Quote Origin: The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat

Julian Huxley? H. L. Mencken? Lewis Browne? Eric Temple Bell? William James? Anonymous?

The shadow of an elusive black cat from Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: The QI website has an article tracing a quip about a problematic absurdist quest:

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.

Interestingly, there is a more elaborate joke that contrasts the searching prowess of a philosopher and a theologian. Are you familiar with this jest which has been attributed to the prominent biologist Julian Huxley and the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken? Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Julian Huxley did present the double-pronged joke in an essay published in 1939, and H. L. Mencken included an instance in his monumental 1942 compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Details for these citations are given further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before this in a 1931 book titled “Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History” by the comparative religion specialist Lewis Browne. The sharpest barb was aimed at a set of religious individuals called Gnostics:1

Someone has said that a philosopher looking for the ultimate truth is like a blind man on a dark night searching in a subterranean cave for a black cat that is not there. Those Gnostics, however, were theologians rather than philosophers, and so—they found the cat!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1933 a letter to the editor containing a reference to the joke was printed in “The Christian Century: An Undenominational Journal of Religion”. Lewis Browne was acknowledged, but the particularization to Gnostics was removed:2

The search for ultimate truth has been facetiously stated by Lewis Browne to be like the search of a blind man in a subterranean cave for a black cat that wasn’t there. The tragedy of religion has been that theologians have always been able to produce the black cat.

In 1934 the mathematician and author Eric Temple Bell asserted that the jest was “already classic on the Pacific Coast where it originated”, and he presented an instance in his book “The Search for Truth”:3

A professor of philosophy and an extremely scholarly theologian had been arguing for hours over the philosophy of science when the theologian, finding himself cornered, repeated the old simile likening a philosopher to a blind man in a pitch dark cellar looking for a black cat that isn’t there. “Yes,” said the professor, “and if the hunting philosopher happened also to be a theologian, he would find the cat.” The discussion ended abruptly.

In 1939 a collection of essays was published under the descriptive banner “I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time”. The contribution from scientist Julian Huxley was untitled, but when it was reprinted in 1941 it was called “Life Can Be Worth Living”. Huxley posited sharp limits on the knowability of the universe, and suggested that some questions were unanswerable:4 5

I believe that there are a number of questions that it is no use our asking, because they can never be answered. Nothing but waste, worry, or unhappiness is caused by trying to solve insoluble problems. Yet some people seem determined to try. I recall the story of the philosopher and the theologian. The two were engaged in disputation and the theologian used the old quip about a philosopher resembling a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat—which wasn’t there. “That may be,” said the philosopher: “but a theologian would have found it.”

Also in 1939 the economist Frank H. Knight writing in the “American Journal of Sociology” stated that the joke was well-known:6

The theologian started it by giving the definition (which, I believe, comes from F. H. Bradley—or was popularized by him) of a metaphysician as “a blind man hunting in a completely dark cellar for a black cat that isn’t there.” To this the metaphysician responded that the only difference between himself and the theologian is that under exactly the same conditions the latter always produces the cat.

In 1942 the acerbic commentator H. L. Mencken published a prodigious collection of quotations that included a concise unattributed version of the gibe:7

A blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat which isn’t there — and finding it.
Author unidentified

Also in 1942 a book reviewer in the “Cornell Law Quarterly” extended the humorous passage by contrasting three professions: philosopher, theologian, and lawyer. This citation was listed in “The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations” and “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”:8 9

A philosopher is a blind man in a dark cellar at midnight looking for a black cat that isn’t there. He is distinguished from a theologian, in that the theologian finds the cat. He is also distinguished from a lawyer, who smuggles in a cat in his overcoat pocket, and emerges to produce it in triumph.
William L. Prosser, Book Review, 27 Cornell Law Quarterly 292, 294 (1942)

In 1980 “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations” linked an instance of the joke to the famous psychologist and philosopher William James:10

[James] was being teased by a theological colleague who said to him: ‘A philosopher is like a blind man in a dark cellar, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.’ Yes,’ said William James, ‘and the difference between philosophy and theology is that theology finds the cat.’ [Quoted in A. J. Ayer, On Making Philosophy Intelligible]

In conclusion, figurative language describing the pursuit of a black cat in a dark room has a long history, and it can be traced back to the 1840s. The earliest evidence of a joke featuring a philosopher and a theologian appeared considerably more recently.

The religion writer Lewis Browne employed the punchline “they found the cat” in 1931, and Eric Temple Bell stated “he would find the cat” in 1934. Julian Huxley relayed the joke by 1939, and H. L. Mencken reported the jest in 1942.

In 1911 a posthumous book by William James employed a simile with a blind man, a black cat, and a philosopher, but there is no substantive evidence that he used the extended quip featuring a theologian. The article presents a snapshot of current knowledge and future researchers may be able to antedate some of these citations.

Image Notes: Illustration showing the shadow of a cat from kalhh on Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to K who asked about the history of this joke. Special thanks to Barry Popik who performed excellent research on this topic.

Update History: On May 17, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1931, Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History by Lewis Browne, Quote Page 81 and 82, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩︎
  2. 1933 September 27, The Christian Century: An Undenominational Journal of Religion, Volume 50, Number 39, Section: Correspondence, Letter title: Constantine and the Church, Letter author: A. W. Shepherd of Victoria Avenue United Church, Chatham, Ontario, Start Page 1211, Quote Page 1212, Christian Century Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  3. 1934, The Search for Truth by Eric Temple Bell, Chapter 8 – Through the Tunnel, Start Page 120, Quote Page 130, The Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  4. 1939, I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, Edited by Clifton Fadiman, Julian Huxley, Start Page 127, Quote Page 128, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  5. 1970 (Copyright 1941), Man Stands Alone by Julian Huxley, Chapter 15 – Life Can Be Worth Living, Start Page 291, Quote Page 292, (Reprint of 1941 edition from Harper & Brothers New York), Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  6. 1939 March, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 44, Number 5, Theology and Education by Frank H. Knight, Start Page 649, Quote Page 653, Published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (JSTOR) link ↩︎
  7. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken, [Henry Louis Mencken], Topic: Theology, Quote Page 1189, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  8. 1993, The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, Compiled by Fred R. Shapiro, Topic: Lawyers, Entry: William L. Prosser, Quote Page 270, Column 2, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  9. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Philosophers and philosophy, Page 332, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  10. 1980, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, Edited by J. M. Cohen and M. J. Cohen, Second edition, [Reprint dated 1983], Section William James, Page 171 and 172, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