We Don’t Know Who Discovered Water, But We Know It Wasn’t a Fish

Marshall McLuhan? Albert Einstein? Clyde Kluckhohn? 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.
  • The fish will be the last to discover water.
  • I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

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”. 1 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: 2

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.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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: 3

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: 4

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. 5

In 1949 Harvard professor Clyde Kluckhohn published “Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life” which included the following: 6

Ordinarily we are unaware of the special lens through which we look at life. It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. Students who had not gone beyond the horizon of their own society could not be expected to perceive custom which was the stuff of their own thinking.

In 1954 a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing about the United Nations and invited testimony from a lawyer named Pierce Butler. His written remarks mentioned fish and the non-detection of water: 7

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.

In 1960 a psychology textbook titled “Personality Dynamics and Effective Behavior” by James C. Coleman was published. The author used an expression that matched the third example listed by the questioner; however, the attribution given was anonymous: 8

Curiously enough, the individual is usually so deeply immersed in his culture that he is scarcely aware of it as a shaping force in his life. As someone has remarked, “The fish will be the last to discover water.” People who know no other cultural patterns but their own tend to regard them as God-given and intrinsically right.

In 1966 the first edition of “A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning” by William G. Moulton was published. The foreword was written by John H. Fisher, Executive Secretary of the Modern Language Association. It was dated March 28, 1966, and Fisher employed a concise instance of the adage: 9 10

No fish ever discovered water and no monolingual speaker ever understood the unique qualities of his own language.

In April 1966 “Ramparts” magazine printed an article titled “Understanding Marshall McLuhan” by Howard Gossage. The saying appeared in the text, but it was credited to a follower of McLuhan named John Culkin and not to McLuhan himself: 11

In the ordinary course of events, we are not aware of our environment any more than a fish is aware of his. As Father John Culkin of Fordham, a leading McLuhanite, says, “We don’t know who it was discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

In November 1966 Marshall McLuhan attended a symposium called “Technology and World Trade”, and during a discussion period he employed an instance of the saying, but he specified an anonymous attribution: 12

Dr. McLuhan: … Someone said once, “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish!” We are all in this position, being surrounded by some environment or element that blinds us totally; the message of the fish theme is a very important one, and just how to get through to people that way is quite a problem.

We have from the moment of birth a fear of the new environment. We always prefer the old one.

The next day at the same symposium another speaker assigned the expression directly to McLuhan: 13

Marshall McLuhan was here yesterday. You know he talks about how we don’t see the environment we’re in. The comment he made that I think best captures this notion is, “I don’t know who discovered water but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.”

In March 1967 McLuhan delivered a speech at the University of Toronto that included the following line: 14

A wit has said we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

Also in 1967 a book by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore titled “The Medium is the Massage” was published. A complementary experimental recording was released the next year. A website about the book and the recording is located at themediumisthemassage.com. An instance of the saying was listed with an ascription to Culkin: 15

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.”
— John M. Culkin

The recording is available on YouTube and the saying above was spoken on side A at 6 minutes 4 seconds. But the words were not spoken by McLuhan; instead, the voice sounded like a cartoon character: 16

The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter released “They Became What They Beheld” in 1970, and it included an instance of the adage with an attribution to Culkin: 17

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re certain it wasn’t a fish.” John Culkin

In 1974 “The Atlantic” magazine published a profile piece titled “The Adman Who Hated Advertising: The Gospel According to Howard Gossage” by Warren Hinkle. Note that the April 1966 citation given previously was from an article written by Gossage. The author of the profile indicated that Gossage used the expression himself: 18

“…we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” That was another of Gossage’s favorite quotations, a line of absolutely Delphic ambiguity. It came from his McLuhan Period, when he was schlepping McLuhan around the country, introducing him as Mohammed to his friends ruling the media mountains.

The article in “The Atlantic” also stated the following:

The fish-didn’t-discover-water line Gossage, after his fashion, occasionally credited to McLuhan, when the great man was in need of explanation, but the more frequent quotee was Father John Culkin, then a Jesuit and a McLuhanite, now an ex-Jesuit but I suspect still a McLuhanite. Culkin may even have said that, but primary authorship was as difficult to trace in quotations favored by Gossage as the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Different versions of the saying continued to circulate. Here is an instance in an Oregon newspaper in 1976: 19

She thinks parents sometimes are like trees in a forest, or fish “which would be the last to discover water, because they are totally immersed in it.”

