The Quote That Never Was


About the Pitfalls of Wikipedia & Scholarly Misconduct.


[1] Now, I’m sure that most people are aware that Wikipedia is somewhat unreliable. The same is actually true for traditional encyclopedias.(1) Mistakes happen – spelling errors, lapses in attention to some miniscule detail, misattributions. That’s human. That’s fine. Chances are that these errors will be found and corrected eventually and the proponents of Wikipedia argue, of course, that that’s more likely to happen when the swarm intelligence of the web is involved. Any scholar worth their salt will be diligent enough in their research to not let that impact them, right? So far, so good.

[2] Except that’s not the whole truth. Many scholars use Wikipedia as their first source of information and, unfortunately, in some cases, their last. I have now come across an example that illustrates this rather beautifully and with a rare kind of clarity. It involves a quote attributed to the philosopher Hans Vaihinger (with the citation of a book and page number) that really does not exist at all in that shape and form. It also involves a number of scholars using that exact quote in their publications with the exact same citation, among them a professor for the history of science which I find slightly awkward, to say the least.

[3] But let’s start from the beginning. I will not bore you with a recount of how I came to be interested in Vaihinger and his work. Let’s just say that I was doing extensive PhD research as I have been wont to do in the last months and came across the man, as it so happens. Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933) was a German philosopher who was one of the first academics to study Nietzsche although his main focus lay with Kant; he founded the journal Kant-Studien in 1897 and the Kant-Gesellschaft (society) in 1904. His magnum opus is a lengthy tome about “The Philosophy of ‘As if’: A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind”, published in 1911 and translated by C. K. Ogden in 1924. Largely forgotten after the Second World War, Vaihinger’s work had quite a big impact at its time – the American philosopher of science Arthur Fine has likened the (often critical) response that Vaihinger received in the 1920s to the stir that Thomas Kuhn caused in the 1960s and 1970s.(2) Fine’s essay on Vaihinger in 1993 actually revived the reception somewhat and reintroduced him into the current discourse about fictionalism.(3)

photograph of hans vaihinger

Fig. 1: Hans Vaihinger in the flesh. Or rather a photograph of him in the flesh. Date unknown.

[4] Be that all as it may. It appears that Vaihinger is still unknown enough to have a false quote sitting on his German Wikipedia page for more than 12 years. Not only that, but at least a handful of publications have since adopted and perpetuated it (although, to be fair, some of the publications seem to be pseudo-scientific in nature as Vaihinger enjoys some popularity among a certain esoteric crowd – more on that later).

[5] Here’s the quote as it appears in the Wikipedia article while I am writing this post. I also made a screenshot because it would be silly of me to complain about this error without rectifying it at some later point (I have never edited a Wikipedia article but I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out):

Das menschliche Vorstellungsgebilde der Welt ist ein ungeheures Gewebe von Fiktionen voll logischer Widersprüche, d. h. von wissenschaftlichen Erdichtungen zu praktischen Zwecken bzw. von inadäquaten, subjektiven, bildlichen Vorstellungsweisen, deren Zusammentreffen mit der Wirklichkeit von vornherein ausgeschlossen ist.

Hans Vaihinger: Philosophie des Als Ob, 1911, p. 14 (allegedly!)

hans vaihinger wikipedia artikel

Fig. 2: Screenshot of Hans Vaihinger’s German Wikipedia article, 4 September 2017

[6] Note how prominently the quote is placed in the section about “The Philosophy of ‘As if'”. No wonder some people were led astray and couldn’t resist the temptation to use it. It also sounds quite good and like something that he could have reasonably written; probably because it’s a mishmash of some half sentences of his (that are, however, in reality separated by a couple of hundred pages). I will not translate that false quote because, frankly, attempting to translate it seems like a nightmare; an endeavour historically worthy of a scathing review from H. L. Mencken.(4)

hans vaihinger wikipedia article august 2005

Fig. 3: Screenshot of Hans Vaihinger’s German Wikipedia article, oldest version, 18 August 2005

[7] But I think I can somewhat reconstruct how that quote came to be. Note how in the first version of that Wikipedia article from 18 August 2005, the quote is already contained. The difference: There is something weird going on with the quotation marks, indicating that it might have been a copy & paste job gone wrong or just someone sloppily slapping a few passages together without matching up the quotation marks to go along with it. Also, the page number is accompanied by a “ff.” which means “and the following pages” and is used in German citations to refer to an indefinite number. It’s NOT used for direct quotations and I think it has fallen out of use for indirect quotations and more general references as well because of its vagueness.

