One Who Has Imagination Without Learning Has Wings Without Feet

Joseph Joubert? Matthew Arnold? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Imagination is crucial to cogitation, but it must be coupled with knowledge to achieve wholeness. Here are two versions of a germane adage:

  • He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.
  • One who has imagination without learning has wings without feet.

I was reminded of this saying while reading a QI analysis of a tangentially related quotation about roots and wings. Would you please examine this saying about creativity?

Quote Investigator: The famous French essayist and aphorist Joseph Joubert died in 1824. His literary reputation was established via material published posthumously. The book “Pensées, Essais et Maximes” (“Thoughts, Essays and Maxims”) appeared in 1842, and the adage under examination was included: 1

Celui qui a de l’imagination sans érudition a des ailes et n’a pas de pieds.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1865 a collection of essays by the influential English cultural critic Matthew Arnold included a chapter on Joubert. In the following passage Arnold mentioned three French sayings by Joubert and provided translations into English. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

I have not cared to exhibit him as a sayer of brilliant epigrammatic things, such things as, “Notre vie est du vent tissu . . . les dettes abrégent la vie . . . celui qui a de l’imagination sans érudition a des ailes et n’a pas de pieds” (Our life is woven wind . . . debts take from life . . . the man of imagination without learning has wings and no feet), though for such sayings he is famous. In the first place the French language is in itself so favourable a vehicle for such sayings, that the making them in it has the less merit; at least half the merit ought to go, not to the maker of the saying, but to the French language.

In 1877 many of Joubert’s sayings were translated by Henry Attwell and published under the title “Pensées of Joubert” including the following: 3

He who has imagination without learning has wings and no feet.

In 1923 “Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations” printed French and English instances: 4

Celui qui a de l’imagination sans érudition a des ailes, et n’a pas de pieds.
He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.

In conclusion, Joseph Joubert should receive credit for this saying. Several slightly different translations into English from the original French have entered circulation.

Image Notes: Picture of a bird from behind showing orange feet by Alexas_Fotos at Pixabay. Picture of flying geese by MabelAmber at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.


  1. 1842, Pensées, Essais et Maximes de J. Joubert Suivis de Lettres à Ses Amis par Joseph Joubert, Tome 1, Titre VII: De la nature des esprits, Quote Page 169, Librairie de Charles Gosselin, Paris, France. ( link
  2. 1865, Essays in Criticism by Matthew Arnold (Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford), Joubert, Start Page 214, Quote Page 248, Macmillan and Company, London and Cambridge. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1877, Pensées of Joubert, Selected and Translated with the Original French Appended by Henry Attwell, Adage Number 53, Quote Page 14, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1923 (Copyright 1922), Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, Completely Revised and Greatly Enlarged by Kate Louise Roberts, Topic: Imagination, Quote Page 387, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link