Dear Readers and Followers as well as Lovers and Collectors of Fine Quotes,
Once in a while, in moments of clarity, we may come to the realization that quotations are akin to opinions or views in that we are quoting ourselves or others to make certain statements for various purposes and occasions. Unfortunately, the ways in which people routinely handle or dispense opinions and quotations (whether of their own or others) are fraught with numerous problems, most of which elude people’s awareness and acknowledgement. This post seeks to uncover and explain a wide range of these problems so that they can be avoided, alleviated or eliminated. Considering that a good quote can pointedly reflect or meaningfully project one’s worldview, attitude, intention or identity like a shining beacon or scintillating jewel, it does pays great dividend to quote well indeed.
In addition, presented here in style is a collection of potentially inspirational and thought-provoking quotes, chosen for you by SoundEagle.
Many of these quotes have reached us in the present from the distant past. For example, the first quote is a Chinese poem that has existed for more than one thousand years, and is available in several variations.
The first line of the poem, “疾風知勁草”, literally meaning “Strong wind knows tough grass”, has already existed as an idiom as early as 23 AD. It can be translated more freely into English as “The storm puts strong grass to the test”, meaning that one’s true colours are revealed after a severe or daunting test. The whole poem edifies us that only the strong and sincere can bear hardship and turmoil; and that only the wise, not the valiant, can know righteousness and cherish benevolence.
The second quote is not only as ancient as the Roman Empire but also indeterminate as to its true source. Even though it has been credited to Marcus Aurelius, there are contentions as to its authenticity and authorship due to unresolved historical inconsistencies.
Live a good life.
If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.
If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.
If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
For those who are interested, please read Fabricated Marcus Aurelius Quote and Did Marcus Aurelius say “Live a good life”?. Perhaps one could indeed take George Mikes more seriously when the Hungarian-born British writer, journalist and humourist uttered: “I have made it a rule that whenever I say something stupid, I immediately attribute it to Dr Johnson, Marcus Aurelius or Dorothy Parker.”
A misquotation refers to an act, instance or occasion of quoting a person or a source incorrectly or inaccurately; or of attributing a quotation to the wrong author or incorrect source. In general, it is not always possible to determine or evaluate the accuracy of the source of a quote and the contexts in which the quote is created and used by the author or by other people. This limitation remains valid even when one has the luxury of consulting a database of quotations or an encyclopedia of quotes, where misquotations, if present, can spread rapidly due to the large number of online users relying on the database or encyclopedia on a daily basis. Edmark M. Law describes the predicament of ascertaining the authenticity of a quote’s origin in a comment addressed to SoundEagle as follows:
The origins of lots of quotations are difficult to pinpoint. People like to attribute clever quotes to Einstein, Twain, Wilde, etc. since this would look better than attributing them to some unknown nobody. Even authoritative sources like Oxford and Bartlett’s contain a large number of mistakes. Quote Investigator (a website) is rather good since it tries to track down the origin of the quotes they investigate. Unfortunately, I have also found some errors there.
The biggest source of misinformation regarding quotes (and their origins) today is, of course, the Internet. You can find a huge number of misquotations and misattributions in social media and “quotes” websites
That’s why when I post quotes, I seldom use a “Quote” book or website as a reference. Normally, when I find an interesting passage from a book that I read, I’d quote it. Sometimes, when I see an interesting quote from a quote book, I try my best to find the original source. If I can’t find the original source, then I most likely won’t post it.
Whether it would be easy or hard to find or cite the source of certain quotes, there exist other more important issues and considerations to be aware of than just those pertaining to misquotations. To begin with, there are valid and even compelling reasons for a discerning and reasonable person to conclude that, irrespective of the source and how a quote eventually comes to be known and used, the message of a quote (when correctly interpreted or understood) is more important than the messenger, whose public status, identity and fame or the lack thereof, as well as our knowledge and assumptions of them, plus the noise and travail of our existence and the hustle and bustle of our lives, can readily or even surreptitiously taint, usurp, prejudice or interfere with our reception and understanding of the message.