[8] In the version from the 22 August 2005, the “ff.” is already gone. The quotation marks have been cleaned up and unified by 9 January 2007. Note how by that time (since 6 October 2005, in fact), the quote is also accompanied by a question and it’s the same one it’s still accompanied by to this day: “Wieso erreichen wir oft Richtiges mit bewußt falschen Annahmen?”

hans vaihinger wikipedia article january 2007

Fig. 4: Screenshot of Hans Vaihinger’s German Wikipedia article, 9 January 2007

[9] Although there is no clear citation given for that question, it’s implied that it’s a direct quote because of the quotation marks. Well, it’s not. There is a similar question in the actual book, however, that this seems to refer to. This question, to be specific:

Wie kommt es, daß wir mit bewußtfalschen Vorstellungen doch Richtiges erreichen?

Hans Vaihinger: Philosophie des Als Ob, 1911, p. VII

[10] Anyway, the more important part is the alleged quote from page 14. Well, here is page 14 of the first edition of “The Philosophy of ‘As if'” and I hope every observer will agree that that quote is really nowhere to be found (otherwise I might have to seek an appointment with an ophthalmologist).

scan of page 14 of the philosophy of as if

Fig. 5: Page 14 of the first edition of “Die Philosophie des Als Ob” (1911)

[11] At first, I actually couldn’t believe it. I thought I was going insane. A quick Google search had confirmed that others had quoted it (though, as I later came to notice, only in publications starting in 2011, the year that due diligence died) and it seemed too strange to me that someone could have made it up. Yes, Vaihinger had languished in relative obscurity for some time so I didn’t find it too far-fetched that his article might contain some mistakes but that was quite a big one.

[12] I found an online, searchable version of the 7th/8th edition from 1922 on archive.org and checked to see whether the page number was simply wrong. But no, that quote just didn’t exist. I performed searches for parts of the sentence in case the OCR had gotten something wrong but no, that sentence still didn’t exist. Some parts of it did, however, here and there. So I already had an inkling that I would have to piece it together.

screenshot of archive.org search

Fig. 6: Screenshot of a search for the alleged quote from p. 14 in the digitized 7th/8th edition on archive.org

[13] For completion’s sake, I ordered the first edition on an inter-library loan to make absolutely sure that the quote was not contained in that one either and just scrubbed from later editions. But no, it just didn’t exist anywhere. For good measure, I also borrowed the fourth edition from our library. But, no.

[14] Instead, here’s the actual range of pages that contain parts of that quote: p. 65, 90, 606.

Unser Vorstellungsgebilde der Welt ist ein ungeheures Gewebe von Fiktionen, voll logischer Widersprüche.

Hans Vaihinger: Philosophie des Als Ob, 1911, p. 90 (bolded emphasis by myself)

page 90 of philosophy of as if

Fig. 7: Page 90 of the first edition of “Die Philosophie des Als Ob” (1911)

Man muss nur immer mit “Fiktion” den fest bestimmten Begriff einer wissenschaftlichen Erdichtung zu praktischen Zwecken verbinden.

