Daniel J. Boorstin

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We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions.

Daniel J. Boorstin (October 1, 1914 – February 28, 2004) was an American historian, professor, attorney, and author. He served as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1969-1973 and was the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. His book trilogy, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, The National Experience, and The Democratic Experience received the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize. In 1989, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was bestowed upon him.

Quotes[edit]

Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.
These creators, makers of the new, can never become obsolete, for in the arts there is no correct answer.
  • Our attitude toward our own culture has recently been characterized by two qualities, braggadocio and petulance. Braggadocio —- empty boasting of American power, American virtue, American know-how —- has dominated our foreign relations now for some decades. ... Here at home —- within the family, so to speak —- our attitude to our culture expresses a superficially different spirit, the spirit of petulance. Never before, perhaps, has a culture been so fragmented into groups, each full of its own virtue, each annoyed and irritated at the others.
    • Foreword to America and the image of Europe: Reflections on American Thought, Meridian Books, 1960, as cited in: Robert Andrews (1993) The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Columbia University Press, p. 207.
  • Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.
    • A Case of Hypochondria, Newsweek (6 July 1970).
  • The century after the Civil War was to be an Age of Revolution—of countless, little-noticed revolutions, which occurred not in the halls of legislatures or on battlefields or on the barricades but in homes and farms and factories and schools and stores, across the landscape and in the air—so little noticed because they came so swiftly, because they touched Americans everywhere and every day. Not merely the continent but human experience itself, the very meaning of community, of time and space, of present and future, was being revised again and again, a new democratic world was being invented and was being discovered by Americans wherever they lived.
    • The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973), as cited in: Robert J. Gordon (2016), The Rise and Fall of American Growth, p. 1.
  • I write to discover what I think. After all, the bars aren't open that early.
    • As quoted in Wall Street Journal (31 December 1985) on why he did his writing at home very early in the morning while he served as the Librarian of Congress.
  • These creators, makers of the new, can never become obsolete, for in the arts there is no correct answer. The story of discoverers could be told in simple chronological order, since the latest science replaces what went before. But the arts are another story — a story of infinite addition. We must find order in the random flexings of the imagination.
    • The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (1992) (Vintage edition, 1993, ISBN 0-679-74375-8), Preface, p. XV.
  • The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.
    • Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (1995). This "aphorism" was expressed in different forms by Josh Billings and Socrates.
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.
    • As quoted in Book of Humorous Quotations (1998), by Connie Robertson, p. 29.

The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948)[edit]

The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, University of Chicago Press, 1948; 1993.

  • The institutional scene in which American man has developed has lacked that accumulation from intervening stages which has been so dominant a feature of the European landscape.
    • Introduction, part 2: The Influence of America on the Mind, p. 6.
  • While the Jeffersonian did not flatly deny the Creator's power to perform miracles, he admired His refusal to do so.
    • Ch. 1, part 2: The Economy of Nature, p. 41.
  • While the easiest way in metaphysics is to condemn all metaphysics as nonsense, the easiest way in morals is to elevate the common practice of the community into a moral absolute.
    • Ch. 3, The Physiology of Thought and Morals, Introduction, p. 111.
  • The variety of minds served the economy of nature in many ways. The Creator, who designed the human brain for activity, had insured the restlessness of all minds by enabling no single one to envisage all the qualities of the creation. Since no one by himself could aspire to a serene knowledge of the whole truth, all men had been drawn into an active, exploratory and cooperative attitude.
    • Ch. 3, Part 2: The Happy Variety of Minds, p. 125.
  • Jefferson refused to pin his hopes on the occasional success of honest and unambitious men; on the contrary, the great danger was that philosophers would be lulled into complacence by the accidental rise of a Franklin or a Washington. Any government which made the welfare of men depend on the character of their governors was an illusion.
    • Ch. 4, Part 1: Natural History and Political Science, p. 178.
  • Jeffersonian isolationism expressed an essentially cosmopolitan spirit. The Jeffersonian was determined — even at the expense of separating himself from the rest of the globe, and even though he be charged with provincial selfishness — to preserve America as an uncontaminated laboratory.
    • Ch. 4, part 6: The American Destiny, p. 229.
  • Since the Creator had made the facts of the after-life inaccessible to man, He must not have required that man understand death in order to live fruitfully.
    • Notes, p. 262.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)[edit]

