Julian Huxley? H. L. Mencken? Lewis Browne? Eric Temple Bell? William James? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The QI website has an article tracing a quip about a problematic absurdist quest:
A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.
Interestingly, there is a more elaborate joke that contrasts the searching prowess of a philosopher and a theologian. Are you familiar with this jest which has been attributed to the prominent biologist Julian Huxley and the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken? Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Julian Huxley did present the double-pronged joke in an essay published in 1939, and H. L. Mencken included an instance in his monumental 1942 compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Details for these citations are given further below.
The earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before this in a 1931 book titled “Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History” by the comparative religion specialist Lewis Browne. The sharpest barb was aimed at a set of religious individuals called Gnostics: 1931, Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History by Lewis Browne, Quote Page 81 and 82, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link
Someone has said that a philosopher looking for the ultimate truth is like a blind man on a dark night searching in a subterranean cave for a black cat that is not there. Those Gnostics, however, were theologians rather than philosophers, and so—they found the cat!
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.