We Only Think When We Are Confronted With a Problem

John Dewey? William F. Russell? Helena Weatherby? Thomas A. Harris? Apocryphal?

dewey07Dear Quote Investigator: Thinking thoroughly about a topic is a difficult and painstaking task. Many people prefer quick and easy answers that can be selected with minimal thought. Yet sometimes people face obstacles that require careful cogitation. The famous philosopher and teacher John Dewey has been credited with the following remark:

We only think when we are confronted with a problem.

I have searched in several books written by Dewey and have been unable to find this statement. Was this really written or spoken by Dewey?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this quotation in John Dewey’s oeuvre.

QI conjectures that someone created a summary statement of Dewey’s position on this topic. The summary may have evolved as it was retransmitted. Next, someone placed quotation marks around the summary and attributed the words directly to Dewey. This is a known mechanism for the generation of misquotations.

In 1910 Dewey published “How We Think” which included two passages that were roughly analogous to the quotation, but in the first passage Dewey used words such as “perplexity” and “reflection”: 1

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection. Where there is no question of a problem to be solved or a difficulty to be surmounted, the course of suggestions flows on at random.

In the following passage Dewey attempted to restate a thesis in his book, but his phrasing was not concise, and he still employed words such as “perplexity”: 2

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on “general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it.

The next part of this article includes examples of individuals who have attempted to summarize Dewey’s point concisely. Selected citations appear in chronological order.

In October 1914 William F. Russell of the George Peabody College for Teachers addressed a meeting of colleges and preparatory schools. He contrasted old theories of pedagogy to the theory propounded by Dewey. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

The difference between the old theory and the new is this: the old theory believed that thinking ability was secured thru any kind of work that was hard; the new theory believes that thinking ability is secured by having problems to think about, and many of them, and that thinking is tied up with the immediately useful. We only think when we have a problem, is the purport of Dewey’s work, a problem the solution of which is worth while to us.

The boldface text contains Russell’s conception of Dewey’s main point; Russell was not quoting Dewey. Note that the first phrase in boldface partially matched the quotation under examination although it did not contain the word “confronted”.

In 1919 P. J. Zimmers who was a Superintendent of City Schools in Wisconsin published a revised edition of “Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study”. Zimmers referred to Dewey’s work by presenting a summary that was very similar to Russell’s summary: 4

We only think when we have a problem, the solution of which is worth while to us, is the purport of Dewey’s work. This theory maintains that thinking ability is secured by having problems to think about and that thinking is tied up with the immediately useful.

In 1929 “The Rotarian” published “The Women of Rotary” by Helena Weatherby which included a quotation attributed to Dewey: 5

But you will do your best thinking when the hosts are upon you; John Dewey knew what he was saying when he wrote, “We only think when we are in trouble.”

QI has not found the quotation above in Dewey’s writings. Yet, the statement was a pithy version of one of Dewey’s points. QI hypothesizes that this citation provided an example of the migration from summary remark to direct quotation. However, the expression was only a partial match for the quotation under analysis.

In 1959 Lawrence A. Kimpton who was Chancellor of the University of Chicago published an article in “The School Review” that contained another compact representation of Dewey’s viewpoint. The ellipses were in the original text: 6

Dewey was concerned with the problem of how we think, and this was the title of one of his earliest and best books. To express his conclusions in the jargon of the philosophers, all thinking originates in a problematic situation and is brought to a conclusion within a context which shapes the thinking and determines the relevance and, indeed, the truth of the conclusion…. We think when we have a problem to think about. The way we think is determined by a complex context involving certain partial information and certain desired conclusions, . . . It is understandable, therefore, that Dewey emerged with a somewhat new definition of knowledge and of truth.

In 1969 a doctor named Thomas A. Harris released a book about transactional analysis titled “I’m OK – You’re OK” which became a huge bestseller and a cultural touchstone. The epigraph of the eleventh chapter exactly matched the quotation offered by the questioner: 7

We only think when we are confronted with a problem.
— John Dewey

The book above was no doubt an important locus of distribution for the saying and attribution. Where Harris found this expression was uncertain to QI.

In conclusion, tracing this quotation has been difficult, and this article presents a snapshot of what QI has found. QI believes that this quotation was probably not written or said by Dewey. Instead, QI hypothesizes that someone constructed a brief summary of Dewey’s position. The phrasing of the summary evolved until it matched the quotation. Next, someone placed quotation marks around the summary and ascribed it to Dewey.

Image Notes: Illustration of two figures presented with a problem and solving the problem from succo at Pixabay. Portrait of John Dewey from Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe is the author of several discerning thematic quotation books such as “viva la repartee”. His website is located here.)


  1. 1910, How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter 1: What Is Thought?, Quote Page 11, D. C. Heath & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1910, How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter 1: What Is Thought?, Quote Page 12, D. C. Heath & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1915 January, Educational Review, Volume 49, Economy of Time in Secondary Education by William F. Russell (George Peabody College for Teachers, Nashville, Tennessee), An address delivered before the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States at Charlottesville, Va., on Oct. 23, 1914, Start Page 20, Quote Page 34, Educational Review Publishing Company, Easton, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1919 Copyright, Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study by P. J. Zimmers (Peter Jeremiah Zimmers), Superintendent of City Schools, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Fourth Edition, Chapter: Establishing a Standard for Judging Instruction, Quote Page 17 and 18, The Parker Company, Madison, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1929 January, The Rotarian, Volume 34, Number 1, The Women of Rotary by Helena Weatherby, Start Page 54, Quote Page 54, Published by Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1959 Summer, The School Review, Dewey Centennial Issue, Volume 67, Number 2, Dewey and Progressive Education by Lawrence A. Kimpton, Chancellor of the University of Chicago, Start Page 125, Quote Page 125, Published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1973 (Copyright 1969), I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris, M.D., Chapter 11: When Is Treatment Necessary?, (Quotation appears as epigraph of chapter 11), Quote Page 228, Avon Books: A Division of Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans of 1973 reprint from Avon Books)