On the one hand, we are continually carried along by many psychological processes, mental habits and internal states, which can influence our judgements and decisions by stealth. Given that people are responsive beings whose current emotions (such as joy, pleasure, empathy, trust, pride, confidence, surprise, hope, fear, anger, anxiety, contempt and other conscious experience) habitually influence their decisions, it would be quite difficult to avoid the affect heuristic, a rapid, involuntary emotional response, a kind of mental shortcut described in Wikipedia as “a subconscious process that shortens the decision-making process and allows people to function without having to complete an extensive search for information.” In other words, it is a simple, efficient rule that people often intuitively use to form judgements and make decisions such that “emotional response, or “affect” in psychological terms, plays a lead role”, insofar as the human mind is deemed to be a cognitive miser “due to the tendency of humans to think and solve problems in simpler and less effortful ways rather than in more sophisticated and more effortful ways, regardless of intelligence.” Furthermore, people are at the mercy of attribute substitution, which happens when they have “to make a judgment (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, and instead substitutes a more easily calculated heuristic attribute” or stereotype. It is a psychological process that lies beneath a number of cognitive biases and perceptual illusions. Overall, people characteristically commit or experience attribution bias:
In psychology, an attribution bias or attributional bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to find reasons for their own and others’ behaviors. People constantly make attributions regarding the cause of their own and others’ behaviors; however, attributions do not always accurately reflect reality. Rather than operating as objective perceivers, people are prone to perceptual errors that lead to biased interpretations of their social world.
On the other hand, we are often content with our many assumptions about other people and their endeavours based on their social status and physical attributes. All too often, if the messenger is known to be famous or deemed to be authoritative, we are far more likely to defer our better judgement, surrender our common sense, forsake our suspicion, suspend our scepticism, relinquish our intellectual autonomy, disregard the yardstick of logic, or throw caution to the wind through our admiration of, or alliance with, the messenger, believing that our use of such a quote and the eminence of its originator will automatically, inevitably or categorically impart significant credence and meaning to our own position, purpose and perspective. Lorenzo Pasqualis warns us about famous quotes and logical fallacies as follows:
Logical fallacies will show their ugly head in dialog during your career in tech, and life in general. Do not let that go! It will distort reality and introduce contradictions to supposedly logical arguments. People regularly repeat phrases and quotes as unquestionable truths, because some famous person said them in the past. Such phrases sound smart and are attached to famous names that we would not dare to question. People repeat those phrases because we are used to them, and we assume them to be true.
In so doing, we fail to assess the phrases and quotes on their respective merits, and thus simultaneously succumb to the genetic fallacy (also called the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue), which “is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context”, and to the halo effect, a form of cognitive bias and a specific type of confirmation bias, in which our overall impression of a famous person influences not only our thoughts and feelings about the person’s character or attributes, but also our opinions and assessments of the person’s writing or saying in quotes. Indeed, it is all too easy to use famous quotes as shields, excuses, pretexts or justifications to bolster a particular defence or standpoint, to reinforce certain kind of belief or reasoning, to relax the reigns on our follies or shortcomings, and to counter any qualms that we might have about specific acts or issues.
On the flip side, the relevance or significance of a quotation can be readily disparaged or tarnished by a mere reference to an infamous person, whose credibility or character is questionable. As a result, we run a great risk of dismissing any intrinsic value of the quotation summarily, unfairly or indiscriminately.
Adding even more caveats to using quotes is the ever-present author bias, which “can carry an understated or implied judgment”, not to mention that an author’s opinion, agenda or subjectivity can significantly affect the content or discussion of an issue. In a comment addressed to SoundEagle, Keith, who is a client manager for a professional consulting firm, and also a blogger providing a source of “[i]ndependent views from someone who offers some historical context”, concedes a similar point about the author of a quote playing a part in our reception or attitude towards the quote: “we have to guard against author bias. Sometimes, we may like a quote and then like it more when we discover the author. It also feeds part of our ego to be able to cite Mark Twain or Confucious [sic].”
For these reasons, the following quotes are allowed to stand alone with their full weights and implications carried by their contents alone, which readers and followers can appreciate without prior knowledge or preconception of the quotes’ creators. Moreover, these quotes have been chosen on the basis of their heuristic potentials and edificatory strengths as well as their veracity and validity.
