William Paley: “Condemnation before investigation is the height of ignorance”

This is the story of a famous quotation and the environments in which it has adapted and survived. To the 20th and 21st centuries, the story would seem to begin in the year 1939 when the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published. A contributing author of that text used a quotation to head his chapter. He attributed the quotation to a man named Herbert Spencer, presumably the 19th century British philosopher, evolutionist, and sociologist:

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” [1]

In this context, the author was trying to challenge “the mental attitudes of many alcoholics when the subject of religion, as a cure, is first brought to their attention.” [2] In later editions of Alcoholics Anonymous (1955, 1976, 2002), this author’s chapter was replaced, but the Spencer quotation is preserved in an appendix to encourage people to keep an open mind about the religious or spiritual remedy that Alcoholics Anonymous prescribes for its members.

Since 1939, over twenty million copies of Alcoholics Anonymous have been printed, and with each copy, another copy of this quotation attributed to Herbert Spencer. The quotation has since been used by a variety of authors. A variation has even appeared in one dictionary of quotations. On the Internet, new variations multiply and mutate. By now, the quotation is famous, and has made the nearly forgotten Herbert Spencer famous in the 21st century for saying it.

But Herbert Spencer never wrote or said anything resembling this quotation.

It is derived from A View of the Evidences of Christianity, Part III (1795) by the 18th century British theologian William Paley. The variations of wording that have come down through the past two centuries only bear a skeletal resemblance to Paley’s original meaning and form.

The infidelity of the Gentile world, and that more especially of men of rank and learning in it, is resolved into a principle which, in my judgment, will account for the inefficacy of any argument, or any evidence whatever, viz. contempt prior to investigation.

Born in Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England, William Paley (1743-1805) was a leading Anglican voice in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.  Graduating from Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in 1763, Paley became a tutor at the College in 1766, teaching moral philosophy, divinity, and Greek Testament.  Later, he served numerous parishes, becoming Archdeacon of Carlisle and Canon of St. Paul’s.  Paley’s significance continued throughout the nineteenth century as his book A View of the Evidences of Christianity was required reading for students at the University of Cambridge.  At Christ’s College, Paley’s portrait hangs alongside John Milton and Charles Darwin (see below), all of whom graduated from the College.

Paley, an orthodox Anglican and conservative moral and political thinker in the eighteenth century, published The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy in 1785.  In A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), Paley, the philosopher-natural theologian, argued for the truth of Christianity based on his understanding of historical evidence.  Paley supplemented human reason with divine revelation as supporting foundations for the existence of God and miracles against deistic thinkers of his time, addressing some his arguments specifically against David Hume.

In the course of his argument about Christianity’s truth, Paley discusses “The Propagation of Christianity” from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) through Christianity’s introduction into India (Page 362 and Page 363).  Though Paley did not mention William Carey or the Serampore mission by name, he does appeal to the Christian missionary success in India (Page 362 and Page 363) as supporting evidence for Christianity’s validity.

The Internet has been an essential tool in researching this quotation’s origins and history. It has also contributed to the spreading of the quotation and to new generations of mutations and attributions. The contexts in which we find the quotation continue to fit into the category of alternative knowledge: 9/11, flat earth, ghosts, Big Foots, astrology, Atlantis, British-Isralism, pyramids, Twelve-Step spirituality, homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, etc.

It it has also extended into sales pitches, essays on a variety of topics, and various arguments on online discussion boards. There are also a growing number of databases of quotations available as online reference works which attribute this quotation to Herbert Spencer. A Google search on the Boolean phrase (“contempt prior to investigation” +Spencer) gets over 4,200 hits. The phrase (“contempt prior to examination” +Paley) gets 7 hits.

There is no way of knowing for sure when the quotation first appeared on the Internet. It was probably first transmitted via email in the early 1970s or in the late 1970s on a usenet newsgroup or a listserv, some of the first discussion groups on networked computers. The first web pages as we know them didn’t appear until the early 1990s, and this is surely when the quotation began to replicate and mutate beyond control.

Google keeps a searchable usenet archive. The earliest use of the phrase “contempt prior to investigation” in a usenet discussion is from 1986 on the newsgroup net.sci.

The following examples are a partial survey of some of the variations that have spawned on the Internet. Because these are easily found using Google or another search engine, I am not including source citations. The variety of variations is sure to continue growing.

“Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance,” is an abbreviated form that has been variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemmingway, Thomas Edison, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For further research on the misattribution of this quote see “The Survival of a Fitting Quotation” (2005) by Michael St. George


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