William J. Mayo? Nicholas Murray Butler? William Warde Fowler? Patrick Geddes? Mabel M. Barker? Y. Srinivasa Rao? Arthur Bugs Baer? Robert E. Swain? Anonymous Scotchman?
Dear Quote Investigator: The modern explosion of knowledge has led to an age of specialization with this concomitant quip:
A specialist knows more and more about less and less.
A more elaborate version includes a funny addendum:
An expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing.
A related joke cleverly twists this saying:
A generalist knows less and less about more and more until he or she knows nothing about everything.
Would you please explore the history of these statements?
Quote Investigator: These complex expressions evolved over time from simpler fragments. In 1911 the “Review of Theology & Philosophy” based in Edinburgh, Scotland published an article by William Warde Fowler who was a scholar at the University of Oxford. Fowler used a phrase from the first expression while reviewing a book that was focused on an overly narrow topic:
“We are getting to know more and more about less and less.” This dictum, reported to me as that of a distinguished Scotchman, aptly expresses the character of this little work. A young German scholar has been able to fill more than a hundred pages with matter relating to what seems to be the survival, in the religious systems of Greece and Italy, of a single practice belonging to a primitive magico-religious age.
In 1915 a periodical from the University of Liverpool called “The Town Planning Review” printed an article by Professor Patrick Abercrombie who credited Patrick Geddes with a precursor. Geddes was a prominent sociologist and influential town planner:
Professor Geddes has somewhere said that the modern aim is to learn more and more about less and less. . .
In 1916 an article in “The Museums Journal: The Organ of the Museums Association” by Mabel M. Barker also ascribed a precursor to Geddes:
. . . the deadly peril of over-specialism against which Professor Geddes warns us, the peril of “knowing more and more about less and less”. . .
In 1922 an article by Y. Srinivasa Rao in “The Herald of the Star” based in London included a strong match for the first statement above with an ascription to an unnamed professor:
Thus there is specialisation not only in the study and practice of medicine, but also in the sale of drugs. A professor once defined specialisation as knowing more and more about less and less.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.