William J. Mayo? Nicholas Murray Butler? William Warde Fowler? Patrick Geddes? Mabel M. Barker? Y. Srinivasa Rao? Arthur Bugs Baer? Robert E. Swain? Anonymous Scotchman?
Dear Quote Investigator: The modern explosion of knowledge has led to an age of specialization with this concomitant quip:
A specialist knows more and more about less and less.
A more elaborate version includes a funny addendum:
An expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing.
A related joke cleverly twists this saying:
A generalist knows less and less about more and more until he or she knows nothing about everything.
Would you please explore the history of these statements?
Quote Investigator: These complex expressions evolved over time from simpler fragments. In 1911 the “Review of Theology & Philosophy” based in Edinburgh, Scotland published an article by William Warde Fowler who was a scholar at the University of Oxford. Fowler used a phrase from the first expression while reviewing a book that was focused on an overly narrow topic: 1
“We are getting to know more and more about less and less.” This dictum, reported to me as that of a distinguished Scotchman, aptly expresses the character of this little work. A young German scholar has been able to fill more than a hundred pages with matter relating to what seems to be the survival, in the religious systems of Greece and Italy, of a single practice belonging to a primitive magico-religious age.
In 1915 a periodical from the University of Liverpool called “The Town Planning Review” printed an article by Professor Patrick Abercrombie who credited Patrick Geddes with a precursor. Geddes was a prominent sociologist and influential town planner: 2
Professor Geddes has somewhere said that the modern aim is to learn more and more about less and less. . .
In 1916 an article in “The Museums Journal: The Organ of the Museums Association” by Mabel M. Barker also ascribed a precursor to Geddes: 3
. . . the deadly peril of over-specialism against which Professor Geddes warns us, the peril of “knowing more and more about less and less”. . .
In 1922 an article by Y. Srinivasa Rao in “The Herald of the Star” based in London included a strong match for the first statement above with an ascription to an unnamed professor: 4
Thus there is specialisation not only in the study and practice of medicine, but also in the sale of drugs. A professor once defined specialisation as knowing more and more about less and less.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1911 June, Review of Theology & Philosophy, Volume 6, Number 12, (Book Review by W. Warde Fowler (Oxford) of “De Nuditate Sacra Sacrisque Vinculis” by Josephus Heckenbach) Start Page 730, Quote Page 730, Otto Schulze & Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1915 October, The Town Planning Review, Volume 6, Number 2, Town Planning Literature by Patrick Abercrombie, Start Page 77, Quote Page 97, The Journal of the Department of Civic Design at the School of Architecture of the University of Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, England. (Reprinted in 1965 by Kraus Reprint Ltd., Vaduz) (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1916 November, The Museums Journal: The Organ of the Museums Association, Volume 16, Number 5, Editor W. R. Butterfield (Brassey Institute, Hastings), The Outlook Tower, Edinburgh by Mabel M. Barker, Start Page 103, Quote Page 106, Dulau and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1922 August 1, The Herald of the Star, Volume 11, Number 8, Practical Idealism: Louis Kuhne and his New Science of Healing — II. by Y. Srinivasa Rao, Star Page 310, Quote Page 312, Column 1, Available through Officers of the Order of the Star in the East, Publishing Office: Tavistock Square, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