Sunday, February 22, 2009

Aristotle and accuracy

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

On Friday afternoon, a student swung by my door and asked who was the author of the above quote. Having absolutely no idea, I looked it up and, as the student guessed, was attributed to Aristotle.
If the reader could take a moment and look up the quote above and ascertain the seriously amazing amount of hits this quote returns. (It is also slightly ludicrous to note the amount of sites/pages that are dedicated to quotations which is clear by selecting any one of the links to the above quote and seeing how many other quotes are listed on said pages.) It is truly a large amount of times that people have found this quote to be _________ (insert adjective of choice) and also have attributed it to Aristotle. As none of the sites listed the origin/source of the quote I went looking for it. I don't have a good reason for it except being slightly irked by the fact that there seemed to be a gigantic assumption that Aristotle was the author of this quote with none of these pages quoting him particularly caring whether or not Aristotle had actually uttered/written these words. After a bit of Internet hopping, including a quite jaunt through GoogleBook, I found this site (the quote is approx. 3/4 of the way down the page and states as follows "It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (I.1094b24)" )
 Within Google books I had found a selection in the Nicomachean Ethics that looked close to the quote above but not what one would refer to as exact. Using the verbage from the Google Book quote, I changed up my search query and found the wikiquote.org link which is the aforementioned link. Wikiquote.org mentions the Nicomeachean Ethics Book 1 1094b line 24 as the spot where this quote originates. Having beomce a serious doubter of internet information quote sources, the library catalog was consulted and the library's two copies of different translated editions/copies of Aristotle's Ethics were pulled and consulted.  Those quotes follow below and the second quote is probably the better translated of the two:

(Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics 1094b24)

"We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about thigns which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are not better.In the same spirit [], therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each [25] class opf things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning froma matehtmaticisn and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (pg. 340 Great Books of the Western World N. 9 Aristotle II Robert Translated by W.D. Ross Maynard Hutchins, Ed. in Chief, 1952)


"...when the subject and the basis of a disucssion consist of matters that hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must ve of the same order. The various points that are made must be received in the same spirit. For a well-school man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability form a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator." (Pg. 5 Niomachean Ethics, Aristotle The Library of Liberal Arts Trans. by Martin Ostwald, 1962)

while this might be a gigantic waste of time, I think it might of some interested, if possible, to trace how the initial quote was cannabalized from the two translated items directly above. At best the initial quote is a paraphrase, at worst it is an outright lie and should not be attributed to Aristotle but to the poor soul who managed to wrest this half-starved meaning from these two rich, though brick-dense quotes. It is possible that as not all edition of the Nicomeachean Ethics were consulted that there is a translation that utilizes this usage. If anyone knows what it is I would be interested in knowing it.
in the interim, I'm fairly convinced that the initial quote has nothing to do with being attributed to Aristotle. Also I'm convinced that the quote is pretty much nonsense. Let us examine this quote a little more closely. "It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it."  One of the problems with these quotes is that there is no context to help the reader. The main issue is the context of the word "entertain". Simply, entertain is used here as a verb; thus, the OED is consulted. Entertain as v. has a rather broad spectrum of meanings. A few are listed below 2nd ed. 1989 from the online version of the OED.

1) To take (a person) into one's service; to hire (a servant, etc.); to retain as an advocate.
2)To engage agreeably the attention of (a person); to amuse. In recent use often also ironical: = ‘to try to entertain’ (with something stupid or uninteresting).
3) To admit and contain; to ‘accommodate’.
3.1) To admit to consideration (an opinion, argument, request, proposal, etc.); to receive (an idea) into the mind.

Based on this snippet view of the definition of the word entertain the reader could reasonably ascertain that 3.1 is the meaning of the word. However, I would argue that there is a certain level of acceptance in both 3 and 3.1 definitions. If the OED is once again consulted for the word "accept" the definition retrieved is "to take or receive (a thing offered) willingly, or with consenting mind; to receive (a thing or person) with favour or approval, e.g. to receive as a prospective husband. Also, to take or receive with patience or resignation, to tolerate." The third definition: " To receive as sufficient or adequate; hence, to admit, agree to, believe."  I would argue that the definitions of the words "entertain" and "accept" are actually too close to make this quote accurate, helpful, useful or worth perserving in its current infantile state.
Please feel free in joining me, as a quote snoot (courtesy of D.F. Wallace)  in rejecting the use of all such unattributed quotes from your future papers, speech, discussions or mind. 

13 comments:

unomi said...

Thank you :)

Robin Smith said...

