A Blind Man in a Dark Room Looking for a Black Cat That Is Not There

Charles Darwin? Lord Bowen? Confucius? E. R. Pearce? William James? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A vivid and comical metaphor has been applied to professions that require abstract and recondite reasoning abilities:

A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there.

A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.

The philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’

The first statement has been attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin while the second has been linked to the notable English judge Lord Bowen, and the third has been credited to the renowned philosopher William James. I have been unable to find solid citations. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This metaphorical framework evolved during a multi-decade period. The earliest pertinent evidence located by QI occurred in a Missouri newspaper in 1846. No professions were mentioned; instead, an elaborate scenario was described to illustrate the notion of darkness. The scene included the search for a black cat in a dark cellar. The blind black searcher was holding an extinguished candle.[ref] 1846 November 9, Democratic Banner (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Louisiana, Pike County, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

In August 1849 a London journal called “Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement” printed a short item with an acknowledgement to another magazine called “Penny Punch”. The item was titled “A Definition of Darkness”. The scenario was similar to the one above with the search occurring at midnight. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1849 August 25, Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement, Volume 7, Number 329, Random Readings: A Definition of Darkness, Quote Page 272, Column 1, Published by George Biggs, Strand, London; Printed at the Steam press of J. Gadsby, Fleet Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]


Dr. Twiggem—”Indeed, for his age, sir, he’s a wonderful child. Come now, Fred., my dear, give your papa a nice lucid definition of—of—darkness.”

Fred. (after a little thought, and with much sagacity)—“Please, sir, ‘a blind Ethiopian—in a dark cellar—at midnight—looking for a black cat.'”
—Penny Punch.

References to Lord Bowen, William James, and Charles Darwin appeared many years later. Full details are given further below.

A separate Quote Investigator article about a related quip is available under the title: “The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In January 1850 the 1849 item was reprinted across the ocean in a New York periodical called “The Gazette of the Union: Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion”. Once again “Penny Punch” was acknowledged.[ref] 1850 January 19, The Gazette of the Union: Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion, Volume 12, (Filler item), A Definition of Darkness, Quote Page 39, Column 3, Published by Crampton and Clarke, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In February 1850 a definition of darkness was printed in “Rural Repository: A Semi-Monthly Journal” of Hudson, New York. This instance included the important qualification that the cat was not actually present:[ref] 1850 February 16, Rural Repository: A Semi-Monthly Journal, Volume 26, Editor and Proprietor: William B. Stoddard, Quote Page 79, Column 3, Printed and Published by William B. Stoddard, Hudson, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In 1877 “The Popular Science Monthly” in New York used the figurative language of the quest for a black cat while discussing perception:[ref] 1877 November, The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 12, The Differences of Things by John W. Saxon, Start Page 53, Quote Page 54, Published by D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

How is it that we gain a knowledge of the external world whereby we become conscious intelligences? Simply by a perception of differences. What would follow were there no difference in color or shade? Go into a dark cellar with an extinguished candle to find a black cat that is not there.

In 1891 an unnamed book reviewer writing in the London journal “The Westminster Review” employed a version of the metaphor with a “black hat” instead of a “black cat” to describe a futile task in the legal domain:[ref] 1891 May, The Westminster Review, Volume 135, Professor Burgess’s Political Science, (Book Review of “Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law”, Volume i: Sovereignty and Liberty, Volume ii: Government by John W Burgess, Professor of History, Political Science, and International Law, Dean of the University Faculty of Political Science in Columbia College, New York; The name of the book reviewer is not listed), Start Page 541, Quote Page 544, Published by Edward Arnold, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In searching for some legally recognised sovereign power behind, or, as he would say, “back of” our omnipotent Parliament, Professor Burgess is seeking to find in a dark room the proverbial black hat, which is not there—a task which is, in the first place, very difficult, and is, in the second place, impossible.

In April 1894 shortly after the death of the prominent English judge Charles Bowen (Lord Bowen) an anecdote was printed in “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London that included the “black hat” expression. Bowen ascribed the metaphor to the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, and he used the figurative language to indicate that equity in court cases was an elusive entity:[ref] 1894 April 12, The Pall Mall Gazette, Issue 9064, Silk and Stuff, Quote Page 1, Column 2, London, England. (Gale: 19th Century British Newspapers)[/ref]

Among the many stories told of his wit or humour two perhaps stand out “I often hear,” he said once, “eminent counsel talk of an equity in the case. It always reminds me of the story that Confucius once called his followers together and asked them what was the greatest impossibility conceivable? None could answer. Then he said that it was when a blind man is searching in a dark room for a black hat which is not there.”