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America 1961; Vintage editions, 1992, 2012. ISBN 0-679-74180-1

  • We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.
    • Preface
  • IN THE last half century a larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo‑events. We expect more of them and we are given more of them. They flood our consciousness. Their multiplication has gone on in the United States at a faster rate than elsewhere. Even the rate of increase is increasing every day. This is true of the world of education, of consumption, and of personal relations.
    • p. 12.
  • The news leak is a pseudo‑event par excellence. In its origin and growth, the leak illustrates another axiom of the world of pseudo‑events: pseudo‑events produce more pseudo‑events.
    • p. 31.
  • Pseudo‑events spawn other pseudo‑events in geometric progression. This is partly because every kind of pseudo­-event (being planned) tends to become ritualized, with a protocol and a rigidity all its own. As each type of pseudo-­event acquires this rigidity, pressures arise to produce other, derivative, forms of pseudo‑event which are more fluid, more tantalizing, and more interestingly ambiguous.
    • p. 33.
  • These pseudo‑events which flood our consciousness must be distinguished from propaganda. The two do have some characteristics in common. But our peculiar problems come from the fact that pseudo‑events are in some respects the op­posite of the propaganda which rules totalitarian countries. Propaganda — as prescribed, say, by Hitler in Mein Kampf — is information intentionally biased. Its effect depends pri­marily on its emotional appeal. While a pseudo‑event is an ambiguous truth, propaganda is an appealing falsehood. Pseudo‑events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have “all the facts,” and even to have more facts than there really are.
    • p. 34.
  • The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.
    • p. 37.
  • In the age of pseudo‑events it is less the artificial sim­plification than the artificial complication of experience that confuses us. Whenever in the public mind a pseudo‑event competes for attention with a spontaneous event in the same field, the pseudo‑event will tend to dominate. What happens on television will overshadow what happens off television.
    • p. 39.
  • Pseudo‑events do, of course, increase our illusion of grasp on the world, what some have called the American illusion of omnipotence. Perhaps, we come to think, the world’s problems can really be settled by “statements,” by “Summit” meetings, by a competition of “prestige,” by overshadowing images, and by political quiz shows.
    • p. 44.
  • Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.
    • p. 48.
  • A celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.
    • p. 57.
  • The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original. The shadow has become the substance.
    • p. 204.
  • By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs.
    • p. 213.
  • A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.
    • p. 220.
  • Of all nations in the world, the United States was built in nobody's image. It was the land of the unexpected, of unbounded hope, of ideals, of quest for an unknown perfection. It is all the more unfitting that we should offer ourselves in images. And all the more fitting that the images which we make wittingly or unwittingly to sell America to the world should come back to haunt and curse us.
    • p. 245.
  • As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America. has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.
    • p. 257.
  • We must first awake before we can walk in the right direction. We must discover our illusions before we can even realize that we have been sleepwalking. The least and the most we can hope for is that each of us may penetrate the unknown jungle of images in which we live our daily lives. That we may discover anew where dreams end and where illusions begin. This is enough. Then we may know where we are, and each of us may decide for himself where he wants to go.
    • p. 261.

The Republic of Technology (1978)[edit]

The Republic of Technology: Reflections on our Future Community, Harper-Collins, 1978. ISBN 0060104287

  • The Republic of Technology where we will be living is a feedback world.
    • p. 9.
  • The American settlers came to take and shape the land. The first occupants of the land — the "Indians" whom the European migrants encountered — would not be treated, in the pattern of the Romans, as people to be incorporated into an empire. Instead, they were treated as part of the landscape. Most of them were simply cleared away, like the forest, or pushed back, like the wilderness.
    • p. 38.


Misattributed[edit]

  • The cities of Italy are now deluged with droves of these creatures [tour groups], for they never separate, and you see them, forty in number, pouring along a street with their director — now in front, now at the rear, circling them like a sheep dog — and really the process is as like herding as may be.
    • Charles James Lever, Cornelius O'Dowd Upon Men and Women and Other Things in General (Blackwood's Magazine, 1864-1865): "Continental Excursionists" [Adamant Media Corporation, 2001, ISBN 0-543-90729-5], p. 243. Quoted by Boorstin in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) [Vintage edition, 1992, ISBN 0-679-74180-1], Ch. 3: From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel, p. 88.

External links[edit]

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