Here are three versions:
We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.
I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.
The fish will be the last to discover water.
These words are often credited to the communication theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, but I have not found a good citation. Could you examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in 1966, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he attributed the words to an anonymous “someone”. He also used the expression in later speeches. Detailed citations for McLuhan are given further below.
A recent update to the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” contained a thematically germane entry for “A fish doesn’t know it is in water; a fish doesn’t see water”. The first citation for the adage was in a 1909 book titled “Every-Day Japan” which attempted to explicate the life and customs of Japan for an audience primarily in Britain and the United States. The following excerpt from the introduction was written by a Japanese Count. Emphasis added by QI:
It is said that fish do not see water, nor do Polar bears feel the cold. Native writers on subjects like those the present work deals with do not even think that anything which has been happening daily in their own immediate surroundings ever since their infancy can possibly be worthy of notice; the author of this work, on the contrary, being a foreigner, is able for this very reason to make a selection of striking facts, and, being also entirely free from local prejudice, is better able to arrive at just conclusions on the matters coming under his observation.
Another entertaining precursor was published in a 1915 novel titled “The Cheerful Blackguard”, but in this instance a fish did discover water. The discovery was a figurative analogy leading to a discussion of human behavior. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
Once upon a time there was an inventive fish, who discovered water.
Some day, perhaps an inventive man may discover love, the atmosphere our souls breathe. And other men will tell him, “How you’ve changed!”
In 1936 Albert Einstein wrote a compact three-paragraph essay titled “Self-Portrait”. It was published in English in 1950 together with a set of other essays in the volume “Out of My Later Years”. Einstein envisioned a fish that was oblivious to the surrounding water:
Of what is significant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware, and it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?
The passage above caught the attention of some book readers. For example, in 1950 Einstein’s two sentences were reprinted in the “New York Times” when “Out of My Later Years” was reviewed.
In 1954 a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing about the United Nations and invited testimony form a lawyer named Pierce Butler. His written remarks mentioned fish and the non-detection of water:
So men who have developed in a climate of thought use their customary responses when practical necessities transfer them to new regions. It has been said that men are governed by their imaginations, but it would be more accurate to say that they are governed by their lack of imagination. It wasn’t fish who discovered water.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.