Annoying Quotations by Famous Writers and Intellectuals

A small collection of idiotic or offensive quotations by famous intellectuals, collected by Ernest Davis with fulminations by the editor in small font.
A much larger collection of quotations that I love is here.

This project is sponsored by the Institute for the Advanced Study of Automated Reasoning, Cognition, Science Music, and Lots of Other Stuff.



We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will never in fact see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
--- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

I am told that many people find this moving. It seems to me meaningless and offensive. It is meaningless to say that we are "lucky" as compared a near infinitude of non-existent people. Potential DNA molecules are not "people who are not going to be born", let alone scientists or poets because they are not people at all. The passage is much weaker than the comparable passage in Gray's Elegy (which I imagine Dawkins had in mind.) It is actually sad that actual people grew up and died with no chance to realize their potential. It is not in the least sad that some combination of genes has never been actualized. One might as well feel bad for the infinitude of geometric shapes that have never been actualized as physical objects. And it is offensive, because it identifies people with their genetic code. This is not only problematic in the case of identical twins, but highly reductive, in all cases.



I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly". At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
--- Umberto Eco, Reflections on the Name of the Rose (This citation is off a random web site. I have not yet double-checked it, so it should not be relied on.)

I don't care how bloody sophisticated or cultivated or postmodern you and your boyfriend think you are; if he doesn't have the gumption to say "I love you madly" without distancing himself from it, for Christ's sake, then it's time to dump the weasel. Fortunately, I am confident that all the women I know, would. You would do better with a guy that likes to read Barbara Cartland. Also, of course, every age is an age of lost innocence.


Relatively few mathematics teachers understand [Euler's formula] even today, and fewer students do. Yet generation after generation of mathematics teachers and students continue to go uncomprehendingly through one version or another of Euler's proof, understanding only the regularity in the manipulation of the symbols.

They are much like Mr. M., Laurent Cohen and Stanislas Dehaene's patient discussed in Chapter 1, who knows that 'three times nine is twenty-severn' but not what it means.

Mr. M., being brain-damaged, has no choice. Benjamin Peirce was born too soon. But in an age of cognitive science one can at least try to do better.

-- George Lakoff and Raphael Nunez, Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being.

This easy contempt for virtually all mathematicians, comparing them to brain-damaged patients, is astoundingly smug and arrogant. As it happens, any mathematician acquainted with the theory of functions of a complex variables understands Euler's formula in a much deeper sense --- as the analytic continuation of the exponential function into the complex plane --- than the proof that Lakoff and Nunez gives, which is just based on manipulation of the power series. See my review for further discussion.


I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Pygmalion

Dishonest. Of course Pygmalion is not didactic and its subject is not phonetics. You can't learn anything about phonetics from watching Pygmalion. It is about class and romance.


CUSINS: You have me in a horrible dilemma. I want Barbara.
UNDERSHAFT: Like all young men, you greatly exaggerate the difference between one young woman and another.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Cheap, false, and disgusting. Also phony, since earlier in the play Undershaft waxes on about how great his daughter is. Cusins should punch him in the nose.


Perhaps I had better inform my Protestant readers that the famous Dogma of Papal Infallibility is by far the most modest pretension of the kind in existence. Compared with our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, our infallible astronomers, our infallible judges, and our infallible parliaments, the Pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before the throne of God, asking only that as to certain historical matters on which he has clearly more sources of information open to him than anyone else his decision shall be taken as final.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Saint Joan

Dishonest. That is not a remotely accurate description of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, and Shaw knew it.



The medieval doctors of divinity who did not pretend to settle how many angels could dance on the point of a needle cut a very poor figure as far as romantic credulity is concerned beside the modern physicists who have settled to the billionth of a millimetre every movement and position in the dance of the electrons. Not for worlds would I question the precise accuracy of these calculations or the existence of electrons (whatever they may be). The fate of Joan is a warning to me against such heresy.
--- George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Saint Joan

Cheap. Shaw did not suppose that he was in danger of being burnt. Whereas the early modern church did burn Joan, Bruno, Hus, etc. etc.



In an article on Bunyan lately published in the "Contemporary Review" --- the only article on the subject worth reading on the subject I ever saw (yes, thank you, I am familiar with Macaulay's patronizing prattle about "The Pilgrim's Progress") etc.
--- George Bernard Shaw, "Better than Shakespeare" in Dramatic Opinions and Essays.

This otherwise fine essay by Shaw on Bunyan is marred by the gratuitous swipe at Macaulay. Macaulay's essay John Bunyan is not at all "patronizing"; it ends with the claim that Milton and Bunyan were the two most imaginative English writers of the second half of the seventeenth century. Shaw simply couldn't stand the fact that Macaulay, whom he no doubt viewed (legitimately) as a wildly overrated, imperialist, retrograde, Victorian stuffed shirt, scooped him here.



He who has read Kafka's Metamorphosis and can look into his mirror unflinching may technically be able to read print, but is illiterate in the only sense that matters.
--- George Steiner, "Humane Literacy" in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

Ridiculous. You might as well say, "He who has read Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth Bennet and can get through the day without laughing out loud may be technically able to read print, etc." But actually, looking at this essay again after many years, it is so full of absurd, pompous pronouncements that it is hard to know where to start.



One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.
-- Oscar Wilde

When it comes to maudlin sentimentality, The Old Curiosity Shop doesn't come close to "The Happy Prince", "The Selfish Giant" etc.