Hans Vaihinger: Philosophie des Als Ob, 1911, p. 65 (bolded emphasis by myself, although this part is also bolded in the original with the addition of “verbinden”); he is referring to a quotation from Karl Grün: Philosophie der Gegenwart, p. 209 that talks about a “Hypothese zu praktischen Zwecken”

page 65 of philosophy of as if

Fig. 8: Page 65 of the first edition of “Die Philosophie des Als Ob” (1911)

Während jede Hypothese ein adäquater Ausdruck der noch unbekannten Wirklichkeit sein will, wird die Fiktion mit dem Bewusstsein aufgestellt, dass sie eine inadäquate, subjektive, bildliche Vorstellungsweise ist, deren Zusammentreffen mit der Wirklichkeit von vorneherein ausgeschlossen ist, und die daher auch nicht, wie man das bei der Hypothese hofft, hintennach verifiziert werden kann.

Hans Vaihinger: Philosophie des Als Ob, 1911, p. 606 (bolded emphasis by myself)

page 606 of philosophy of as if

Fig. 9: Page 606 of the first edition of “Die Philosophie des Als Ob” (1911)

[15] Awkward. It’s not so much that that false quote (as attributed to page 14) distorts Vaihinger’s meaning in an egregious manner – but it was still not stated by him and is more of a cobbled together patchwork statement made by someone who doesn’t know how to paraphrase. How someone could have taken bits and pieces of sentences from wildly different parts of the book and thrown them together like that is a bit of a mystery to me but I suppose I will have to live with never learning what the thought process behind this was.

[16] Now to the publications who erroneously relied on Wikipedia. There aren’t that many but enough to raise eyebrows, in my opinion. I will just post a compilation of screenshots and references here without adding much further commentary on the individual items – they are merely meant to illustrate the issue. In each case you can click on the image to go to the corresponding Google Books / ResearchGate page.

false quotation

Fig. 10: Quotation in Gabriele Fürst-Pfeifer: Biographie und (un)bewusste Berufswahlmotive von Psychotherapeuten: Psychoanalytiker und Systemische Familientherapeuten erzählen aus ihrem Leben (Münster: Waxmann Verlag, 2013), p. 66

false quotation 2

Fig. 11: Quotation in Beatrix Kobow: Was ist als-ob? Die Rolle des Fiktiven in der Geschichte, in: Christian Schmidt (Ed.): Können wir der Geschichte entkommen?: Geschichtsphilosophie am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt a. M.: Campus Verlag, 2013), p. 133-149, here p. 136

false quotation 3

Fig. 12: Quotation in Romald Fischer: Kriterien zur Beobachtung von Instrumentalunterricht: Grundlagen aus Praxis und Theorie (BoD / Schott Campus, 2011), p. 58

false quotation 4

Fig. 13: Quotation in Niall Bond: Carl Menger entre épistémologie et idéologie, in: Gilles Campagnolo (Ed.): Existe-t-il une doctrine Menger ?: Aux origines de la pensée économique autrichienne (Presses universitaires de Provence, 2013), p. 101-126, here p. 113 – to be fair, verifying the quote becomes a lot more difficult with language barriers and presumably a lack of accessibility to the original

Fig. 14: Quotation in Klaus Hentschel: “Zur Rezeption von Vaihingers Philosophie des Als Ob in der Physik,” in: Fiktion und Fiktionalismus: Beiträge zu Hans Vaihingers ‘Philosophie des Als-Ob’ (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2014), ed. by Matthias Neuber, p. 161-186, here p. 161 – this is the one quotation I found that actively surprised me because it’s the only one in a publication that is actually about the topic of Vaihinger (and from a historian of science no less…)

[17] I don’t want to be too harsh on any of these authors although they appear to have just copied something from Wikipedia without verifying it in any way. Unless there’s a magical edition from 1911 out there that does contain the quote, in which case I’d have a lot of egg of my face. Honestly, I’d rather be mistaken than believe people would engage in scholarly misconduct but unfortunately I think it’s unlikely. It doesn’t negate their other findings and insights either. Perhaps they are very diligent 99 % of the time and that was just the one unfortunate case of 1 % no-time-to-take-a-look-at-the-book. This is not supposed to be an indictment of individuals, it’s just meant to highlight how easily false quotes take on a life of their own if they are distributed in a place of high visibility like Wikipedia, even despite the perceived lack of authority of the site that is always preached to students. It also goes to show that quality control does not work in these contexts if the base text is already faulty to begin with but not so faulty that one would become suspicious of it all and work to verify every single claim. Add to that a level of obscurity and a quote from a book that’s more than 100 years old (though easily enough to acquire in the German university library system) and you have a perfect recipe for scholarly disaster.

