Sunday, October 24, 2010

The definition of insanity

In today's Globe column, where I plead* for an end to the argument over "I could care less" after 50 years of fruitless repetition, I mention the popular Internet "definition," attributed to various sources: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

One commenter says "the definition of insanity was Einstein ... who else has it been attributed to???" Well, it is often attributed to Einstein, and also to Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, but so far there's no proof it existed before about 1980.

In the excellent Yale Book of Quotations (2006) -- a scholarly collection, not just a roundup of favorite alleged sayings -- editor Fred R. Shapiro found the earliest statement of the sentiment in Rita Mae Brown's "Sudden Death," published in 1983: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

And just last month, at the Answers.com entry (which also cites Brown), commenter Davidt 9 offered a slight antedating:
The quote "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results" is contained in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous which was published in 1982. The review form of the book was distributed to members in 1981 and work on the book began in 1979. All of this predates Rita Mae Brown's book.
He gave a link to the book, which does, as advertised, have the relevant quote on page 11 (25th page of the PDF). I also found a 1980 pamphlet from the Hazelden Foundation, "Step Two: The Promise of Hope," which quotes the same aphorism, so perhaps it got its start in the literature of addiction and recovery.

And of course there may not be an original author;  probably these three sources picked up a formulation that had been percolating in the spoken language, possibly in less eloquent variations, just as it was settling into the pithy form we now consider good enough for Einstein.                            

*Unsuccessfully, to judge from the comments and e-mail.

13 comments:

Kay L. Davies said...

Well, if it's in the book of Narcotics Anonymous, it's probably in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which predates NA.
The book "Alcoholics Anonymous" was written in the second half of the 1930s, and it's very possible the author, Bill Wilson, quoted Ben Franklin or Mark Twain or both, because he was fond of the no-nonsense kind of writers.
Nevertheless, it is true. It is crazy to keep repeating the same thing (behaviors, mistakes, whatever) and expect different results. 'Nuff said.

nuclearheadache said...

I know this isn't really the point of your post, but I usually say, "I couldn't care less." It just makes more logical sense to me, but I realize that there's a lot of confusion surrounding the phrase. I think the reason that there's been so much more debate over that phrase than over the other examples you mentioned in your article is because there are opposing mainstream viewpoints concerning the usage of the phrase.

For instance, you mentioned "aggravate". There are only a small group of purists trying to restrict the term to its proper meaning. Everyone else has accepted it as also meaning "annoy", and they accept it without giving it another thought. In fact, I'd bet that a lot of people aren't even aware of its proper meaning. The people on the "annoy" side of the fence grossly outnumber the people on the "to make worse" side of the fence. On the other hand, with "could/couldn't care less" even the uneducated get into heated debate over which one is the right phrase. I hear it all the time.

I don't worry too much about it, and I've probably been guilty of using both phrases interchangeably at one time or another. However, I don't see the debate going away any time soon until one of the phrases gains unquestionable ground over the other in popular usage.

Danny Liss said...

When I read the column over the weekend, I thought it was great that you were setting people straight about language being more complicated than people think (especially when you acknowledge things like tone and sarcasm). I didn't give it a second thought until I saw the footnote in the blog post this morning and went back and looked at the comments. Now I'm sad.

Jan said...

Kay: Well, if it's in the Big Book, it shouldn't be hard to come up with an earlier citation, given the handbook's huge circulation and huge audience. But even if Bill Wilson *said* he was quoting Franklin or Twain, that wouldn't make it so; our fondness for attributing good quotes to famous writers is nothing new. And so far, there's no evidence of any kind connecting the aphorism with either (well-documented) man.

Faldone said...

I am reminded of the story of Robert Bruce and the spider.

The Ridger, FCD said...

@Danny: I used to read the comments there; sometimes I even commented. I don't anymore. I just read the columns and am happy.

M. Burns said...

Wrong. Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and GETTING different results.

Anonymous said...

In the column, you mention "have your cake and eat it too." Do you write about it elsewhere? I find it hard to understand why some bad usages offend more than others, but this one always bugs me.

Kelli said...

I read your article on "I could care less" with great interest. I am currently living in England, where the "I couldn't care less" version is much more popular and the other version regarded as fairly ignorant, as it's logically incorrect. As a grammar stickler (and professional proofreader), this is definitely one of my pet peeves. The others are: using enormity and enormousness interchangably; "enormity" actually means "atrociousness" and the "of great size" meaning is regarded as non-standard by most grammarians; and the very similar "continuous" and "continual" which hardly anyone uses correctly. I will continue to correct incorrect copy until people start to take notice - I do worry that maybe I'm wasting my breath and time, but it makes me feel better! :)

e said...

Surely there is no hard and fast line between the meanings of "continual" and "continuous". Isn't there a semantic continuum here? And does the noun "continuity" go with both adjectives, or just one?

Carneades said...

You missed the (very high geek) joke in attributing this to Einstein. Einstein famously opposed the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechancs in which all actions have a distribution of possible outcomes and where the same act can result in different outcomes. So this makes sense as a witty comment by Einstein criticizing other physicists by calling their idea insane.

Anonymous said...

Just found this post after hearing someone say this for the hundredth time. It drives me crazy (ha ha)! I did a little research, and Bill Clinton may have played a role in popularizing this inane phrase. He repeated the "definition of insanity" line several times during the 1992 presidential campaign. The usage seems to really take off in the mid-1990s.

Eva said...

@ Jan and Kay - I just looked in the online version of The Big Book, and the quote may have had its genesis in chapter 3. Interesting. Just search for "definition," and it pops up. Not exactly the same thing, but one could see how the "quote" evolved from that paragraph.

http://www.aa.org/bigbookonline/en_bigbook_chapt3.pdf