Any Fool Can Know. The Point Is To Understand

Albert Einstein? Ernest Kinoy? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? James L. Christian? George F. Simmons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comprehending a subject requires more than memorizing a set of facts and formulas. The famous physicist Albert Einstein supposedly made the following pertinent remark:

Any fool can know. The point is to understand.

I am skeptical of this attribution because I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Albert Einstein wrote or spoke this statement. It is not listed in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

In 1973 the NBC television network broadcast a program titled “Dr. Einstein Before Lunch” featuring a fictional version of Albert Einstein. 2 During the drama a supernatural being visited Einstein shortly before his death. The visitor offered to give Einstein an equation representing the breakthrough theory in physics that Einstein had been attempting to discover for many years. Einstein asked about the mathematical and experimental underpinnings for the derivation of the equation, but the visitor did not provide any scientific justification; instead, the visitor said “I can make you know!” The Einstein character rejected the offer.

An excerpt of the television script by Ernest Kinoy appeared in the 1990 textbook “Philosophy: An Introduction to The Art of Wondering” by James L. Christian. Ellipses occurred in the reprinted script. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 3

EINSTEIN: No thank you.

VISITOR: But Doctor . . . I offer you what you have been searching for for thirty years. I offer you the . . . the answer of your soul’s question. I offer you the . . . confirmation of your faith.

EINSTEIN: Any fool can KNOW! The point is . . . to understand! To follow the thought . . . to build a structure of theory and mathematics which is . . . True! That is science . . .

QI believes that the quotation originated with Ernest Kinoy who penned the line for a fictional Einstein within a drama televised in 1973.

James L. Christian published several editions of “Philosophy: An Introduction to The Art of Wondering”. The script excerpt containing the quotation first appeared in the fifth edition in 1990; it did not appear the fourth edition in 1986. 4

Thanks to top German quotation expert Gerald Krieghofer who located the crucial 1990 citation containing the script excerpt. His article in German is available here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematic match was spoken in 1929 by British novelist Ernest Raymond during a speech at the Fourth Triennial Conference on Education held in Canada: 5

I don’t want to teach you to know, but to interpret, see? Any fool can know. Wisdom comes when you begin to interpret. Your brain shouldn’t be a cold-storage chamber but a steaming power-house.

In 1940 Albert Einstein published an essay in the journal “Science”. He penned a thematically related remark while crediting the German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. A comment of this type may have inspired Kinoy’s depiction of Einstein: 6

It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving; and also every man may draw comfort from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession.

A separate QI article about the quotation immediately above, and a germane passage written by Lessing in 1778 is available here.

The quotation appeared as a chapter epigraph with an ascription to Einstein in the 1987 textbook “Precalculus Mathematics in a Nutshell: Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry” by George F. Simmons: 7

CHAPTER 1
GEOMETRY
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
—Albert Einstein

In 2000 a columnist in an Ogden, Utah newspaper published the following: 8

An excellent summary of what I’m trying to write was described by the intuitive thinker Albert Einstein when he explained that, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

In 2020 the “Sun Herald” of Biloxi, Mississippi printed the following: 9

I am an adherent of Albert Einstein’s belief that “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” I don’t believe we must have his remarkable brain to understand much of the world around us, but we need to be willing to observe, research and learn.

In conclusion, Ernest Kinoy deserves credit for scripting this remark. It was spoken by a fictional Einstein during a teleplay broadcast in 1973. Subsequently, it was directly credited to Einstein probably because of confusion.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of red and black question marks from qimono at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Victor Mair and Ben Zimmer whose inquiries inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mair posted an inquiry on the Language Log website, and Zimmer relayed the request to QI. Special thanks to German quotation expert Gerald Krieghofer who previously explored this topic. Krieghofer located the crucial 1990 citation pointing to the 1973 broadcast. He also located the Simmons citation. Krieghofer’s article in German is available here.)

 

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, (The quotation is absent), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1973 May 21, New York Times, TV: Father of Relativity by Howard Thompson, (This article describes the NBC program, but does not contain the quotation), Quote Page 67, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1990, Philosophy: An Introduction to The Art of Wondering by James L. Christian (Rancho Santiago College, Santa Ana, California), Fifth Edition, Chapter 1-2: The Spirit of Philosophy, Quote Page 34, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Fort Worth, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1986, Philosophy: An Introduction to The Art of Wondering by James L. Christian (Rancho Santiago College, Santa Ana, California), Fourth Edition, (The quotation is absent), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1930, Education and Leisure: Addresses Delivered at the Fourth Triennial Conference on Education, Held at Victoria and Vancouver, Canada, April 1929, The Teaching of Literature by Ernest Raymond, Start Page 82, Quote Page 86, J. M. Dent and Sons, London, England and Toronto, Canada. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  6. 1940 May 24, Science, Volume 91, Number 2369, Considerations Concerning the Fundaments of Theoretical Physics by Dr. Albert Einstein (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey), Start Page 487, Quote Page 492, Column 2, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington D.C. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1987 Copyright, Precalculus Mathematics in a Nutshell: Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry by George F. Simmons, (Quotation appears as epigraph of chapter 1), Janson Publications, Providence, Rhode Island. (Verified with scans)
  8. 2000 January 12, The Signpost, Any fool can know by Warren Pettey, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Ogden, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2020 January 5, Sun Herald, Making knowledge a 2020 resolution by Kat Bergeron (Special to the Sun Herald), Quote Page 6B, Column 3, Biloxi, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)