The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Daniel J. Boorstin? Stephen Hawking? Henry Thomas Buckle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Widely accepted false beliefs can hinder progress and new discoveries. For example, the mistaken belief that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible or impractical deterred requisite financing and investigation. This thought has been expressed as follows:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking and the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin have both been credited with this statement, but I am having trouble finding good citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Stephen Hawking by 2001, but QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that he actually employed it.

The best-selling author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin was interviewed in “The Washington Post” in January 1984. He modestly referred to himself as an amateur historian because his primary background was the legal profession. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, The 6 O’Clock Scholar: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin And His Love Affair With Books by Carol Krucoff, Start Page K1, Quote Page K8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

What an amateur is, is a lover of a subject. I’m a lover of facts. The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

Boorstin employed different versions of the saying over the years, but he did not assert that the underlying idea was his own. Indeed, he once ascribed a similar notion to the well-known historian Edward Gibbon, and on another occasion, he called it an aphorism. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1861 the second volume of the “History of Civilization in England” by the prominent historian Henry Thomas Buckle was released. The geological formation of the Earth was discussed, and Buckle noted that multiple flawed and conflicting theories had been developed. Yet, he welcomed these theories because he believed that intellectual ferment was required for progress. Buckle composed a thematically related adage:[ref] 1861, History of Civilization in England by Henry Thomas Buckle, Volume 2, Chapter 6: An Examination of the Scotch Intellect During the Eighteenth Century, Quote Page 408, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

For, the great enemy of knowledge is not error, but inertness. All that we want is discussion, and then we are sure to do well, no matter what our blunders may be. One error conflicts with another; each destroys its opponent, and truth is evolved.

In 1899 Buckle’s words were remembered, and the passage above was included in “Edge-Tools of Speech” compiled by Maturin M. Ballou.[ref] 1899, Edge-Tools of Speech, Selected and arranged by Maturin M. Ballou, Topic: Discussion, (Quotation ascribed to Buckle), Quote Page 109, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref] Also, in 1915 the passage was placed in “Forty Thousand Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts” compiled by Charles Noel Douglas.[ref] 1915, Forty Thousand Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts, Compiled by Charles Noel Douglas, Topic: Discussion, (Quotation ascribed to Buckle), Quote Page 516, The Christian Herald, Bible House, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

A different article on this website examined a quotation about illusion in the domain of communication. The journalist William H. Whyte wrote the following in “Fortune” magazine in 1950:

The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.

In 1983 the popular book “The Discoverers” by Daniel J. Boorstin was published, and the author included an instance of the saying that was particularized to geographical knowledge:[ref] 1983, The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin, Chapter 11: Charting Heaven and Hell, Quote Page 86, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Imagination drew in bold strokes, instantly serving hopes and fears, while knowledge advanced by slow increments and contradictory witnesses.

Boorstin also placed another version of the saying in “The Discoverers” within a section titled “A Personal Note to the Reader”:[ref] 1983, The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin, A Personal Note to the Reader, Quote Page xv, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

The obstacles to discovery—the illusions of knowledge—are also part of our story. Only against the forgotten backdrop of the received common sense and myths of their time can we begin to sense the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers.

In January 1984 Boorstin spoke the adage while being interviewed in the pages of “The Washington Post” as noted previously in this article:

The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

In July 1987 an article in the “Providence Journal” of Providence, Rhode Island reported on a speech by an executive member of the National Council of Senior Citizens. The saying was attributed to an anonymous philosopher:[ref] 1987 July 30, Providence Journal, Seniors told health care needs cross age lines, Quote Page A-11, Byline: Sheila Simmons (Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer) Providence, Rhode Island. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge,” he said, quoting a German philosopher.

In 1987 Boorstin published a collection of writings called “Hidden History” which contained an essay titled “The Intimacy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall”. Boorstin credited Gibbon with having a similar thought:[ref] 1987, Hidden History by Daniel J. Boorstin, Selected and edited by Daniel J. Boorstin and Ruth F. Boorstin, Chapter 4: The Intimacy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Start Page 48, Quote Page 53, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

For Gibbon, while human nature is anything but unintelligible, it remains only partly explicable. For him the menace to understanding was not so much ignorance as the illusion of knowledge. His explanations of rise and fall, of prosperity and decline are always lists. What he recounts is “the triumph of barbarism and religion.”

In 1994 “Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected” by Boorstin was released, and the author used the label “aphorism” when he mentioned the saying:[ref] 1994, Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected by Daniel J. Boorstin, Edited by Ruth F. Boorstin, Chapter 1: The Age of Negative Discovery, Start Page 3, Quote Page 7, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

In 2001 a newspaper in Ardmore, Oklahoma published a feature called “Daily Almanac” which included miscellaneous quotations. On August 6th the saying was ascribed to Stephen Hawking:[ref] 2001 August 6, The Daily Ardmoreite, Section: Living, Daily Almanac, (Page Number Not Listed), Ardmore, Oklahoma. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Stephen Hawking

In conclusion, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote and spoke several different versions of this saying. The January 1984 instance was probable the most quotable. The felicitous words were Boorstin’s, but he did not claim to be the originator of the notion which he labeled an aphorism. Stephen Hawking was linked to the expression by 2001, but that was a rather late date, and the adage was already in circulation. Also, QI has not yet found any direct evidence that Hawking actually used the saying.

(Great thanks to Skylar whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Skylar identified the two possibilities: Boorstin and Hawking.)

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