They Will Never Agree. They Argue from Different Premises

Sydney Smith? Punch? Evan Esar? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A disagreement between two people is sometimes caused by a difference in underlying assumptions. Two individuals arguing from different premises are likely to reach different conclusions.

This notion can be comically transformed via a pun on the word “premises” which can mean “assumptions” or “residences”. The famous English wit Sydney Smith has received credit for crafting this type of joke, but skepticism is justified because he is a quotation magnet. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in September 1841. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

When a person holds an argument with his neighbour on the opposite side of the street, why is there no chance of their agreeing?–Because they argue from different premises.

No attribution was specified; hence, QI conjectures that the joke was crafted by one of the “Punch” editors or a contributor:

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They Will Never Agree. They Argue from Different Premises

Notes:

  1. 1841 September 25, Punch, Or The London Charivari, Volume 1, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 123, Column 1, Published at The Punch Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link

It Is the Greatest of All Mistakes, To Do Nothing Because You Can Only Do Little

Edmund Burke? Sydney Smith? Bob Geldof? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Trying to solve an enormous problem can be demoralizing. Each action can only achieve a small amount of progress. The following saying is designed to help maintain morale:

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

This notion has been credited to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke and English cleric Sydney Smith. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Currently, QI has located no substantive evidence that Edmund Burke employed this saying. Burke died in 1797, and he received credit in 1981.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1850 book “Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy” by Reverend Sydney Smith. This posthumous work was based on lectures delivered by Smith at the Royal Institution of London between 1804 and 1806. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is the greatest of all mistakes, to do nothing because you can only do little: but there are men who are always clamouring for immediate and stupendous effects, and think that virtue and knowledge are to be increased as a tower or a temple are to be increased, where the growth of its magnitude can be measured from day to day, and you cannot approach it without perceiving a fresh pillar, or admiring an added pinnacle.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Greatest of All Mistakes, To Do Nothing Because You Can Only Do Little

Notes:

  1. 1850, Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy: Delivered at the Royal Institution, in the Years 1804, 1805, and 1806, By the Late Rev. Sydney Smith, Lecture XIX: On the Conduct of the Understanding – Part II, Quote Page 290 and 291, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Regret for the Things We Did Can Be Tempered by Time; It Is Regret for the Things We Did Not Do That Is Inconsolable

Sydney J. Harris? Sydney Smith? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Different types of regret may be experienced when you do something and when you refrain from doing something. A statement on this topic has been attributed to two disparate Sydneys: the English wit Sydney Smith and the U.S. columnist Sydney J. Harris. Would you please determine the correct ascription?

Quote Investigator: The column of Sydney J. Harris appeared in many newspapers. In 1951 he wrote a piece that included the saying. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

PURELY PERSONAL PREJUDICES: Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Reverend Sydney Smith who died in 1845 employed the quotation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Regret for the Things We Did Can Be Tempered by Time; It Is Regret for the Things We Did Not Do That Is Inconsolable

Notes:

  1. 1951 January 5, Akron Beacon Journal, Syd Cannot Stand Christmas Neckties by Sydney J. Harris, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

smith10Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Missionaries and Cannibals

Notes:

  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into

Jonathan Swift? Fisher Ames? Lyman Beecher? Jonathan Farr? Samuel Hanson Cox? Sydney Smith? Sidney Smith? Ben Goldacre?

Dear Quote Investigator: Jonathan Swift was a prominent literary figure who authored “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”. He has been credited with an elegant thought about the limitations of persuasion via logical argument:

You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

I have not found a convincing citation for the words above, and similar expressions have been ascribed to Sydney Smith, Fisher Ames, and many others. For example, a recent book titled “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre presented this version: 1

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1721 a slim volume titled “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality” was published. The author was Jonathan Swift, and the following salient phrase was included: 2

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired

QI conjectures that Swift’s words initiated an efflorescence of related expressions with varying ascriptions such as:

1786: Men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. (Fisher Ames)

1795: Reasoning will never make a man correct an opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1804: As they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. (Fisher Ames)

1823: How little ground there can be to hope that men may be reasoned out of their errours, when in fact they were never reasoned into them. (Lyman Beecher)

1831: What is not reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Jonathan Farr)

1833: He cannot be reasoned out of error, if he was not at first reasoned into it! (Samuel Hanson Cox)

1838: What men are not reasoned into they will not be reasoned out of.

1852: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1852: We may never reason a man out of an opinion which he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1865: You cannot reason a man out of what he never reasoned himself into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1869: What has not been reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Attributed to Sydney Smith)

1881: Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was never reasoned into him and it never can be reasoned out of him. (Attributed to Sidney Smith)

1885: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of anything he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

The evolution of the expression has continued up to modern times. QI believes that most of the statements ascribed to Jonathan Swift over the decades have been inaccurate. The correct version appeared in the key 1721 citation which was identified by top researcher Stephen Goranson.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into

Notes:

  1. 2010, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre, Section: Preface, Quote Page xii, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1721, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality (Jonathan Swift), Second Edition, (Letter Dated January 9, 1720), Quote Page 27, Printed for J. Roberts at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link