In conclusion, Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in speeches by 1966, but he credited “someone” or “a wit”. The underlying idea can be expressed in many ways. Albert Einstein employed a version of the idea in a 1936 essay, and Clyde Kluckhohn wrote an instance in 1949.

The adamant statement “It wasn’t fish who discovered water” was written by Pierce Butler in 1954. In 1960 James C. Coleman wrote, “The fish will be the last to discover water”, but he attributed the words to “someone”. In 1966 John Culkin was credited with a version that closely matched the first example given by the questioner: “We don’t know who it was discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

(Thanks to Brian Veit who told QI about the linkage to Clyde Kluckhohn.)

Update History: On June 27, 2016 the citations for the “The Medium is the Massage” album were added. On September 20, 2016 citations to “Proverbium” and “Every-Day Japan” were added. On February 1, 2018 the 1949 citation was added.


  1. 2016, Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, Volume 33, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs: A Supplement by Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, Start Page 85, Quote Page 96 and 97, Published by The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1909, Every-Day Japan by Arthur Lloyd, Section: Introduction by Count Hayashi (Tadasu Hayashi), Start Page xv, Quote Page xvi, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1915, The Cheerful Blackguard by Roger Pocock, Quote Page 335, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  6. 1949 Copyright, Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life by Clyde Kluckhohn (Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University), Chapter: Queer Customs, Potsherds, and Skulls, Quote Page 11, Whittlesey House: McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 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) linklink
  8. 1960, Personality Dynamics and Effective Behavior by James C. Coleman, Including Selected readings prepared by Alvin Marks, Quote Page 59, Column 2, Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1970, A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning by William G. Moulton (William Gamwell Moulton), Second Edition, (First edition was published in 1966), (Foreword by John H. Fisher, Executive Secretary, Modern Language Association; dated March 28, 1966), Start Page vii, Quote Page vii, Published by Modern Language Association of America, New York. (Verified on paper in 1970 edition)
  10. 1966-67 Winter, The Florida FL reporter: Foreign Language Journal, Edited by Alfred C Aarons, In Cooperation with the MLA FL Program, “Quote Unquote”, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Published by Florida FL reporter, North Miami Beach, Florida. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1966 April, Ramparts, Volume 4, Number 12, Understanding Marshall McLuhan by Howard Gossage, Start Page 34, Quote Page 37, Published in San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1967, Technology and World Trade: Proceedings of a Symposium, Held November 16-17, 1966, Morning Session: November 16, 1966, Questions From The Floor, (Quotation spoken by Marshall McLuhan during discussion period), Quote Page 29, Conference Sponsored by U.S. Department of Commerce and National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Bureau of Standards Miscellaneous Publication, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  13. 1967, Technology and World Trade: Proceedings of a Symposium, Held November 16-17, 1966, Morning Session: November 17, 1966, (Speaker Peter G. Peterson, President Bell & Howell Company, Chicago, Illinois), Start Page 83, Quote Page 91, Conference Sponsored by U.S. Department of Commerce and National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Bureau of Standards Miscellaneous Publication, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  14. 2005, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews: Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, (Two part Marfleet Lectureship delivered at the Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto by Marshall McLuhan on March 16 and 17, 1967), “Canada, The Borderline Case”, Start Page 105, Quote Page 106, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  15. Website: The Medium is the Massage, Article title: Quotes from the record, Date on website: Undated, Website description: “Quotes from the LP recording of The Medium is the Massage, released by Columbia Records, conceived and co-ordinated by Jerome Agel, and produced by John Simon”, (Accessed themediumisthemassage.com on June 27, 2016) link
  16. YouTube video, Title: “The Medium is the Massage Part 1 – Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore & Jerome Agel 1967”, Uploaded on Jan 31, 2010, Uploaded by: Martin Rössel, (Quotation starts at 6 minutes 4 seconds of 19 minutes 0 seconds) (This video is an audio recording with static pictures) (Accessed on youtube.com on June 27, 2016) link
  17. 1970, They Became What They Beheld by Edmund Carpenter, Page title: The Islander, (Epigraph for page), unnumbered page, Published by Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, New York, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1974 March, The Atlantic (Atlantic Monthly), Volume 233, Number 3, “The Adman Who Hated Advertising: The Gospel According to Howard Gossage” by Warren Hinkle, Start Page 67, Quote Page 69, Column 1,Published by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  19. 1976 November 25, Oregonian, Children at play are learning about life by Fran Jones, Quote Page K1, Column 5, (GNB Page 54), Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)