Quotationism, how spurious and misattributed quotations do harm.

7 Oct

This morning, Cristian Mihai’s blog leads with a quotation from Picasso:

“Every Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

There is a small problem here; Picasso never said or wrote those words. I am bothered by the proliferation of spurious and misattributed quotations. I actually believe that this practice is both a result and a cause of sloppy thinking:

1. A misattributed quotation is unfair to the person who actually wrote the words, we are denying credit to the actual creator. It is also unfair to the person falsely credited. It is putting words into someone’s mouth.

2. Spurious quotations are  variations of the logical fallacy,  argument of from authority. By assigning some proposition to a respected figure we call all too easily justify our existing prejudices. Sometimes this reaches absurd levels. Mother Teresa never said: “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” Indeed, this bit of very American self help advice, does not even remotely sound like like something she would have written.  Also, notice that Mother Teresa is given a moral authority that she may not actually deserve.

3. Certainly, it is legitimate to quote someone to show the source of an idea or to repeat a particularly pithy or cogent expression of a thought. But, quotationism is often a substitute for real thought and real analysis. Why bother to go back and read a great thinker in the original when it all be reduced to a hackneyed sentence? The fact that so many writers will pass on a quotation without checking it for accuracy (something one can now easily do with Google Books) is appalling.


3 Responses to “Quotationism, how spurious and misattributed quotations do harm.”

  1. Kathy October 7, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    The Internet exacerbates the problem. I can’t tell you how often I get e-mails with mis-quotes and mis-information! People do not think before forwarding!

  2. dyssebeia October 7, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    Oh yes. It is a never-ending sadness to me that the vast majority of blog posts about Ralph Waldo Emerson on WordPress consist solely of quotations, of which I am convinced a fair 90% he never said (unless his late-age senility was far, far worse than I thought). I actually found this post via my daily, usually disheartening search for posts on Emerson. Certainly it is one of the best posts I have found that way. (Unfortunately, it is part and parcel of the phenomenon I have been deploring that that is not as high praise as I wish it were – your fine post really has next to no competition.)

    Regarding your third point, yes, usually it is part of an attempt to substitute “being inspired” for the real act of thinking. Emerson might have had a few words to say about that…

    • jecgenovese October 9, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

      Thank you for comments. I have started following your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: