Carl Sagan? Arthur Hays Sulzberger? Marianne Moore? E. E Cummings? William Allan Neilson? Walter Kotschnig? Samuel Butler? G. K. Chesterton? Max Radin? James Oberg? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a desirable balance between exploring novel ideas with an open mind and maintaining a healthy skepticism. The following humorous cautionary statement exemplifies the tension:
Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
I have heard this expression attributed to New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Smith College President William Allan Neilson, and astronomer Carl Sagan. Do you know who should be credited?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published close match located by QI appeared in a newspaper report in January 1940 about a speech by Walter Kotschnig given at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kotschnig worked with refugee organizations early in his career and subsequently joined the United States State Department. Boldface has been added: 1 2
Prof. Walter Kotschnig told Holyoke College students to keep their minds open—“but not so open that your brains fall out.”
He condemned the purpose of students who go to college merely to learn skill and urged his listeners to find the “real aim of education, to acquire a philosophy of life, intellectual honesty, and a constant search for truth.”
QI has also located an article published in February 1940 describing a speech delivered by Kotschnig in November 1939. This citation had the second earliest publication date for a close match; however, the date of the speech was the earliest. Details are given further below.
The same metaphor was used in 1937; however, the phrasing was condemnatory instead of cautionary. Details for this citation are given further below. The comical notion that an open mind might lead to a mind with “nothing in it at all” was suggested much earlier in 1886.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1886 Sir Edward Clarke delivered a speech in the U.K. House of Commons, and he employed the metaphor of an open mind humorously: 3
But what did that speech amount to? It came to this ingenuous confession of an “open mind.” The mind was indeed so open that it had nothing in it at all.
In 1908 a periodical called “The New Quarterly” published excerpts from “The Note-Books of Samuel Butler”. The novelist Butler had achieved fame with “Erewhon” which described a utopia with satirical elements. His notebooks included aphorisms and miscellaneous short passages. The following excerpt displayed a strong thematic match to the saying, but Butler did not use the word “brain”: 4
Cursed is he that does not know when to shut his mind. An open mind is all very well in its way, but it ought not to be so open that there is no keeping anything in or out of it. It should be capable of shutting its doors sometimes, or it may be found a little draughty.
The saying has often been attributed to the notable writer G. K. Chesterton. But QI believes that this faulty ascription was based on misremembering the words of Chesterton. A 1909 collection of his writings included the following thematically related critical remark: 5
For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid. I was doing it at the moment. And as I truly pointed out, it would look uncommonly silly if I went on opening my mouth infinitely, for ever and ever.
In 1922 a letter written to an Omaha, Nebraska newspaper jokingly elaborated on the open mind figure of speech: 6
One writer in the “Public Pulse” wrote that we should examine Spiritism with an open mind. I agree with him. It should be examined with a very open mind. A mind so open that you can drive a four-mule team in and never touch the sides, as it were.
In 1936 Chesterton revisited this theme in his autobiography while commenting on H. G. Wells. In the following excerpt Chesterton’s word choice was closer to the common modern expression. He used the phrase “opening the mind” instead of “intellect”, but his remark was still quite distinct from saying under investigation: 7
But I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.
In 1937 an article by Professor Max Radin of the University of California in “The Yale Law Journal” mentioned that the metaphor was used rhetorically in harsh criticism: 8
Practical gentlemen hate uncertainty, balancing of probabilities, skepticism or approximation. They have a number of bitterly satirical comments on persons whose minds are so open that their brains fall out. They are bent on getting to a conclusion.
In January 1940 Walter Kotschnig used the expression under investigation while addressing an academic audience as noted previously, and this was the earliest published close match found by QI: 9
Prof. Walter Kotschnig told Holyoke College students to keep their minds open—”but not so open that your brains fall out.”
In February 1940 an alumnae publication of Smith College reported on a set of speeches given in the campus chapel including one delivered by Walter Kotschnig in which he used the open mind expression: 10
Let us keep our minds open by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong, even if there are statesmen who hide their designs under the cloak of high-sounding phrases.
The date of the address excerpted above was not specified though it was called an “Armistice Day address”. In 1939 Armistice Day was held on November 11. The papers of Walter Kotschnig indicated that he delivered a speech at Smith on November 8, 1939 titled “Do we want peace?” 11 This was the “Armistice Day address” that contained the saying. The publication date of the “The Smith Alumnae Quarterly” was February 1940, but the speech described was delivered in November 1939; hence, based on current evidence the earliest close match to the modern saying was spoken during Kotschnig’s speech.
Researcher Tim Farley at Skeptic.com contacted the librarians at the archive of Kotschnig’s papers held by the State University of New York at Albany to learn more about the speech. He was sent a scan of the handwritten draft of the address composed by Kotschnig. Farley’s thorough and intriguing article on the topic included an image from the draft which suggested that Kotschnig considered including an attribution for the saying but decided to omit the phrase with the ascription. The handwritten scrawl was crossed out and difficult to decipher. 12
In December 1942 an author in the “Association of American Colleges Bulletin” attributed the saying to an unnamed colleague: 13
Perhaps the time has come for us to be less “liberal”; certainly it is high time that we put aside any such vague and ill-defined meaning of the term. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out!” Surely we must have learned that there are values for which men are willing to fight and die.
In January 1944 a columnist in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio reported that the saying was in circulation at Barnard College: 14
Speaking of Play House folks, Amy Douglass reports that her daughter has written her from Barnard College that one of the professors told his class: “Be open-minded, but not so much so that your brains fall out.”
In 1951 a teacher writing in the journal “Understanding the Child” attributed the saying to the former college president William Allan Neilson: 15
Dr. Neilson, former president of Smith College, once said to a graduating class, “Go out and face your new job with an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Viewpoints must not be so fixed that there is no possible chance to investigate new and sometimes better ideas. We must be ready to receive the new ideas of our new world.
In 1953 Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher of the “New York Times”, used the expression, but he ascribed the words to Neilson: 16
I believe with the late President Neilson of Smith that it’s wise to “keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
In 1954 Sulzberger employed the saying again, but this time he did not provide an ascription: 17
One of my favorite quotes (which I took to myself so long ago I now no longer give credit to its originator) is that I believe in an open mind, but not so open that my brains fall out.
In the spring of 1958 the well-known poet E. E. Cummings visited the school of fourteen-year-old Susan Cheever to give a poetry reading. In 2014 Cheever published a biography of Cummings, and she recounted a remark made by him during the 1958 visit. Cummings attributed an instance of the saying to his friend Marianne Moore who was a prominent Modernist poet: 18
Cummings reminded me of his friend Marianne Moore’s admonition: you mustn’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
In 1968 an article in “The Library Quarterly” used the metaphor acerbically: 19
Naive over-enthusiasm and unreasonable pessimism are the two extremes. The person at one extreme rusts in peace, and the other often becomes unhinged in his frenetic haste to try something new. The one wears his eyebrows permanently lifted and keeps his forehead in a state of perpetual surprise. The other is so open-minded that his brains fall out.
In 1979 the volume “1,001 Logical Laws” included a version of the saying with “broadminded” substituted for “open-minded”. The adage was labeled one of “Levinson’s Observations”: 20
Don’t be so broadminded that your brains fall out.
In 1996 the astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan included the saying in his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”; however, he ascribed the words to space expert and historian James Oberg: 21
Keeping an open mind is a virtue—but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.
The adage was sufficiently widespread that the important 2012 reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press included a listing for a version of it: 22
If you’re too open-minded, your brains will fall out.
In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Walter Kotschnig with the saying because his speeches in 1939 and 1940 employed a close match. Certainly, he was a locus for its popularization. Yet, the 1937 citation indicated that the trope was already in circulation. Other prominent figures such as Arthur Hays Sulzberger and Carl Sagan used the expression but disclaimed credit.
Image Notes: Brain graphic from OpenClips on Pixabay. New York Times front page from 1914 via Wikimedia Commons.
Update History: On April 29, 2014 the 1936 citation to “The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton” was added. Update History: On October 23, 2014 the likely date of Walter Kotschnig’s speech was added to the article. On May 21, 2015 a paragraph about Kotschnig’s handwritten draft was added together with a link to Farley’s article. In addition, the 1908 Samuel Butler citation was added.
(Special thanks to Stevie Godson whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to the librarians at Smith College in Massachusetts who helped to verify the February 1940 “The Smith Alumnae Quarterly” citation. Thanks also to faktoider.nu for valuable research. Many thanks to Tim Farley who determined the likely date of the Kotschnig’s speech thanks to data from the M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives at the University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York. Farley also obtained scans of the important draft of the speech, and he located the valuable Samuel Butler citation.)