You are correct that this quotation, in the form that seems to be all over the Internet now, is not a quotation from Aristotle: it's not even a loose translation of Nicomachean Ethics 1094b23-25. The English translation from which it has descended is as follows (I'm not sure whose this is):

"It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible."

In fact, this isn't a great translation, but at least it gets the sense right. Notice that the first eight words match the beginning of the spurious quote exactly (actually, the corresponding Greek is just two words, (pepaideumenou esti), one of which (esti) means "it is" and the other one of which (pepaideumenou) is translated "the mark of an educated mind". Since it's distinctive of this translation to supply "mind" instead of "man" or "person", I'm sure that's the source. In bouncing about the Internet, Aristotle's own quote has been transmogrified into something quite different that evidently resonates with many people. Just for the record, I am an academic in a philosophy department, I specialize in Aristotle, and I've published translations of some of Aristotle's works. --Robin Smith

Robin Smith said...

You are correct that this quotation, in the form that seems to be all over the Internet now, is not a quotation from Aristotle: it's not even a loose translation of Nicomachean Ethics 1094b23-25. The English translation from which it has descended is as follows (I'm not sure whose this is):

"It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible."

In fact, this isn't a great translation, but at least it gets the sense right. Notice that the first eight words match the beginning of the spurious quote exactly (actually, the corresponding Greek is just two words, (pepaideumenou esti), one of which (esti) means "it is" and the other one of which (pepaideumenou) is translated "the mark of an educated mind". Since it's distinctive of this translation to supply "mind" instead of "man" or "person", I'm sure that's the source. In bouncing about the Internet, Aristotle's own quote has been transmogrified into something quite different that evidently resonates with many people. Just for the record, I am an academic in a philosophy department, I specialize in Aristotle, and I've published translations of some of Aristotle's works. --Robin Smith

Kyle Stedman said...

Thank you so much for doing this. I've also been frustrated plenty of times with the difficulty in tracking down the actual source for a quote that has been splashed around online. (My first time was when the Honor Council students at a former university were pasting a Thomas Jefferson quote about honesty everywhere, even though it turned out that the quote wasn't quite right.)

Otheus said...

I recently came across this quote and questioned its origin. So thanks for your site for pointing me in the right path. Following up, I have to remark on a few things, thanks to Google search tools.
The Misquote seems to be a paraphrase of the entire paragraph which was then put into a blender and filtered through a sieve. Indeed, the key clue is the phrase "an educated mind", as this is the only unadulterated extract. It comes from Harris Rackham's 1831 translation, quoted here from the 1996 Wordsworth edition:

We must therefore be content if, in dealing with subjects and starting from premises thus uncertain, we succeed in presenting a broad outline of the truth: when our subjects and our premises are merely generalities, it is enough if we arrive at generally valid conclusions. Accordingly we may ask the student also to accept the various views we put forward in the same spirit; for it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits.


Here's how WD Ross' 1908 translation (subsequent dates are revisions) phrases it (slightly condensed by me):
We must be content... in speaking about things which are for only the most part true and ... to reach conclusions which are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man...


Here's how the 1818 translation by Thomas Taylor has it:

We must be satisfied... in speaking about and from such things, if we can indicate the truth by a rude adumbration... are similar in accuracy to the things themselves. In the same manner, likewise, it is requisite to admit every thing that is said. For it is the province of an erudite man....

Frank Lacessit said...

Thanks! I was doing the same thing you did and found your blog.

Afton said...

I was just about to repost this on Facebook and thought I'd just double check it's accuracy first. Thank you for this post and your research.

Tiffany Wilson said...

Thank you! Saw this quote and questioned the accuracy of it. Like others, I did a search and your blog popped up.

J. Patrick Malone said...

It seems as though quite a few missed the point of the quote, paraphrased or otherwise...

Jim said...

Thank you for sharing this. I too question any quote (and just about anything else) I find on the Internet. I don't think our problem today is information overload but rather misinformation overload.

Theoketos said...

I appreciate the footwork. Perhaps one day I can do you a favor and push the trail further backwards to see how the mistranslation developed.

Robert Upson said...

Thanks for running this one down. It's so frustrating to have so much information available on the internet and to also know that so much of it is just plain wrong... Real research is becoming a dieing art!

Emil Danielsen said...

Thank you for checking this up for us. I was surprised to see how much the original text deviated from the "internet version".

I love the inversion at the end, where he says that: "One cannot get probabilities from axioms, and one cannot get axioms from uncertain origins". At least - that is how I understand it.