People Think They Are Thinking When They Are Merely Rearranging Their Prejudices

Edward R. Murrow? Knute Rockne? William James? William Fitzjames Oldham? Josh Billings? George Craig Stewart? Luther Burbank? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Changing deeply help opinions is very difficult. A brilliant and forceful quotation expresses this idea:

Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

These words have been attributed to the prominent journalist Edward R. Murrow, the famous football coach Knute Rockne, and the influential psychologist William James. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in 1906 in the religious periodical “Zion’s Herald” based in Boston, Massachusetts. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Bishop Oldham scored with his audience with a bon mot to the effect that some people “think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

The name “Bishop Oldham” was ambiguous, but his first name and middle initial were given in the August 24, 1904 issue of “Zion’s Herald”. 2 William Fitzjames Oldham served in the Methodist Episcopal Church and performed missionary work around the globe.

Knute Rockne used the expression in a newspaper column in 1926, but he disclaimed credit. William James received credit by 1946, and he did write a thematically similar passage in 1907 before his death in 1910. Yet, QI has found no direct evidence that James made a closely matching statement. Edward R. Murrow received credit by 1949, and he may have used it after it had been circulating for years.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The 1874 compilation “Everybody’s Friend, Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor” included an interesting precursor about prejudices. Billings was the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw who was a very popular humorist of the era. Here is the dialectical spelling used in the book together with the standard spelling: 3

Edukashun iz a good thing generally, but most pholks eddukate their prejudices.
Education is a good thing generally, but most folks educate their prejudices.

In 1898 a newspaper in Santa Cruz, California used the phrase “rearrange their prejudices” without a negative connotation within an editorial. The United States had recently prevailed in the Spanish-American War, and the editors argued that European nations should recognize the emerging U.S. power: 4

They must revise their estimates, rearrange their prejudices and study with awe and even trembling another big mark on the world’s map.

In 1906 “Zion’s Herald” attributed an instance of the saying to Bishop Oldham as noted previously in this article.

In 1907 psychologist and philosopher William James published a collection of lectures titled “Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking”. Lecture five contained a thematically pertinent passage about prejudices: 5

Our minds thus grow in spots; and like grease-spots, the spots spread. But we let them spread as little as possible: we keep unaltered as much of our old knowledge, as many of our old prejudices and beliefs, as we can. We patch and tinker more than we renew. The novelty soaks in; it stains the ancient mass; but it is also tinged by what absorbs it.

In 1911 the “Los Angeles Times” of California printed a column by William T. Ellis containing an instance of the saying ascribed to a “clever preacher”; perhaps this was a reference to Bishop Oldham. 6 The column appeared in other newspapers such as “The Charlotte News” of Charlotte, North Carolina: 7

“You think you are thinking, when really you are only rearranging your prejudices,” said one clever preacher to another. Original mental operations are rare. Some of us have about as much intellectual individuality as a phonograph record. We seldom indulge in the luxury of solid, consecutive thought.

In 1913 the “Buffalo Evening News” of Buffalo, New York printed a version with an anonymous ascription: 8

It has been said by someone that when some people think they think, they only rearrange their prejudices.

In 1922 the saying was employed to criticize a powerful religious figure: 9

William Jennings Bryan’s recent attack on the theory of evolution causes the Reverend George Craig Stewart to cry out: “Mr. Bryan is a conspicuous example of the man who thinks he is thinking, but who is only rearranging his prejudices. Few men really think.

In 1923 a filler item in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper ascribed a variant to an academic in Boston: 10

It is for young men and women to make themselves realize that they have a great responsibility. A man after 50 has no new ideas. Sometimes you may believe he is thinking and changing his opinion, but in truth he is merely rearranging his prejudices.

—Dean Everett W. Lord, College of Business Administration, Boston University.