- 1940 January 27, Blytheville Courier News, Professor Tells Students to Open Minds to Truth, Quote Page 2, Column 2 and 3, Blytheville, Arkansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1940 February 1, The Canton Repository (Repository), “Open Mind to Truth, Holyoke Class Told” Quote Page 12, Column 8, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1886 May 13, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, “Orders of the Day: Second Reading (Adjourned Debate)”, Speaking: Sir Edward Clarke (Plymouth), HC Deb, Volume 305, cc912-1023. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on April 12 2014) link ↩
- 1908 October, The New Quarterly, Edited by Desmond MacCarthy, Volume 1, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler: Part 4, (By Permission of his Literary Executor), Start Page 612, Quote Page 631, Published by J. M. Dent & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1910 (Copyright 1909), Tremendous Trifles by G. K. Chesterton, The Extraordinary Cabman, Start Page 33, Quote Page 34 and 35, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (1910 edition is a reprint of October 1909 edition) (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1922 June 8, Omaha World Herald, Section: Letter to the Editor, The Public Pulse: Spiritism, (Letter from Harry M. Marquis, Bridgeport, Nebraska), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1936, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton by G. K. Chesterton (Gilbert Keith Chesterton), Quote Page 228 and 229, Published by Sheed & Ward, New York. (Verified on paper in fourth printing November 1936) ↩
- 1937 May, The Yale Law Journal, Volume 46, Number 7, On Legal Scholarship by Max Radin, Start Page 1124, Quote Page 1133, Published by The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1940 January 27, Blytheville Courier News, Professor Tells Students to Open Minds to Truth, Quote Page 2, Column 2 and 3, Blytheville, Arkansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1940 February, The Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Volumes 31, Number 2, Chapel and Assembly Notes, Start Page 151, Quote Page 153, Published by the Alumnae Association of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans; thanks to Neilson Library of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts) ↩
- Online Library Collection: M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, Academic Library: University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York, Papers: Walter Maria Kotschnig Papers 1923-1984, Description of Archive Section: Series 4: Manuscripts of Speeches and Lectures Delivered by Walter M. Kotschnig, 1933-1976 and undated, Box 11, Information online: The online document lists speech titles and dates, but it does not provide the full text of speeches. See link. (Accessed library.albany.edu on October 23, 2014) link ↩
- Weblog: INSIGHT at Skeptic.com, Article title: A Skeptical Maxim (May) Turn 75 This Week, Article author: Tim Farley, Date on website: November 4, 2014, Weblog description: “INSIGHT at Skeptic.com brings together a variety of accomplished voices for a broad-ranging but focussed discussion of science and skepticism”. (Accessed skeptic.com on May 21, 2015) link ↩
- 1942 December, Association of American Colleges Bulletin, Volume 28, Number 4, “Learning, Light and Liberty” by Marjorie Hope Nicolson (Professor of English, Columbia University), Start Page 511, Quote Page 516, Published by the Association of American Colleges, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1944 January 24, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Main Street Meditations by Eleanor Clarage, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1951 June, Understanding the Child, Volume 20, Number 3, “Comics, Movies, Radio, Television—and the Nine to Twelve Year Olds” by Rowena Shoemaker, (Introductory statement before the afternoon workshop on “Dramatic Play Through Mass Media,” annual conference of the Play Schools Association, New York City, April 14, 1951), Start Page 82, Quote Page 82, Column 2, Published by the National Association for Mental Health, Inc., Editorial Office: Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 February 15, New York Times, “Have We the Courage to Be Free?” by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Quote Page SM12, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1954 December 12, New York Times, The Bases of an Honorable Peace by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Start Page SM13, Quote Page SM62, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2014, E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, Section: Preface: A Visit to the Masters School, Page unnumbered, (Page 4 of preface in Google Books Preview), Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1968 January, The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Volume 38, Number 1, Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Conference of the Graduate Library School, Held July 31 to August 2, 1967: The Public Library in the Urban Setting, “Poverty, Prejudice, and the Public Library” by Ewald B. Nyquist, Start Page 78, Quote Page 89, Published by The University of Chicago Press. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 130, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1997 (Copyright 1996), The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, Quote Page 187, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside for 1997, Ballantine Books paperback edition) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 26, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