In May 1894 a speaker named E. R. Pearce at a conference on bimetallism used the black cat expression. Pearce believed that the pursuit of a single universal currency was futile:[ref] 1894, International Bimetallic Conference, Held May 2 and 3, 1894 in London, England, Report of Proceedings, Speaker: Mr. E. R. Pearce of Edgcumbe, Dorchester, Start Page 156, Quote Page 159, Printed by Waterlow and Sons Limited, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

. . I would refer to a quaint old saying of a divine, that the most difficult pursuit, the most hopeless pursuit, was that of a blind man in a dark room seeking for a black cat that was not there. (Loud laughter.)

In 1896 a short item in “The Law Students’ Journal” of London referred to a memoir about Lord Bowen that included an instance of the “black hat” expression. Once again the saying was linked to the notion of equity in the legal domain:[ref] 1896 July 1, The Law Students’ Journal, Edited by John Indermaur and Charles Thwaites, Volume 18, (Filler item), Quote Page 137, Column 2, Printed and Published for the Proprietors by George Barber, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In the new memoir of Lord Bowen, by Sir Henry Cunningham, a tale is told of a Chancery lawyer who bade the Court “search for the equity.” Bowen observed, “Are you not asking us to perform an operation similar to that of a blind man looking in a dark room for a black hat which is not there?”

In 1903 the words attributed to Lord Bowen continued to evolve. The London journal “The Law Times” printed an instance between quotation marks that used “black cat” instead of “black hat”:[ref] 1903 August 1, The Law Times, Occasional Notes, Quote Page 321, Column 2, Published at the Office of the Law Times, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

His mental refinements were, in fact, almost too subtle for the average mind. His Lordship, however, could never really grasp the principles of equity, and one of the best mots of this vivacious judge was his extrajudicial obiter dictum “seeking for equity is like a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat which has no existence.”

In 1906 an article in “The Fortnightly Review” of London suggested that the topic of Lord Bowen’s remark was a metaphysician:[ref] 1906 March 1, The Fortnightly Review, Mr. Balfour and the Unionist Party: A Study and a Postscript, Start Page 409, Quote Page 410, Published by Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The post-prandial plain man asked himself whether clear convictions in politics must henceforth be regarded as a sign of incipient insanity, and felt, like Lord Bowen’s metaphysician—”the blind man in the dark room looking for a black hat which is not there.”

In 1909 the influential American philosopher and psychologist William James started to write an introductory text book for students. He died in 1910 and the work was published posthumously in 1911. James mentioned the “black cat” expression in the first chapter of “Some Problems in Philosophy”:[ref] 1911, Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy by William James, Quote Page 9, Published by Longmans, Green, and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

With his obscure and uncertain speculations as to the intimate nature and causes of things, the philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’

In 1920 “The Musical Quarterly” published an article titled “Progress in Art” by the composer Henry F. Gilbert who attributed an instance of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson:[ref] 1920 April, The Musical Quarterly, Volume 6, Number 2, Progress in Art by Henry F. Gilbert, (Delivered as a lecture at Harvard University, Nov. 20, 1919), Start Page 159, Quote Page 168, Published by G. Schirmer, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

These hair-splitting lucubrations immediately remind one of the well known definition of metaphysics attributed to Emerson—”a blind man, in a dark room, chasing a black cat which isn’t there.”

In 1926 a man named B. M. Dray wrote a letter to the “Chicago Tribune” stating that the black cat remark should be credited to Lord Bowen and not William James. The newspaper printed the letter which included a version ascribed to Bowen:[ref] 1926 September 29, Chicago Tribune, Voice of the People (Letters to the Editor), Letter title: The Author of a Famous Epigram, Letter author: B. M. Dray, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

It was not William James but an Englishman, the witty Lord Bowen, who said “a metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.”

In 1940 a writer in “The American Mathematical Monthly” skeptically noted that an instance of the remark with the phrase “black hat” had been attributed to Charles Darwin:[ref] 1940 November, The American Mathematical Monthly, Volume 47, Number 9, Mathematics and the Sciences by Tomlinson Fort, Start Page 605, Quote Page 606, Published by Mathematical Association of America. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

I have heard it said that Charles Darwin gave the following. (He probably never did.) “A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there.”

In conclusion, this figurative language has been employed in a variety of ways and has been evolving for many years. By the 1840s the search for a black cat was being used in an elaborate fanciful definition of darkness. By 1850 the non-existence of the black cat was mentioned.

By 1877 the expression was being used to represent a futile or impossible task in the domain of perception. In 1891 the futile task was in the legal domain and the phrase “black hat” was employed. In 1893 the impossible task was in the self-improvement domain.

In 1894 a version of the metaphor using “black hat” was ascribed to Lord Bowen. In 1911 William James used the black cat version as a simile when discussing philosophy.

In 1920 Ralph Waldo Emerson was linked to the black cat expression, and in 1940 Charles Darwin was linked to the black hat expression. These linkages were very late, and neither was substantive.

(Thanks to K who asked about an anecdote closely related to these quotations. Special thanks to Barry Popik who performed path-breaking research on this topic.)

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