Closer examination, deeper assessment and better reasoning have been applied in the process of selecting suitable quotes for inclusion as a collection here, given that quotes can come in many forms and flavours. SoundEagle has had to be vigilant and to realize that numerous quotes are characteristically subjective, biased, one-sided, tendentious or even invidious, if not significantly flawed, fallacious, specious or spurious. Fortunately, quotes can often be better understood or critiqued via analysis, comparison, logic, scoping and contextualization so that their limitations, idiosyncrasies or inconsistencies could be uncovered.
For instance, what might first appear to be very persuasive and highly sensible quotes could be inescapably self-contradictory, meaning that one can find quotes that are apparently reasonable on their own but are at odds with each other when put side by side, or when examined from other perspective(s). At the very least, one needs to concede the validity of the law of noncontradiction, which dictates that contradictory quotes or conflicting statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time (‘Nothing can both be and not be’), as well as the law of excluded middle, which mandates that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true (‘Everything must either be or not be’). In short, some quotes that people use or encounter daily are quite circumscribed in their validities and reliabilities. Upon applying careful inspection and higher-level scrutiny, they can be revealed to be far from universally true and/or comprehensively applicable.
Of course, one can always retort or argue, by special pleading or committing the relativist fallacy (also called the subjectivist fallacy), that specific quotes are beyond scrutiny or immune to analysis; that some quotes are true for one person but not true for someone else; that particular quotes are always at the outer fringes of consensus or comprehension; that certain quotes are exceptions to generally accepted rules or principles even in the absence of reasonable explanations or valid justifications; that the meanings and currencies of quotes are always fluctuating as a result of being conditioned by culture and history, and thus are subject to biases and misinterpretations, even if rationality can be consistently strengthened or appealed to; that the relevance and quality of quotes are fundamentally filtered and moulded by class structures, social stratifications, cultural reproductions and communication frameworks; that various quotes and their significances are rooted in social constructivism, social constructionism and symbolic interactionism to the extent that all quotations are socially manufactured viewpoints and historically embedded extracts arising from the active, creative, subjective, strategic and intentional aspects of human beings, agencies and constructive potentials, and therefore are neither products of pure observations nor representations of objective realities; that the validities of quotes are inescapably constrained by, or contingent upon, contemporary modes of thought, standards of reasoning, epistemic principles, moral ideals and the like, which necessitate a postmodernist “attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of universalism, including objective notions of reason, human nature, social progress, moral universalism, absolute truth, and objective reality”; and that many quotes are not so much amenable to any positivist-empiricist conception of science, mathematics, reason, logic or the laws of physics as they are to the pragmatic, utilitarian, emotional, psychological, existential, phenomenological, spiritual and metaphysical aspects of life, let alone the ontological and epistemological aspects of being.
Nevertheless, all things being equal, any quote that can also possess or exhibit scientific, mathematical, empirical and/or logical validity or truth will tend to be more reliable, abiding, cogent, authentic, compelling, defensible, comprehensive and/or universal. However, if (one were to believe or insist that) scientific truth, or any truth for that matter, is merely one sort of truth and therefore not to be singularly believed, especially privileged or taken for granted, and if everything is a matter of opinion or view relative to differences or divergences in perception and consideration, then there can be no universal, objective truth or logical yardstick. Instead, each viewpoint holds its own truth or validity. Hilary Whitehall Putnam, an American philosopher, mathematician and computer scientist with significant contributions to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of science, warns that those who adopt certain forms of relativism put themselves in a highly compromised and untenable position in which it is impossible to believe or admit that one is in error, since if there is no truth beyond one’s belief or opinion that something is true, then one cannot hold one’s beliefs or opinions to be false or mistaken, not to mention that relativizing truth to individuals demolishes the distinction between truth and belief.
Therefore, SoundEagle would like to encapsulate all of the abovementioned issues as well as the ensuing matters by coining a brand new term:
The Quotation Fallacy can be defined as any error or defect that weakens the construction, interpretation or treatment of a quotation as a consequence of invalid or faulty reasoning; intentional manipulation or misrepresentation; unintentional carelessness or ignorance; misleading notion or view; and mistaken belief or attribution.
