Monday, July 12, 2010

A quote to a journalist

In the opinion piece "Forgotten lessons of history" published on 21 October 2009 in the Pakistani newspaper The News (,

Roedad Khan writes:

> These are the lessons of history. Pray God we learn them.
> But as George Bernard Shaw said:
> "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."

The same author, in the same publication (27 January 2009, i.e. circa ninth months previously), had written in another opinion piece "There can't be two suns in the sky" (,

> Why not learn from history?
> But as Hegel said long ago,
> "Man learns nothing from history except that man learns nothing from history."

So, our journalist, attributes the same quote (itself correct in essentials but not in details), to both Hegel and Shaw!

Incidentally, Hegel writes this:

"Man verweist Regenten, Staatsmänner, Völker vornehmlich an die Belehrung durch die Erfahrung der Geschichte. Was die Erfahrung aber und die Geschichte lehren, ist dieses, daß Völker und Regierungen niemals etwas aus der Geschichte gelernt und nach Lehren, die aus derselben zu ziehen gewesen wären, gehandelt haben." (

translated as:

"Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this, - that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."

in "Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte" (Lectures on the Philosophy of History), first published in 1837.

Mr. Bernard Shaw, who, incidentally, wrote a "History of Philosophy" (getting some facts wrong, most notably those to do with Nietzsche), was born years after the publication of "Philosophy of History", in 1856.

Now, it doesn't really matter who actually spoke (or wrote) certain words, assuming that the quote is used in keeping with the norms of debate. This blog has stressed this point before, when a journalist tried to incorrectly attribute a quote to Martin Niemöller (

So, if it doesn't matter, why are we discussing it?

Well, because, in a journalist, this sort of false attribution shows intellectual laziness in looking up a quote, checking multiple sources, examining translations, understanding the relation of the quote to its context) and, which is worse, intellectual snobbiness (appeal to reputation: look, the Right Honourable Blaise Archibald Witherladle said "Black cats might not fly", so who are we to say that they might?). (See for an example sans attempt at wit).

And this particular journalist goes to town with his / her quotes!

For example, the journalist's most recent article "Lessons from a revolution" ( quotes John Adams, the Preamble of the US Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass, some unnamed (why?) person or persons ("Asylum for mankind", "birth of a new world", "begin the world over again"), Paul Johnston, Toynbee and George Washington.

The second most recent article quotes Dostoevsky, an unnamed (why?) 19th century Russian, Lenin, Oriana Fallaci and Willy Brandt. And some unacknowledged quotes (i.e., without quotation marks around them - "Cometh the hour, cometh the man", "moment of truth" etc..

Quotations can make for interesting reading, but, improperly used, they can render a piece redundant, at best, and turn it into a travesty, at worst, becoming an attempt at displaying erudition.

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