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.
An 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: 1
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: 2
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. 3
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: 4
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.
- 1915, The Cheerful Blackguard by Roger Pocock, Quote Page 335, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1995, Out of My Later Years by Albert Einstein, Chapter 2: Self-Portrait (Essay dated 1936), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Citadel Press Book: Carol Publishing Group. New York. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩
- 1950 May 27, New York Times, Books of the Times, (Review of Albert Einstein’s essay collection “Out of My Later Years”), by Charles Poore, Quote Page 28, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1954, Review of the United Nations Charter, Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Eighty-third Congress, second session, Proposals to amend or otherwise modify existing international peace and security organizations, including the United Nations, Part 6, (Hearings held June 19, 1954, prepared statement by Pierce Butler), Start Page 813, Quote Page 816, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link ↩