Overall, the cognitive and social influences on forming judgements and making decisions in relation to interpreting and using quotations are far-reaching. Given that quotes are so often tossed around conversations, sprinkled in writings, and endlessly circulated in social media, the Quotation Fallacy is indeed very pervasive in everyday life and its concomitant human interactions, to the extent that people routinely and unintentionally commit this fallacy with impunity by being inadequately cognizant of, or accountable to, the effects and ramifications resulting from their desire to appropriate, perpetuate or reinforce particular views, sentiments or ideologies associated with certain quotes, which they render as personal flags, signature blocks, customized messages or memorable catchphrases to invoke inspirations or philosophical thoughts, and which they conscript as neologisms, truisms, dictums, epigrams, mottos, axioms, proverbs, mantras, slogans or manifestos to mobilize opinions, influence social dynamics, alter social discourses or bend social outcomes in countless situations.
In the Quotation Fallacy, the causes, effects and ramifications of misusing, misjudging or misinterpreting quotes, however invisible, unchecked and unacknowledged they may have been, can also include those arising from ethnocentrism, confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias), selective perception, selective exposure, Semmelweis reflex (or Semmelweis effect), anchoring (or focalism), anecdotal evidence, illusory correlation, irrelevant conclusion (also known as ignoratio elenchi, false conclusion or missing the point), faulty generalization, hasty generalization, jumping to conclusions (officially the jumping conclusion bias, and also called the inference-observation confusion), fundamental attribution error (also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect), group attribution error, subjective validation (also known as personal validation effect), self-deception, self-serving bias, hindsight bias (also called the knew-it-all-along effect or creeping determinism), belief bias, belief perseverance, illusory truth effect (also known as the truth effect, the illusion-of-truth effect, the reiteration effect, the validity effect, and the frequency-validity relationship), illusion of validity, outcome bias, historian’s fallacy, quoting out of context (also known as contextomy or quote mining), cherry picking (also called suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence), begging the question, circular reasoning, Bulverism, prooftexting, association fallacy (including guilt by association and honour by association), fallacy of illicit transference (including fallacy of composition and fallacy of division), slippery slope argument, continuum fallacy, splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking), false dilemma (also known as false dichotomy, fallacy of bifurcation, black-or-white fallacy), false analogy, divine fallacy (also known as argument from incredulity or personal incredulity), moralistic fallacy and naturalistic fallacy.
In short, the abovementioned heuristics, effects, biases, tendencies and fallacies stem from simple, intuitive, efficient rules, measures or schemas that people routinely use to judge and decide, insofar as they are mental shortcuts that largely involve concentrating on one facet of a complex problem and ignoring others. Whilst these rules or mental strategies may suffice under most circumstances, they can often lead people to commit systematic deviations from logic, probability, rationality, or even decency and morality, causing various errors in judgements and decisions. These errors can detrimentally affect not only people’s choices in quotations but also their choices in matters like valuing a house, marrying a spouse, evaluating a person, appraising a situation, choosing an investment, or determining the outcome of a legal case.
Philosophy, cognitive science, logical inquiries, sound reasonings and self-appraisals can show us the pitfalls and misconceptions in not only how we live, choose, think and write but also how we quote. In conclusion, whilst we invariably gravitate towards choosing only certain quotations for their potency in representing, accentuating or validating our personalities, identities and beliefs so as to uphold or disseminate preferred views and favoured ideas, we should be aware that our opinions or reasonings involved in the selection and judgement of quotations can be imperfect and prone to the Quotation Fallacy.
Without further delay, SoundEagle hereby invites you to relish the following quotes in the hope that you will be much more careful when seeing, hearing or using quotes, even in the case of the most familiar or accepted kinds, so that you can consistently approach them with more reservations and deeper understanding, but with fewer encumbrances and misconceptions of any kind, including the sorts of mistakes in reasoning that arise from, or result in, the mishandling of the content and context of any quote.