[18] And last but not least, it shall not go unmentioned that Vaihinger seems to have a group of fans among pseudo-scientists and esoteric people hoping to academically justify their alternative-factualism. I very quickly came across several websites about NLP (neuro-linguistic programming, not to be confused with natural language processing!) that referenced him and his work. They seem to have based some of their methodology on his theories. I won’t go deeper into this because the concept of “programming” people seems quite creepy to me and it’s widely disregarded as pseudo-scientific. I mean, just look at the references on Wikipedia (yes, I still use Wikipedia!).(5) Looking for citations of the false quote also led me to buddhistic discussion boards and comment sections on newspaper articles about the Vatican denying the existence of aliens. I mean, okay. So perhaps the first person to put up that article about Vaihinger back in 2005 was someone from this kind of crowd.

[19] At some point I stopped going through the Google results because the sites they were leading to had an increasing veneer of dubious quality. But I suppose there is a positive in all of this:

[20] Looking for the false quote on Google produced only around 100 results, partial search increasing that number to only around 300 results. So it hasn’t really caught on that much. That might be due to no one really “checking for” Vaihinger in the first place, at least not in the German-speaking world. The English Wikipedia article about Vaihinger does not contain the false quote and is of a much higher quality overall. So there is hope yet.

[21] I will personally try to contribute as best as I can to his German Wikipedia article by correcting the false quote and adding some other information, despite being neither an expert on Vaihinger, philosophy nor really any of the topics involved. But it’s curious to think that the quote is out there now, in books and papers, few as they are, and that there isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Perhaps, one day no one will even know where it came from anymore. But I doubt that it matters because, as this has shown, there is a very simple truth at the heart of it: No one really cares.

[22] Still. To anyone wishing to quote something, all I can say is: Open the damn book!



Amendments:

12 September 2017: Correction of the descriptions of fig. 11 and 13 (in the first post version, these were erroneously cited as monographies instead of edited volumes).


Footnotes:

(1) I am still faintly annoyed about a mistake I once found in the Lexikon des Mittelalters (a renowned German encyclopedia for the Middle Ages). In the article about Wilbrand von Oldenburg, it claims that as Bishop of Utrecht, he fought against rioters led by “Rudolf von Roevorden” – this led to a confused search of mine until I figured out that the man was actually from the city of Coevorden! Not that it matters all that much, the man’s Wikipedia article is just one sentence long, but still. I actually now realized that I forgot to notify the LexMa of the error but I also feel stupidly petty for being bothered by it. So I just checked and the error’s still there. Five years later. Mea culpa. ()

(2) Arthur Fine, “Fictionalism,” in: Midwest Studies in Philosophy XVIII (1993), 1-18, here 4. ()

(3) Cf. Mauricio Suárez, “Fictions in Scientific Practice,” in: Fictions in Science: Philosophical Essays on Modeling and Idealization (London: Routledge, 2009), ed. by Mauricio Suárez, 3-18, here 4. ()

(4) The famously irreverent journalist was characteristically unkind in his review of both Vaihinger’s work and Ogden’s translation, cf. H. L. Mencken, “Philosophers as Liars,” in: The American Mercury (October 1924), 253-255. ()

(5) The list should be enough for anyone interested in the topic to get started: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming#cite_note-92 ()


Image Sources:

Featured image: Taken from the front matter of the 4th edition of “Die Philosopie des Als Ob”, Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1920.

Fig. 1: City Archive of Tübingen, taken from this newspaper article: Claudia Hailfinger, “Spuren eines Denkers,” in: Reutlinger General-Anzeiger (22.02.2013), online: https://web.archive.org/web/20170905143801/http://www.gea.de/region+reutlingen/tuebingen/spuren+eines+vergessenen+denkers.3040063.htm.

