Quotations by Clifford, William Kingdon


If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question and discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The Ethics of Belief,” Part 1 “The Duty of Inquiry,” Contemporary Review (Jan 1877)
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The rule which should guide us in such cases is simple and obvious enough: that the aggregate testimony of our neighbours is subject to the same conditions as the testimony of any one of them. Namely, we have no right to believe a thing true because everybody says so unless there are good grounds for believing that some one person at least has the means of knowing what is true, and is speaking the truth so far as he knows it. However many nations and generations of men are brought into the witness-box, they cannot testify to anything which they do not know. Every man who has accepted the statement from somebody else, without himself testing and verifying it, is out of court; his word is worth nothing at all. And when we get back at last to the true birth and beginning of the statement, two serious questions must be disposed of in regard to him who first made it: was he mistaken in thinking that he knew about this matter, or was he lying?

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The Ethics of Belief,” Part 2 “The Weight of Authority,” Contemporary Review (Jan 1877)
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Men speak the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe things because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant?

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The Ethics of Belief,” Contemporary Review (Jan 1877)
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Do I seem to say, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die?” Far from it; on the contrary, I say, “Let us take hands and help, for this day we are alive together.”

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The First and the Last Catastrophe,” Popular Science Monthly (Jul 1875)
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The name philosopher, which meant originally “lover of wisdom,” has come in some strange way to mean a man who thinks it is his business to explain everything in a certain number of large books. It will be found, I think, that in proportion to his colossal ignorance is the perfection and symmetry of the system which he sets up; because it is so much easier to put an empty room tidy than a full one.

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
Quoted in A. D’Abro, The Evolution of Scientific Thought from Newton to Einstein, Part 4, ch. 37 (1927)
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D'Abro says it comes from one of Clifford's essays, but the source does not appear online.
Added on 14-Feb-20 | Last updated 14-Feb-20
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