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. Please note this exploration contains some offensive racial language.
The earliest evidence located by QI in a Missouri newspaper in 1846 did not mention any professions; instead, the figurative language was used to illustrate the notion of darkness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
A DARK SUBJECT—A blind negro, with an extinguished candle looking for a black cat in a dark cellar.
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 presented a definition of darkness ascribed to a precocious child: 2
A DEFINITION OF DARKNESS
Dr. Twiggem—”Indeed, for his age, sir, he’s a wonderful child. Come now, Fred., my dear, give your papa a nice lucid definition of—of—darkness.”
Fred. (after a little thought, and with much sagacity)—”Please, sir, ‘a blind Ethiopian—in a dark cellar—at midnight—looking for a black cat.'”
In 1894 a version of the metaphor using a black hat was attributed to Lord Bowen, and in 1911 a posthumous book by William James employed a simile with a black cat while discussing philosophy. The figurative language was implausibly linked to Charles Darwin in 1940. Full details are given further below.
In addition, by 1931 the quip had been extended to construct a joke comparing the endeavors of philosophers and theologians. A separate entry on this topic is available on the website under the title: “The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat”.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1846 November 9, Democratic Banner (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Louisiana, Pike County, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 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 link ↩