Tag Archives: Robertson Davies

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.

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Notes:

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

In Every Object There Is Inexhaustible Meaning. The Eye Sees In It What the Eye Brings Means of Seeing

Thomas Carlyle? Patrick Geddes? Robertson Davies? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you interpret a visual scene your grasp is limited by your knowledge and preconceptions. The eye can only see what it is prepared to see. The Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle said something similar to this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Thomas Carlyle published “The French Revolution: A History” in 1837. He employed a matching comment, but he did not take credit for the cogent saying. The phrase “it is well said” meant that the creator was anonymous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s Dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1838, The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1: The Bastille, Book 1: Death of Louis XV, Chapter 2: Realised Ideals, Quote Page 5, Charles C. Little and James Brown, Boston, Massachusetts. (An earlier edition appeared in 1837)(Google Books Full View) link