Ralph Waldo Emerson? Harrison Emmerson? Harrington Emerson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to attempt to solve a problem by clumsily trying a variety of methods, but it is better to select an appropriate technique based on principled understanding. The following statement has been attributed to the famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
Oddly, I have not found any instances of this expression in the 1800s. Yet, Emerson died in 1882. Would you please determine the origin of this statement?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. QI believes the passage evolved from statements made by Harrington Emerson who was a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early decades of the 1900s.
The misattribution occurred because of the shared last name of “Emerson”. A version of the quotation was labeled with the single name “Emerson”, and some readers assumed that the creator was Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of Harrington Emerson. Indeed, the fame of the transcendentalist thinker has long eclipsed that of the efficiency engineer, and the error has been propagated via numerous periodicals and books over the decades.
The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the July 1911 issue of a trade journal called “The Clothier and Furnisher” which reported on the Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers. A speaker at the gathering was described as “one of the most celebrated efficiency engineers in the world”, and his words were recounted as follows. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
Curiously, the name given for the speaker was “Harrison Emmerson”. However, QI believes that the trade journal made a small mistake, and the speaker was actually named Harrington Emerson. The identity was made clear by the content of the speech which presented a set of principles that precisely corresponded to the ones recorded in the book “The Twelve Principles of Efficiency” by Harrington Emerson. 2
The passage above did not exactly match the statement given by the questioner; however, QI believes that the modern phrasing was derived from the 1911 text via the commonplace process of imperfect transmission over time.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1911 July, The Clothier and Furnisher, Volume 78, Number 6, The Convention: Fifteenth Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers, Held June 5 and 6, 1911, Start Page 67, Quote Page 86, Published by George N. Lowrey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1912 (Copyright 1911), The Twelve Principles of Efficiency by Harrington Emerson, Published by The Engineering Magazine, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