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.

Continue reading Any Fool Can Know. The Point Is To Understand

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)

The Search for Truth Is More Precious Than Its Possession

Albert Einstein? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Alexander Grant? J. A. Turner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The pursuit of truth is fascinating and energizing while the actual attainment of truth may feel anticlimactic. Here are four instances from a family of sayings:

(1) The search for truth is more precious than its possession
(2) The search for truth is more precious than truth itself
(3) The pursuit of truth is more valuable than the attainment of truth
(4) The pursuit of an object is more pleasurable than its possession

This saying has been attributed to the famous physicist Albert Einstein and the prominent German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1778 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published “Eine Duplik” which contained a passage discussing the struggle to attain the truth. Below is a translation of Lessing’s remarks from German into English published in 1866 by E. P. Evans. QI believes that the family of sayings under examination were derived from Lessing’s viewpoint. Boldface added to excerpt by QI: 1

The worth of man lies not in the truth which he possesses, or believes that he possesses, but in the honest endeavor which he puts forth to secure that truth; for not by the possession of, but by the search after, truth, are his powers enlarged, wherein, alone, consists his ever-increasing perfection. Possession fosters content, indolence, and pride.

If God should hold enclosed in His right hand all truth, and in His left hand only the ever-active impulse after truth, although with the condition that I must always and forever err, I would, with humility, turn to His left hand, and say, ‘Father, give me this; pure truth is for Thee alone.’

In 1940 Albert Einstein published “Considerations Concerning the Fundaments of Theoretical Physics” in the journal “Science”. Einstein employed the first instance from the family above, and he credited Lessing. Einstein did not use quotation marks, and QI believes the physicist presented an encapsulation of Lessing’s perspective and not a direct quotation: 2

Some physicists, among them myself, can not believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in space and time; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance. 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.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Search for Truth Is More Precious Than Its Possession

Notes:

  1. 1866, The Life and Works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing From the German of Adolf Stahr by E. P. Evans Ph.D. (Professor of Modern Languages and Literature in the University of Michigan), Volume 2, Book 12, Chapter 5: The Controversy with Götze, Quote Page 257, William V. Spencer, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 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

Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Samuel Johnson? Martin Sherlock? Johann Heinrich Voss? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Daniel Webster? Samuel Wilberforce

Dear Quote Investigator: The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with a famously devastating remark about a book he was evaluating:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

I have never found a source for this quotation in the writings of Johnson, and I have become skeptical about this attribution. Do you know if he wrote this?

Quote Investigator: No substantive evidence has emerged to support the ascription to Samuel Johnson. In this article QI will trace the evolution of this saying and closely related expressions which have been attributed to a variety of prominent individuals. The following four statements have distinct meanings, but they can be clustered together semantically and syntactically.

  • What is new is not good; and what is good is not new.
  • What is new is not true; and what is true is not new.
  • What is original is not good; what is good is not original.
  • What is new is not valuable; what is valuable is not new.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a member of this cluster appeared in 1781 and was written by Reverend Martin Sherlock who was reviewing a popular collection of didactic letters published in book form. Lord Chesterfield composed the letters and sent them to his son with the goal of teaching him to become a man of the world and a gentleman. Sherlock was highly critical: 1

His principles of politeness are unexceptionable; and ought to be adopted by all young men of fashion; but they are known to every child in France; and are almost all translated from French books. In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.

This expression was similar to the one attributed to Samuel Johnson. The word “new” was used instead of “original”. Yet, this passage did not include the humorous prefatory phrase which would have labeled the work “both new and good” before deflating it.

In the 1790s a German version of the saying using “new” and “true” was published in a collection by the translator and poet Johann Heinrich Voss. This instance did include a prefatory phrase stating that the “book teaches many things new and true”: 2 3

Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres,
Wäre das Wahre nur neu, wäre das Neue nur wahr!

Here is an English translation:

Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true,
If only the true were new, if only the new were true!

In 1800 a reviewer in “The British Critic” lambasted a book using a version of the brickbat with “new” and “good”: 4

In this part there are some good and some new things; but the good are not new, and the new are not good. Much time is employed in considering the opinion of the poet du Belloy, at present forgotten and of little consequence, who professed to prefer the French to the ancient languages.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Notes:

  1. 1781, Letters on Several Subjects by The Rev. Martin Sherlock [Chaplain to the Right Honourable The Earl of Bristol], Volume 2, Letter XIV, Start Page 123, Quote Page 128 and 129, Printed for J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1796, Gedichte, Johann Heinrich Voss, Volume 2, Section: Epigramme [Epigrams], (Standalone short saying titled “XVI: An mehrere Bücher” [16: Of several Books]), Quote Page 281, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Harold MacMillan, Quote Page 305 and 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives the following citation for the J. H. Voss quotation: Vossischer Musenalmanach (1792; some references give a date of 1772 which appears to be inaccurate)
  4. 1800 June, The British Critic, Foreign Catalogue: France, Article 56: (Review of Book: Lycée, ou, Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, Book Author: J. F. Laharpe [Jean-Francois de La Harp]), Start Page 695, Quote Page 696, Printed for F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link