The Man Who Tries Methods, Ignoring Principles, Is Sure to Have Trouble

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Harrison Emmerson? Harrington Emerson? Anonymous?

emerson12Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to attempt to solve a problem by clumsily trying a variety of methods, but it is better to select an appropriate technique based on principled understanding. The following statement has been attributed to the famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Oddly, I have not found any instances of this expression in the 1800s. Yet, Emerson died in 1882. Would you please determine the origin of this statement?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. QI believes the passage evolved from statements made by Harrington Emerson who was a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early decades of the 1900s.

The misattribution occurred because of the shared last name of “Emerson”. A version of the quotation was labeled with the single name “Emerson”, and some readers assumed that the creator was Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of Harrington Emerson. Indeed, the fame of the transcendentalist thinker has long eclipsed that of the efficiency engineer, and the error has been propagated via numerous periodicals and books over the decades.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the July 1911 issue of a trade journal called “The Clothier and Furnisher” which reported on the Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers. A speaker at the gathering was described as “one of the most celebrated efficiency engineers in the world”, and his words were recounted as follows. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Curiously, the name given for the speaker was “Harrison Emmerson”. However, QI believes that the trade journal made a small mistake, and the speaker was actually named Harrington Emerson. The identity was made clear by the content of the speech which presented a set of principles that precisely corresponded to the ones recorded in the book “The Twelve Principles of Efficiency” by Harrington Emerson. 2

The passage above did not exactly match the statement given by the questioner; however, QI believes that the modern phrasing was derived from the 1911 text via the commonplace process of imperfect transmission over time.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1917 a book aimed at people who wished to create more engaging and successful advertisements was published by Gilbert P. Farrar. The work was called “The Typography of Advertisements that Pay”, and the title page displayed the following quotation with an ascription to Harrington Emerson: 3

As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble—Harrington Emerson

In March and May 1921 the popular periodical “Collier’s: The National Weekly” printed an advertisement for a multi-volume work called “The Book of Business”. Several quotations from successful people in the business world were included in the advertisement. The quotation above was featured, but the ascription was only a single word: EMERSON. The ambiguity of this designation facilitated the reassignment of the quotation to Ralph Waldo Emerson. 4 5

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” EMERSON

In 1936 “The Hartford Courant” newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut printed an article about insurance that ended with the following sentences. This text matched the modern modified instance of the quotation given by the questioner 6

Finally, we need to be less concerned with mere method, remembering what Emerson said: “The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

In 1954 a training manual from the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare included a variant of the quotation without an ascription: 7

In the development of people it is true, moreover, that principles overshadow methods and devices. “The man who grasps principles often can successfully handle his own methods; but the man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

In 1975 members of the U.S. Congress held hearings about proposed changes to the laws of copyright. The president of an electronics firm testified, and he attributed an instance of the quotation to Ralph Waldo Emerson: 8

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

In conclusion, QI believes that the 1911 excerpt should be credited to the engineer Harrington Emerson. The passage has evolved to yield multiple variants during the past one hundred years. The linkage of the quotation to Ralph Waldo Emerson was spurious. The error was probably caused by the ambiguity of the compact label: Emerson.

Images Notes: Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson engraved and published by S.A. Schoff based on a drawing by Sam W. Rowse accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Cover of “The Twelve Principles of Efficiency” by Harrington Emerson accessed via archive.org. The cover has been cropped and retouched. Portrait of Harrington Emerson from “The American Magazine” issue dated March 1911 accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to top linguist Jesse Sheidlower, former President of the American Dialect Society, who has worked as an editor for the Oxford English Dictionary and with the Random House Reference Department. Sheidlower noted that the quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably incorrect because of the lack of matching instances in the 1800s. The text he sent closely matched the early citations in 1911, 1917, and 1921. QI responded by reformulating the question and performing this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1911 July, The Clothier and Furnisher, Volume 78, Number 6, The Convention: Fifteenth Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers, Held June 5 and 6, 1911, Start Page 67, Quote Page 86, Published by George N. Lowrey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1912 (Copyright 1911), The Twelve Principles of Efficiency by Harrington Emerson, Published by The Engineering Magazine, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1917, The Typography of Advertisements that Pay by Gilbert P. Farrar, (Epigraph on title page), D. Appleton and Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1921 March 26, Collier’s: The National Weekly, (Advertisement for “The Book of Business” from P. F. Collier & Son Company, New York), Quote Page 31, Published by P. F. Collier, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1921 May 14, Collier’s: The National Weekly, (Advertisement for “The Book of Business” from P. F. Collier & Son Company, New York), Quote Page 31, Published by P. F. Collier, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1936 November 12, The Hartford Courant, Insurance Costs Are Scrutinized: Life Insurance Sales Research Bureau Gives Results of Study; Annual Reports Heard, Quote Page 21, Column 5, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  7. 1954, Training Manual Number 6: Staff Development: The Supervisor’s Job, Department of Health Education and Welfare, Chapter 4: Some Tools for Staff Development, Quote Page 17, Published by U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1976, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Ninety-fourth Congress, First Session on H.R. 2223 Copyright Law Revision, (Hearing Held on June 5, 1975, Testimony of Donald D. Merry, President, Sicom Electronics Corporation), Start Page 474, Quote Page 475, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link