Jonathan Swift? Fisher Ames? Lyman Beecher? Jonathan Farr? Samuel Hanson Cox? Sydney Smith? Sidney Smith? Ben Goldacre?
Dear 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.
- 2010, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre, Section: Preface, Quote Page xii, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 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 ↩