In January 1926 the eminent botanist Luther Burbank received credit for an entertaining variant: 11

It is well for people who think to change their minds occasionally in order to keep them clean. For those who do not think, it is best at least to re-arrange their prejudices once in a while.
(Luther Burbank)

In November 1926 football coach Knute Rockne published a column warning of excessive partisanship in sports. He began the column with the saying, but he placed it between quotation marks and noted that it was already being spoken: 12

“Most men when they think they are thinking are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

I heard this remark once upon a time and I believe it applies to most football fans. Keen competition is necessary. Football without competition would be colorless. One of the dangers of football today, however, is the byproducts of too much intense partisanship.

In 1927 the quotation was directly ascribed to Rockne in a Honolulu, Hawaii newspaper. This corresponds to a common error mechanism. When a well-known person uses an existing quotation he or she sometimes receives credit for originating the remark. In the following excerpt “Knute” was misspelled as “Knut”: 13

Most men, when they think they are thinking are merely re-arranging their prejudices.—Knut Rockne

In 1946 William James received credit for the saying in an Alexandria, Louisiana newspaper: 14

Thought for today: A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. — William James.

In 1949 broadcaster Edward R. Murrow received credit in a Mattoon, Illinois newspaper: 15

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really re-arranging their prejudices.” — Edward R. Murrow, radio news analyst

In 1989 “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service” explored the remark, and the linkage to William James was deemed “Unverified”: 16

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

Attributed to William James.—Clifton Fadiman, American Treasury, 1455-1955, p. 719 (1955). Unverified.

In conclusion, based on current evidence William Fitzjames Oldham is the leading candidate for coiner of this expression. This conclusion is tentative, and future research may shift the ascription. Many individuals employed the saying once it was in circulation. The support for the common attribution to William James is quite weak.

Image Notes: Portrait of William James from Notman Studios; photo held at the Houghton Library of Harvard University; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image of 3D puzzle pieces from PIRO4D at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Lundell, Fred Shapiro, and QuotationalMan whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John Baker who located the 1906 citation; Dan Goncharoff who found the 1907 citation; and Peter Reitan who identified the 1922 citation. In addition, thanks to S. M. Colowick, Tim Stewart, John Cowan, Brian Whatcott, and Joel Berson. All of these discussants shared useful information.)

Notes:

  1. 1906 November 7, Zion’s Herald, Volume 84, Number 45, Notes (A miscellaneous collection of short items), Quote Page 1433, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1904 August 24, Zion’s Herald, Volume 82, Number 34, Personals, Start Page 1063, Quote Page 1064, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  3. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor by Josh Billings, Section: Billings Proverbs, Quote Page 592, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1898 September 3, Evening Sentinel, Generous as Well as Brave, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1907, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking: Popular Lectures on Philosophy by William James, Lecture 5: Pragmatism and Common Sense, Start Page 165, Quote Page 168 and 169, Longmans, Green, and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1911 December 23, The Los Angeles Times, Epworth League: Those New Year Resolutions by William T. Ellis, Section 2, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1911 December 29, The Charlotte News, Sunday School Lesson—Young Peoples Topic, Edited by Wm. T. Ellis, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1913 August 12, Buffalo Evening News, Report Unfair and Vicious says Hinman, Quote Page 13, Column 6, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1922 April 22, The Appeal, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1923 November 1, The Capital Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 12, Column 5, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1926 January 28, Santa Ana Register, Sawdust and Shavings, Quote Page 9, Column 2 and 3, Santa Ana, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1926 November 5, The Des Moines Register, Rockne Favors Grinnell to Defeat Kansas in Fray This Week: Claims Gophers Too Strong for Old Gold Team by Knute Rockne (Coach Notre Dame University), Quote Page 11, Column 1, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1927 May 24, The Honolulu Advertiser, The Week in Epigram, Quote Page 14, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1946 September 20, Alexandria Daily Town Talk (The Town Talk), As We Were Saying, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1949 May 20, Journal Gazette, (Filler item), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Mattoon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Topic: Opinions, Quote Page 240, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans)