Tag Archives: William of Ockham

Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler

Albert Einstein? Louis Zukofsky? Roger Sessions? William of Ockham? Anonymous?

einsteinsessions03Dear Quote Investigator: The credibility of a quotation is increased substantially if it can be ascribed to a widely-recognized genius such as Albert Einstein. Hence a large number of spurious quotes are attributed to him. I would like to know if the following is a real Einstein quote or if it is apocryphal:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

I like this saying because it compactly articulates the principle of Occam’s razor.

Quote Investigator: The reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” published in 2010 is the most comprehensive source for reliable information about the sayings of Albert Einstein, and it states [UQUE]:

This quotation prompts the most queries; it appeared in Reader’s Digest in July 1977, with no documentation.

The earliest known appearance of the aphorism was located by poet and scholar Mark Scroggins and later independently by top-flight quotation researcher Ken Hirsch. The New York Times published an article by the composer Roger Sessions on January 8, 1950 titled “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way”, and it included a version of the saying attributed to Einstein [AERS]:

I also remember a remark of Albert Einstein, which certainly applies to music. He said, in effect, that everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler!

Since Sessions used the locution “in effect” he was signaling the possibility that he was paraphrasing Einstein and not presenting his exact words. Indeed, Einstein did express a similar idea using different words as shown by the 1933 citation given further below.

In June of 1950 the maxim appeared in the journal Poetry in a book review written by the prominent modernist poet Louis Zukofsky. The saying was credited to Einstein and placed inside quotation marks by Zukofsky [EPLZ].

There is also the other side of the coin minted by Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler” – a scientist’s defense of art and knowledge – of lightness, completeness and accuracy.

The wording used by Sessions and Zukofsky is the same, and it differs somewhat from the most common modern version of the quote. Professor Mark Scroggins who has specialist knowledge of Zukofsky believes that the poet probably acquired the aphorism by reading the article by Sessions. Zukofsky also incorporated the saying in section A-12 of his massive poem titled “A”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order starting in 1933.

Continue reading