Philosophy, Truth, & the Importance of Checking Your Sources Before Quoting Someone


This morning, I was working on one of many edits for my book on writing memoir, and just before I saved my work, something began gnawing at me. What if that lovely, illustrated quote that I saw on Facebook wasn’t an authentic quote? I began to research to see if I could find the primary source where George Eliot [author of Silas Marner] supposedly said that It’s never too late. Finally, I found an article that was written by a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and he said that indeed, George Eliot never said, “it’s never too late.” Hollis Robbins added that in spite of the fact that Rebecca Mead had quoted the above in an issue of New Yorker, it is what he labeled as a (Mis)Quotation. I have discovered that many of the popular quotes that we see on refrigerator magnets, on journals, on calendars, etc., are not authentic quotes. Here

For us bloggers, this is a scary situation. We hop from site to site, and we pick up well-accepted quotes from all sorts of places [i.e. The New Yorker], and we have no reason to doubt that what we have read is correct. Yet, that is not the case. After I discovered the reality about George Eliot’s having been misquoted, I began listening to the second week of video lectures from the University of Edinburgh’s free MOOC: Introduction to Philosophy.

Kitty, Feline, Cat, Kitten, Pet, Funny, Mat, White

Dr. Pritchard, from Edinburgh, was discussing Epistemology or the study of Knowledge, and he made the widely accepted point that what we know to be true is believable truth. His illustration was, “The cat sat on the mat.” He said that if we saw the cat and know that he indeed was sitting on a mat and if we believe what we saw to be true, then, we have a reliable source of knowledge, which is not like believing that all women are silly flirts. The latter statement is not based upon a type of knowledge that can be proven and in spite of the fact that many people might believe the latter to be true, it is rather a statement of prejudice. Clock, Alarm Clock, Bell, Dial

Things become murky, however, and here is where Philosophy becomes philosophical [in my narrow experience]. Dr. Pritchard shared a point that was made by Bertrand Russell. Russell said that if we walk into a room and see that our clock, which has always been reliable before, says that it is 17 minutes before 10:00, we should be able to rely on the fact that it is indeed that time. But a later finding revealed that the clock had stopped. While it is understandable that we were misled by a stopped clock, our misinformed beliefs were not a reflection of true knowledge. They were the result of having relied upon a source that was not correct.

While I was listening to Dr. Pritchard’s lecture, I reflected upon how I almost misquoted George Eliot and how I would have been wrong, in spite of the fact that I believed that I had a reliable source of knowledge.

Most of us know that it is important to cite our sources in writing, but especially in this age when information is flushed from all sorts of digital orifices, it is also important to check our sources. We need to trace our sources completely back to their points of origin.

I am very new to the study of Philosophy, and I know hardly anything about its discipline. Yet, I do believe that I see where Dr. Pritchard is going with this argument.

I often write about Denial. I write about people who close their minds or who make important decisions based upon limited or faulty bits of information that they had appraised to be the whole truth. Yet, what they have decided to be the truth is not at all the complete truth. A person can believe that he is operating from the basis of a set of credible, reliable, easily provable facts and still not be operating within the truth. As writers or even as people who merely interact in society, we need to be sure that our understandings are based upon reality–and not upon opinion and not merely upon feelings.

©Jacki Kellum August 2, 2016


2 thoughts on “Philosophy, Truth, & the Importance of Checking Your Sources Before Quoting Someone

  1. In an odd way, probably, I get a sense from reading here of certainty about uncertainty. And a watchword about how to rely on something, which is probably more sensible with which to come away. While we could try to run to ground every attribution we come across, eventually we have to go with what we have. Eventually–not at first. First we have to check. Finally, we might develop an instinct for this. Something said by George Eliot that doesn’t seem to resonate. But then we have to check our self-reliability, too.

    Thank you presenting truth about, well, finding truth.

    Liked by 1 person

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