You Can Quote Me on That

It started innocently enough. Doesn’t it always? Toying with writing an article on how the mind works, I was amusing myself with the sparkly bits my subconscious kept dragging out for me to admire.

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

Someone had said something like that: Kant, maybe? Half-remembered quotations: the wages not of sin, exactly, but of decades spent perusing literary greeting cards and bookmarks instead of reading worthy books.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the underlying fill is busy work masquerading as productivity. I took a minute to ‘fact check’ this quotation: to confirm wording and attribution. It would save trouble later, or so I rationalized. Thus did this quotation launch nigh-on a thousand website visits.

My expectation of a quick resolution foundered as Google came up blank. Further searching proved fruitless: key-word searches offered no help; different phrasings produced no better results; and online card and bookmark catalogues showed that they’d moved on to new bright ideas. Would that I could. Exasperated, I called in my unpaid but priceless research assistant, aka Son #2.

Within a day I had an answer. The standard quotation was close to what I had remembered.

“We see things not as they are, but as we are (ourselves).”

Attribution was less certain, but one site provided substantiating source material: Henry Major Tomlinson’s story, The Gift. I had my author: I had seen his words with my own eyes.

A few days later I Googled again, to bag the website URL as a reference. Using the corrected phrase, Google returned more than 500 sites in a fifth of a second: how could I resist the impulse to explore? Was it curiosity that killed that cat?

The first four sites cited Kant, Tomlinson, Anais Nin and “author unknown”. The next 10 pages romped through these original four horsemen plus Descartes, Milton (he of Paradise Lost fame), the Talmud, the Qu’ran, Ken Keyes, Mormon Elder Delbert Stapley, an inspiring deaf woman named Gladys Russell, three academics (Ellis — psychology, Whorf — linguistics, Ames — evident polymath), one Dennis Kimbro (aka Kimbo on some sites, discipline unstated), and a partridge in a pear tree.

OK, I made up that last one, but I could have gotten away with it I think. Excluding blogs, 11 sites also used the exact phrase either as an unattributed quote (clearly indicating that some other dude had said it) or as what we might gently call an “appropriated quote” (subtly implying that the website author thought up this very thing just that morning). In this latter group was the online text of A Handbook to Higher Consciousness, by Ken Keyes. Now I saw why someone thought Keyes had written this: he had, in a way.

What do we mean when we ask who said something? For one-of phrases not replicated by chance or keyboarding monkeys, we are asking for its singular origin. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” is from Churchill’s speech to the British House of Commons on 20 August 1940. For common phrases, we are asking who gave it cultural significance. More than 40 years ago, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “I have a dream,” and the following speech made that phrase unreservedly his.

Does it matter who said something? Maybe all that matters is the thought and its influence. As the old saying goes, you can accomplish anything if you don’t care who gets the credit. Actually, that isn’t an old saying but a paraphrase of related sayings attributed variously (and somewhat ironically) to Jowett, Emerson and Montague.

Yet who matters, here as elsewhere in life, and perhaps least of all for credit. Although some of us look as if we take hairstyle advice from our financial planners (and have portfolios that appear to be based on our hairstylist’s investing tips), in general we pay attention to what people know. People selling something — even something as intangible as a point of view — understand this, and want to quote from sources seen as authoritative in their field.

So we rightly care who said something. Is it someone we can take at face value or a professional smart-aleck? If Stephen Hawking announced his derivation of the GUT or Grand Unified Theory (thereby integrating weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravitational interactions into one theory of forces), the headlines would play it straight: Physics Breakthrough! Hawking Scores Again! But if Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean announced his discovery of the GUT, we’d all be waiting for the pun-chline.

But wait, there’s more. Can we trust the speaker’s handling of facts or must we allow for ideological bias, or just plain sloppiness? Are we hearing what we’d expect or are they speaking against type? Are they contemporaries who more or less share our worldview, or people from other historical periods? Are we hearing their voice or their translator’s: can we even tell?

If all this seems Too Hard, even a little thought can help us rule out downright silly attributions, and clearly bogus appeals to authority. More given to reading the great works than literary greeting cards, my research assistant noted:

“To illustrate Kant’s style, here’s the first sentence of (the preface to the first edition of) his The Critique of Pure Reason (as translated by Meiklejohn): Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind. Now you tell me — is this the guy who wrote we ‘see things not as they are but as we are’?”

Umm, no, I guess not. And I guess next time I should bypass the card rack for the library. Who was it who said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”? Just a sec while I look that up….

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6 Responses to You Can Quote Me on That

  1. Ideas float in the ether. The first person to pin down in pithy words what the rest of us are vaguely feeling wins.

    (I have no problem with people seeing the world as THEY are, but why must they fanatically insist that the rest of us see it that way as well?
    E.g., god-botherers of every stripe can’t just leave the rest of us alone. Visiting the States has become a study in tight-smiling, head-nodding silent agreement to avoid their guns [persuaders].)

  2. steven says:

    Will I be mentioned in every post?

  3. Laura Martin says:

    Since I spend a lot of time these days doing cut paper quotations, and because it really does matter to me to get them right, I feel your pain! I had to totally alter a cutting when I discovered that a cool Gertrude Stein quote someone had given me was absolutely not by her, and not even correct anyway (not to mention that it was originally in French!) SO my current favorite quote is: What is the use of a good quotation if you can’t change it? (allegedly said by Dr. Who.)

  4. John Cotton says:

    Hi Isabel, this is a great post. I came across it while undertaking the same Googling adventure you described to research the source of that quote. You have saved me a lot of time — I only wish I found your post sooner! Now I can use it in the blog post I’m writing today. Thanks.

    At first glance, this blog looks pretty new, and it also looks pretty good! Thanks for writing — I particularly enjoyed the About page 🙂

    Do you still live in Alberta? I’m in Edmonton. Nice to meet you, neighbor.

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