Fig. 2-14: Screenshots and scans made by myself between 4 September 2017 and 7 September 2017 with some added annotations/highlights in blue (see the respective descriptions for details).


Literature:

Fine, Arthur. “Fictionalism.” In: Midwest Studies in Philosophy XVIII (1993), 1-18.

Mencken, H. L. “Philosophers as Liars.” In: The American Mercury (October 1924), 253-255.

Suárez, Mauricio (Ed.). Fictions in Science: Philosophical Essays on Modeling and Idealization. London: Routledge, 2009.

Vaihinger, Hans. Die Philosophie des Als Ob: System der theoretischen, praktischen und religiösen Fiktionen der Menschheit auf Grund eines idealistischen Positivismus – Mit einem Anhang über Kant und Nietzsche. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 1911.

Vaihinger, Hans. The Philosophy of ‘As if’: A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind. Translated by C. K. Ogden. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1924.


Citation Recommendation:

Tessa Gengnagel, "The Quote That Never Was," in: parergon, 07/09/2017, http://parergon.hypotheses.org/256.


Tessa Gengnagel

PhD student from Germany. Background in History / Medieval Latin / European Multimedia Arts & Cultural Heritage Studies. Interest in Digital Humanities.

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2 Responses

  1. Super interesting! I had a somewhat similar experience with a quote attributed to Sophie Scholl on the English Wikiquote (currently the first one under “disputed” after I moved it there [1] ): It is ascribed to her in a publication with religious background that doesn’t give the original source for that statement. But nobody bothered to look once there was a reference given on-wiki. And at least a pretty popular web comic cited her incorrectly in that way and I found some other web sources that do the same [2].
    I did the same kind of research as you did, and my best guess today is that the quote was invented for a Sophie Scholl character in an American theater play in the 90’s. (Also, it exists only in English as it seems, no German original)
    I could convince the author of the web comic to issue a correction ex-post under the comic, but of course even after that it was shared multiple times (see blogroll underneath the comic) and the correction was lost again… People just copy/link to the singular image.

    Given that I (and you) just stumbled over this by chance, it is not hard to imagine that the “Dunkelziffer” for these cases must be enormous. Luckily, researchers are working on approaches to verify citations on Wikis, but especially with older, printed works, this will always be super challenging.

    Gruß aus Köln,
    Fabian

    [1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sophie_Scholl#Disputed
    [2] http://zenpencils.com/comic/108-sophie-scholl-the-fire-within/

    • Tessa Gengnagel says:

      Thanks for your interesting comment and contribution! I agree that the “Dunkelziffer” of cases like these is probably pretty high and most are simply not discovered because no one bothers to look for the primary sources (unless we are talking about very famous authors like, let’s say, Shakespeare, although many false quotes and misattributions circulate nonetheless… as in the case of Oscar Wilde where it seems to be enough for many people to be able to imagine that he might have said this or that in his trademark style… I also wonder whether some of these misattributions of quotes happen not just by accident but sometimes with an authorizing strategy in mind; at least, that’s how it used to work in the Middle Ages with all the “pseudo-” attributions that were supposed to lend some weight to a quote… of course, back then it was supposedly more difficult to verify the original source and dispute such claims but as we are seeing with these examples, the diffusion of mass information can throw some sand into people’s eyes as well).

      And the other phenomenon that you note is very interesting as well: The fact that the retraction is never as widely shared as the initial “fake news”. I’m not sure if anything can be done about that. At least on Wikiquote, there is the “disputed” section but it might make sense to establish something akin to the print world practice where a newspaper is obliged to print a correction with the same kind of visibility as the original false report. I’m not sure that the version history of Wikipedia articles is enough to document these kinds of incidents because barely anyone that I know ever looks at them.

      Some issues to ponder.

      Gruß aus Köln nach Köln,
      Tessa

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