Tag Archives: William James

People Think They Are Thinking When They Are Merely Rearranging Their Prejudices

Edward R. Murrow? Knute Rockne? William James? William Fitzjames Oldham? Josh Billings? George Craig Stewart? Luther Burbank? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Changing deeply help opinions is very difficult. A brilliant and forceful quotation expresses this idea:

Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

These words have been attributed to the prominent journalist Edward R. Murrow, the famous football coach Knute Rockne, and the influential psychologist William James. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in 1906 in the religious periodical “Zion’s Herald” based in Boston, Massachusetts. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Bishop Oldham scored with his audience with a bon mot to the effect that some people “think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

The name “Bishop Oldham” was ambiguous, but his first name and middle initial were given in the August 24, 1904 issue of “Zion’s Herald”. 2 William Fitzjames Oldham served in the Methodist Episcopal Church and performed missionary work around the globe.

Knute Rockne used the expression in a newspaper column in 1926, but he disclaimed credit. William James received credit by 1946, and he did write a thematically similar passage in 1907 before his death in 1910. Yet, QI has found no direct evidence that James made a closely matching statement. Edward R. Murrow received credit by 1949, and he may have used it after it had been circulating for years.

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  1. 1906 November 7, Zion’s Herald, Volume 84, Number 45, Notes (A miscellaneous collection of short items), Quote Page 1433, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1904 August 24, Zion’s Herald, Volume 82, Number 34, Personals, Start Page 1063, Quote Page 1064, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

Beyond the Very Extremity of Fatigue Distress

William James? Scott Jurek? Apocryphal?

runner09Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement about endurance is popular with long-distance runners and others who face demanding situations:

Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction

These words have appeared on many web pages and in several books. The influential American psychologist and philosopher William James has usually been credited. Yet, I have never seen a supporting citation. Is the ascription to James accurate?

Quote Investigator: In December 1906 William James delivered a Presidential Address titled “The Energies of Men” before the American Philosophical Association. James discussed the ability of humans to draw upon surprisingly large reserves of both physical and mental energy. Below is a section of his 1906 speech; a segment from one sentence was later rephrased to generate the modern quotation. James used the word “extremity” instead of “extreme”, and he used the term “fatigue distress” instead of “fatigue and distress”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast.

But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene.

Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1907 January, The Philosophical Review, Volume 16, Number 1, The Energies of Men, (Footnote: “Delivered as the Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University, December 28, 1906”), Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat

Julian Huxley? H. L. Mencken? Lewis Browne? Eric Temple Bell? William James? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The QI website has an article tracing a quip about a problematic absurdist quest:

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.

Interestingly, there is a more elaborate joke that contrasts the searching prowess of a philosopher and a theologian. Are you familiar with this jest which has been attributed to the prominent biologist Julian Huxley and the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Julian Huxley did present the double-pronged joke in an essay published in 1939, and H. L. Mencken included an instance in his monumental 1942 compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Details for these citations are given further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before this in a 1931 book titled “Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History” by the comparative religion specialist Lewis Browne. The sharpest barb was aimed at a set of religious individuals called Gnostics: 1

Someone has said that a philosopher looking for the ultimate truth is like a blind man on a dark night searching in a subterranean cave for a black cat that is not there. Those Gnostics, however, were theologians rather than philosophers, and so—they found the cat!

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  1. 1931, Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History by Lewis Browne, Quote Page 81 and 82, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

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. 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


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.'”
—Penny Punch.

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.

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  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 link

The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It

William James? Ralph Barton Perry? Henry James? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been working to confirm the source and accuracy of a quotation that is attributed to the famous philosopher and educator William James. Here are three versions:

  1. The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  2. The best use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  3. The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

A version of this saying was listed in the Wikipedia entry for James, but more recently it has been removed. Perhaps you can verify this quote and determine the correct version.

Quote Investigator: William James died in 1920, and the earliest evidence QI has located for this statement is in the reference work “The Thought and Character of William James: As Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings” which was released in 1935. This massive two volume compendium included a large amount of material written by James that was not published during his lifetime. Extensive notes and annotations were provided that carefully listed sources and dates. A version of the quotation was presented together with a year, but oddly no source was given by the editor Ralph Barton Perry. The precise wording differed from the three instances given by the questioner: 1

“The great use of a life,” James said in 1900, “is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.

QI has not yet identified a text dating to 1900 containing the quote, and does not know why the editor did not provide a footnote or annotation for the saying.

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  1. 1935, “The Thought and Character of William James: As revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings”, Edited by Ralph Barton Perry, Volume II: Philosophy and Psychology, Quote Page 289, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) (Internet Archive has an Oxford University Press edition in full view) link  link

Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable: 1

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879: 3

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster)
  2. 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)
  3. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous

William James? Dorothy Parker? Ogden Nash? Mrs. Amos Pinchot? Alice Duer Miller? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read a wild story about William James, the prominent psychologist, educator, and philosopher. One night he experimented with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel:

Hogamous, Higamous,
Man is polygamous,
Higamous, Hogamous,
Woman is monagamous.

Could this comical tale about the famous psychologist be correct?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. This poem has been attributed to Mrs. Amos Pinchot, William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and others. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in 1939 and credited Pinchot, but a cite in 1942 claimed that she denied the attribution. No decisive candidate for authorship has yet emerged in QI’s opinion.

William James did experiment with psychoactive agents, but his name was not connected to this verse until many years after his death. The earliest attribution to James located by QI was dated 1953, yet his life ended in 1910.

The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article “Thanksgiving Nightmare” by Claire MacMurray discussed dreams and not drugs. MacMurray presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot [APCM]:

She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen—oh, yes! Her poem.

She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the words she had written. Here they are:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

The spelling and wording of this poem do differ from the most common modern versions, but QI believes that the words above likely correspond to the ancestral verse. The dream state is certainly an altered state, and it does generate insights, both genuine and spurious. But it is a relatively conventional mental excursion.

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