Quotation query

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The following English-language quotation is widely (though vaguely) attributed to Montaigne –see also here. But as far as I can tell, he never wrote the French equivalent:

Whenever a new discovery is reported to the scientific world, they say first, ‘It is probably not true.‘ Thereafter, when the truth of the new proposition has been demonstrated beyond question, they say, ‘Yes, it may be true, but it is not important.‘ Finally, when sufficient time has elapsed to fully evidence its importance, they say, ‘Yes, surely it is important, but it is no longer new.‘

Can anyone provide a citation to the original, whether from Montaigne or someone else?



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    Also often ascribed to William James. The original ascription may have been in Lord Peter Ritchie Calder's 1970 book Leonardo and the Age of the Eye, but I can't verify that it's in the book.

    The earliest version of the quotation I can find at Google Books is from an anonymous book review in The Art-Journal in 1867:

    "When a very novel and very striking communication is made to the world, it in not unfrequently the case that the coarser and more popular exponents of public opinion welcome it by three successive stages. First, it is not true; secondly, it is not important; thirdly, it is not new."

    (I believe the "First… secondly… thirdly…" prescription is now mostly forgotten.)

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 7:34 am

    If anyone is interested, here is a book saying Lord Ritchie-Calder said James said it.

    (If I'm to believe Wikipedia, Mr. Ritchie Calder was made Baron Ritchie-Calder. A foolish consistency…)

  3. Frans said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 7:46 am

    I found a French source dating back to 1869:


    "[L]a plupart des grandes et utiles découvertes ont rencontré au début l’indifférence, sinon l’opposition ou la raillerie de ceux à qui elles devaient profiter."

    Full context:

    La supériorité de la projection de Mercator, qu’il mit en œuvre dans
    sa grande mappemonde marine, en quatre feuilles, intitulée: Nova et aucta orbis terræ descriptio ad usum navigantium emendate accommodata,
    était si incontestable et si évidente, que les navigateurs ses contemporains s’en défièrent et ne se pressèrent pas de l’adopter. C’est ainsi
    que la plupart des grandes et utiles découvertes ont rencontré au début
    l’indifférence, sinon l’opposition ou la raillerie de ceux à qui elles devaient profiter. C’est vers 1630, soixante ans plus tard, que les hydrographes commencèrent à imiter l’exemple du célèbre Flamand. Aujourd’hui les cartes de Mercator, perfectionnées et sans cesse rectifiées dans
    les détails, sont devenues d’un usage général et exclusif pour l’hydrographie. Le progrès qu’elles ont réalisé n’a de comparable que celui
    que l’Américain Maury a fait faire récemment à la navigation par la
    publication de ses Wind and current charts, où l’on trouve inscrits les
    vents qui règnent en chaque point de l’Océan.

  4. Brian Ogilvie said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 8:53 am

    This paper by Jeffrey Shallit on the notion of stages of truth traces the attribution to Montaigne to an unanswered query in Harvard Magazine in 1988 (reference no. 21): http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

    The earliest example of the notion that Shallit actually found is from Schopenhauer in 1818: "Der Wahrheit ist allerzeit nur ein kurzes Siegesfest beschieden, zwischen den beiden langen Zeiträumen, wo sie als Paradox verdammt und als Trivial gering geschätzt wird."

    It's not a sentiment I would associate with Montaigne; this passage in the Apologie de Raimond Sebond better captures his attitude: "Ainsi, quand il se presente à nous quelque doctrine nouvelle, nous avons grande occasion de nous en deffier, et de considerer qu'avant qu'elle fut produite sa contraire estoit en vogue; et, comme elle a esté renversée par cette-cy, il pourra naistre à l'advenir une tierce invention qui choquera de mesme la seconde. Avant que les principes qu'Aristote a introduicts, fussent en credit, d'autres principes contentoient la raison humaine, comme ceux-cy nous contentent à cette heure."

  5. James Wimberley said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    Is there a term for a famous writer who attracts false attributions of well-known quotations? Montaigne may be in this select class along with Wilde and Mencken. The converse is the author whose inventions become so well-known that they lose the attribution, as IIRC has happened to Shakespeare and the KJV revisers.

  6. Rik Kabel said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    > Is there a term for a famous writer who attracts false attributions of well-known quotations?

    Merton termed it the Matthew effect, describing it as one form of obliteration.

  7. John Roth said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

    I've seen people who attract quote attributions called quote magnets.

  8. Chas Belov said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 7:56 pm

    Mark Twain also has attracted at least one such quote (which I am reminded of as the fog rolls into San Francisco a few hours before the fireworks display).

  9. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 9:42 pm

    This sounds very similar to the following, which I read about a decade ago:

    Therefore, Agassiz says that when a new doctrine is presented, it must go through three stages. First, people say that it isn't true, then that it is against religion, and, in the third stage, that it has long been known.
    — Karl Ernst von Baer, "Über Prof. Nic. Wagner's Entdeckung von Larven die sich fortpflanzen, und über die Pädogenesis überhaupt" (1866), trans. Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), p. 1021

  10. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 9:46 pm

    Strangely, it seems that Charles Lyell (whose work would undoubtedly have been familiar to Gould), writing in English three years earlier, attributed the same sentiment to Agassiz as a direct quotation. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/10/03/knew-it/ for more information.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    July 5, 2019 @ 2:07 am

    > Is there a term for a famous writer who attracts false attributions of well-known quotations?

    Merton termed it the Matthew effect

    That seems like an unfortunate choice of terminology, given the better-known Matthew effect. ("To those who have much, more will be given.")

  12. Michael Watts said,

    July 5, 2019 @ 2:08 am

    Or I guess false attributions could be considered a subset of the ordinary Matthew effect, if you're looking at the writers as "people who have a lot of quotes falsely attributed to them" as opposed to "people who are well-known writers".

  13. Sili said,

    July 5, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    Regarding attribution there's Stigler's Law https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_law_of_eponymy "no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer".

    As to the tendency to attach quotations to more famous people there's Parker's Law:
    If with the literate I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.

  14. Michael Trittipo said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    Not from the Essais, as a search in https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/montessaisvilley/ can show.

  15. Michael Trittipo said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 9:17 am

    Oops. Had not followed the second link. Would delete the useless repetition if I could.

  16. ardj said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

    @Brian Ogilvie seems to be on the right lines. The "quotation" is not and probably could not have been from Montaigne.

    Montaigne lived before the "rise" of science and his scepticism both does him credit and remains an example – particularly de nos jours when so much pseudoscience seems to make its way into learned and less learned journals (cf. Bad Pharma, et al.). But if I understand Ogilvie's citation correctly, Montaigne did believe that Aristotle had set out a better understanding and that some progress was possible, even if ultimate truth rested with divine providence.

    Anyway he remains a gripping read. Even if your French is as bad as mine.

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