The Eye Sees Only What the Mind Is Prepared To Comprehend

Henri Bergson? Robertson Davies? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Carlyle? Anais Nin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One might see a duck when looking at the famous ambiguous image above, or one might see a rabbit. Perceiving one animal partially blocks the recognition of the other animal, and mental effort is required to switch one’s viewpoint. The influential French philosopher Henri Bergson and the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies have both been credited with a germane remark:

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found any substantive evidence linking the quotation to Henri Bergson who died in 1941.

An exact match occurred in the 1951 novel “Tempest-Tost” by Robertson Davies. One of the primary characters in the book observed two young lovers. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

At some distance from the path, under the trees, was a bench, and upon it were a boy and girl in a close embrace. Ordinarily Hector would not have noticed them, for the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. He saw them now; Hector the actor, rather than Hector the teacher of mathematics took note of what they were doing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Eye Sees Only What the Mind Is Prepared To Comprehend

Notes:

  1. 1980 (Copyright 1951), Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies, Chapter 3, Quote Page 116, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. (Verified with scans)