Quote Investigator

In Every Object There Is Inexhaustible Meaning. The Eye Sees In It What the Eye Brings Means of Seeing

Thomas Carlyle? Patrick Geddes? Robertson Davies? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you interpret a visual scene your grasp is limited by your knowledge and preconceptions. The eye can only see what it is prepared to see. The Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle said something similar to this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Thomas Carlyle published “The French Revolution: A History” in 1837. He employed a matching comment, but he did not take credit for the cogent saying. The phrase “it is well said” meant that the creator was anonymous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s Dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1847 a book reviewer writing in the journal “The Literary World” employed part of the saying and placed it between quotation marks: 2

Thus, observation and reflection lead to the conclusion that the effect of such scenes is almost wholly lost upon rude and thoughtless minds, unprepared by previous education; since in nature, as well as in literature and art, “the eye sees only what the eye brings means of seeing.” Moral and aesthetic culture require something more than the freest and most balmy air and mellow sunshine.

In 1849 a book reviewer in “Sharpe’s London Magazine” credited part of the saying to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: 3

The opening of the book sets forth the value of the subject, and shows the truth of Goethe’s remark, that “the eye sees only what the eye brings means of seeing.” Let all persons who see nothing in London but bricks and paving-stones, dirt and bustle, take notice that the fault is in them and their ignorance.

QI hypothesizes that the ascription to Goethe was flawed, and it may have been caused by a faulty memory of Carlyle’s remark. The Quote Investigator website has a separate piece located here about Goethe’s saying: “Each one sees what he carries in his heart”. The two expressions are related, but they are also clearly distinct.

In 1856 a reviewer in the periodical “The Rambler” examined a book about painting by the famed art critic John Ruskin. The reviewer made a thematically related comment: 4

No human eye, however gifted, can see all that nature has to show; as a general rule, the eye sees only what it looks for, and it looks only for that which it has been taught to expect.

In 1875 a piece in “The Ladies’ Repository” linked the quotation to Carlyle, but the writer carefully recognized that Carlyle did not craft the remark. In addition the statement was slightly altered with the word “object” replaced by “subject”: 5

As Carlyle quotes from an ancient author, “In every subject there is inexhaustible meaning. The eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.” He then adds, “To Newton, and to Newton’s dog, Diamond, what a different pair of universes! While the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same.” It is a favorite idea of the sages, that we see only what we bring in our own eyes.

In 1887 the polymath Patrick Geddes published a pamphlet discussing the recent Manchester Exhibition, and he included a version of the saying placed between quotation marks but without attribution: 6

Truly, “the eye sees only what it brings with it the power of seeing,” and thus it becomes easier to understand how Turner or the pre-Raphaelites were simply unintelligible, not only to the public, but even to the established critics and painters of their day . . .

In 1951 the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies published “Tempest-Tost” which included a thematically comparable statement: 7

Ordinarily Hector would not have noticed them, for the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

In 1952 the influential newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams directly credited Carlyle in his compilation “FPA Book of Quotations”: 8

In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.
–THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881) History of the French Revolution, Vol. i

In conclusion, Thomas Carlyle popularized this expression via its occurrence in his multi-volume historical work about the French Revolution; however, Carlyle used the phrase “it is well said” to disclaim credit. Patrick Geddes wrote a related remark in 1887, but he placed it between quotation marks to disclaim credit. In 1951 novelist Robertson Davies also wrote a related remark without ascription.

Image Notes: A detail from a rendering of the Mandelbrot Set; image author: Binette228; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. A triangle optical illusion credited to Oscar Reutersvärd; image author: Németh László; published with Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to dvs1 whose inquiry about the quotation from Robertson Davies initiated a cascade of explorations and articles including this one.)

Notes:

  1. 1838, The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1: The Bastille, Book 1: Death of Louis XV, Chapter 2: Realised Ideals, Quote Page 5, Charles C. Little and James Brown, Boston, Massachusetts. (An earlier edition appeared in 1837)(Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1847 July 17, The Literary World: A Gazette for Authors, Readers, and Publishers, Volume 1, Number 24, Section: Reviews, (Book Review of “Life in Prairie Land” by Mrs. Eliza Farnham), Start Page 557, Quote Page 559,Osgood & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1848 November to 1849 February, Sharpe’s London Magazine, Volume 8, The Town (Book Review of “The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events” by Leigh Hunt), Start Page 182, Quote Page 183, Arthur Hall & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1856 July, The Rambler: A Catholic Journal and Review, Volume 6, Part 31, Section: Short Notices: Miscellaneous Literature, (Book Review of “Modern Painters”, Vol. IV. Of Mountain Beauty by J. Ruskin), Start Page 72, Quote Page 73, Burns and Lambert, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1875 February, The Ladies’ Repository, What We See by Ellen T. H. Harvey, Volume 35, Quote Page 134, Hitchcock and Walden, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1887, Every Man His Own Art Critic at the Manchester Exhibition, 1887 by Patrick Geddes, Quote Page 4, John Heywood, Manchester, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1980 (Copyright 1951), Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies, Chapter 3, Quote Page 116, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Eye, Quote Page 311, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper)