May 16 • 17M

Listen: Confucius Didn't Say That... (Podcast)

Episode 3 of Humanities in Revolt: Why We Shouldn't Rely on Quotes to Think and Speak for Us

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Professor Jeffrey Nall explores the art of being human, taking the humanities out of the ivory tower and into the streets and homes of everyday life. jeffreynall.substack.com
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Episode Three: Confucius Didn’t Say That

The third episode of the Humanities in Revolt podcast explores the widespread practice of circulating quotes that are misattributed to great thinkers. At first glance, this seems like something only a humanities professor would or should care about. But there’s more here than we might notice at first glance.

Yes, the inaccurate attribution of a saying to a great thinker of the past is bound to be a pet peeve of a humanities professor. But the objection isn’t that ancient thinkers are brought into dialogue with contemporary problems, or that the general public is trying to make sense of a classic work. The very purpose of this newsletter is to affirm the relevance and applicability of the humanities to everyday life. Another basic premise of this project is that all human beings have the intellectual capacity to critically examine their lives and achieve excellence. Pearls of wisdom can help open up new channels of thought and action, and we should be talking about them in the public square.

The problem with misattributed quote memes is, first of all, that they are factually incorrect. Those of us who value truth will understand this basic objection. But there’s more to the criticism than this. As we explore in the podcast, quote misattribution in social media is often accompanied by an intellectual passivity that contradicts the apparent purpose of sharing the excerpted text in the first place. Not only is there a failure to fact check the authorship of the insight, the quote often takes the place of the sharer’s own voice. This is problematic.

Great quotes alone cannot clarify the world for us. Clarity comes through active conscious thought and dialogue.

A related criticism is that too many presume that the meaning of the provided quote is self-evident. But the richness of many expressions is usually found when we ask ourselves what meanings lie behind the words. After all, words are just symbolic indicators that help us point the way in comprehending, explaining, and generally making sense of human experiences, feelings, and values. Rarely does a string of words on a weighty matter convey these fundamental meanings without serious reflection on the part of the receiver.

Instead of simply “relaying” what an Ancient thinker had to say, we need to contemplate and interrogate their ideas. What did they mean? How does this idea hold up, today?

Some of the most illuminating educational experiences I’ve ever had as a humanities professor involved asking a room full people to share what they think a given passage from a great book means and how it relates to their thinking and experience. The beauty and value of a great quote is most earnestly expressed in the insightful reflection and dialogue it produces.

Listen and Discuss!

When you’re done listening to the episode, let us know what you think.

  • Is it unethical to misattribute a statement to a great thinkers of the past? Do we have an ethical obligation to accurately quote the dead? Why or why not?

Take this one question poll

  • Do you have a favorite thinker you like to quote?

  • How do you share or use quotes of great thinkers? Social media shares, bumper stickers, tattoos?

  • How do others in your social media world use them? Any thoughts about it?

  • Do you think quotes are generally used to invite or undermine dialogue?

  • What role should great quotes play in thinking about contemporary problems?

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Below you’ll find the original Substack post this podcast post is based on.

Humanities in Revolt
Confucius Didn't Say That...
The humanities offers us a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. Ironically, that wisdom is sometimes obscured or falsely represented by pithy “mic-drop” quotation memes carelessly circulated in social media exchanges and the wider popular culture. Like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, Confucius is one of the more frequent victims of erroneous quote attri…
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