A Blind Man in a Dark Room Looking for a Black Cat That Is Not There

Charles Darwin? Lord Bowen? Confucius? E. R. Pearce? William James? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A vivid and comical metaphor has been applied to professions that require abstract and recondite reasoning abilities:

A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there.

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.

The philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’

The first statement has been attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin while the second has been linked to the notable English judge Lord Bowen, and the third has been credited to the renowned philosopher William James. I have been unable to find solid citations. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This metaphorical framework evolved during a multi-decade period. The earliest pertinent evidence located by QI occurred in a Missouri newspaper in 1846. No professions were mentioned; instead, an elaborate scenario was described to illustrate the notion of darkness. The scene included the search for a black cat in a dark cellar. The blind black searcher was holding an extinguished candle. 1

In August 1849 a London journal called “Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement” printed a short item with an acknowledgement to another magazine called “Penny Punch”. The item was titled “A Definition of Darkness”. The scenario was similar to the one above with the search occurring at midnight: 2

References to Lord Bowen, William James, and Charles Darwin appeared many years later. Full details are given further below.

A separate Quote Investigator article about a related quip is available under the title: “The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Blind Man in a Dark Room Looking for a Black Cat That Is Not There

Notes:

  1. 1846 November 9, Democratic Banner (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Louisiana, Pike County, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1849 August 25, Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement, Volume 7, Number 329, Random Readings: A Definition of Darkness, Quote Page 272, Column 1, Published by George Biggs, Strand, London; Printed at the Steam press of J. Gadsby, Fleet Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link