Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Einstein Enigmatic Quote

There are many attributed quotes by Albert Einstein. When you consider his prolific output of commentary, particularly on humanity's future in the atomic age, it is not surprising that there will be some variations and contemporary reinterpretations. One important quote in particular keeps appearing in so many different forms it has become hard to isolate its source. It's five main variations often read something like:

"Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them."

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

"The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation."

"The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."

"The world we have made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them."

When I quote someone I like to know (if possible) the context for the quote and its source. I went looking for an authoritative reference for this quote: to the internet, leading reference works, bibliographies of materials, collected archives and professional librarians. The general consensus is that, having such wide variations usually means a quote is attributed and has no actual source. I did find this though.

In the interview by Michael Amrine titled, 'The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men' (New York Times Magazine - June 23 1946) Einstein says: 'Many persons have inquired concerning a recent message of mine that "a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels".' (p.7)

The source of that recent message is quoted in an article that appeared the month before titled 'Atomic Education Urged by Einstein' where the mircofiche archive copy of the article reports on an appeal by telegram to 'several hundred prominent Americans' on 24 May 1946 in a 'Plea for $200,000 to promote new type of essential thinking'. The telegram was signed by the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with Albert Einstein as Chairman and the Federation of American Scientists. The text of that telegram is quoted in part and reads:

'Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. We scientists who released this immense power have an overwhelming responsibility in this world life-and-death struggle to harness the atom for the benefit of mankind and not for humanity's destruction. We need two hundred thousand dollars at once for a nation-wide campaign to let people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels. This appeal is sent to you only after long consideration of the immense crisis we face. ... We ask your help at this fateful moment as a sign that we scientists do not stand alone.' (Source: New York Times - May 25 1946, p.13 - 'Atomic Education Urged by Einstein')

The question to ask ourselves is when did the call for 'a new type of thinking' to enable the move to higher levels, become reinterpreted into the need instead for 'a new level' in the same problem-based thinking - and what does this pattern of abstraction say about our desire to escape from our problems?

In chasing down the quote it was interesting going through the full copy of the paper of the day. Issues of global threat, scarcity of resources, neo-nationalism, absence of political confidence and concerns for the future. The themes are still familiar now. The context of this particular request was very different. A global threat was immanent. Other quotes of the time reflect this:

"Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars."~"The old type of thinking can raise a thousand objections of "realism" against this simplicity. But such thought ignores the psychological realities."~"We must realize we cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace."~"These and a hundred other questions concerning the desirable evolution of the world seem to be getting very little attention."

(New York Times - 23 June 1946 )

As an author I realize that my words will always be taken out of context, quotes will be made selectively and intentions expressed will be changed to reflect the intention of the reader, finding support or opposition in those words for a different purpose.

Yet, I suppose the grace in our ever changing sociological face, is the source of those words will always remain, ... for those who care to look.


  1. "Problems are best solved not on the level where they appear to occur but on the next level above them....Problems are best solved by transcending them and looking at them from a higher viewpoint. At the higher level, the problems automatically resolve themselves because of that shift in point of view, or one might see there was no problem at all."

    David R. Hawkins. 2009. Healing and Recovery. Sedona, AZ; Veritas Publishing, p. 176.

    (thanks Caleb)

  2. Are you saying that the oft-quoted passage by Einstein is incorrect or has been misinterpreted, or in fact was never said by him at all?

    Is the passage that you cite, being the declaration of a group,the only such quote by Einstein?

    Have you exhausted all possible other sources for the quote that could also be attributed to Einstein?

    I am not clear about your post.

  3. Thanks,

    The point I make is that regardless of the intentions of the author, the social construction of knowledge will enact its own version of that work, sometimes appropriating the work for the opposite of its intention. This co-opting may change too over time. There is a poetic irony in this. Wikipedia provides a new legitimation for this.

    As to my belief on the Einstein Quote - I suspect it was never said by him at all. It is likely to be a modern corruption. I would like this belief to be reversed.

    The modern version of the quote implies a new 'level' [of thinking]. Enstein advocated for a new 'type' [of thinking] (i.e. post-militarism). 'Levels of thought' is a recent invention in developmental psychology, hence the re-telling, especially for the cause of evolutionary humanism (which work I support).

    Distinguished authors (and PhD's, academic scholarly articles) that have used the quote universally do not cite a direct source. I suspect a transcript of the radio interview in November 1946 might contain the answer. The telegram referred to might too, yet is only signed by Einstein and so is not his quote alone. I did contact the Einstein archives with no confirmation. The prize I offered for an original source of the quote directly to Einstein went unclaimed.

    It seems we tell the story we want, and use the greatest minds we can to lend support as we need to.

  4. Rather than promote the misquote, there is also the option of making a direct quote from the 'Russell-Einstein Manifesto' of 9 July 1959, issued with the same sentiment by Bertrand Russell on behalf of eleven signatories (including Albert Einstein who had signed shortly before his death on 18 April 1959, three months prior to its release) - which has the phrase:

    "We have to learn to think in a new way"

    The context of that quote, regarding nuclear militarism, is here:

    "We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it. We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?"

    Web Reference:

  5. ... one more addition.

    This Einstein quote is also close (note the poetic irony of the reference to the updating of old cliche's):

    "Our situation is not comparable to anything in the past. It is impossible, therefore, to apply methods and measures which at an earlier age might have been sufficient. We must revolutionize our thinking, revolutionize our actions, and must have the courage to revolutionize relations among nations of the world. Cliches of yesterday will no longer do today, and will, no doubt, be hopelessly out of date tomorrow."

    Einstein (1948) " A Message to Intellectuals"
    Source: 'Albert Einstein' Green J. (Ed.), 2003 (p. 52)