[PW] Fwd: Graham, Buffett, and problems with oral remarks generally

John Cowan cowan at ccil.org
Fri Jan 10 12:59:04 PST 2020

(This is a copy of a message I sent to Garson O'Toole.  He has already made
changes in his Quote Investigator post, so the first paragraph is obsolete.
I'm posting the message here primarily for the reflections in the remaining
paragraphs, which may be of interest to w0mb at ts.


I think that your conclusion in your latest post <
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2020/01/09/market/>  that Buffett was wrong
to attribute the "voting machine, weighing machine" remark (as opposed to
its substance) to Graham is unwarranted by the facts, and that this is a
general problem with oral remarks.  We know that Buffett was one of
Graham's students at Columbia Business School and may have worked with him
personally, There is nothing at all to rule out that Graham may have said
the remark exactly as Buffett reported it, either in a lecture or in
private conversation, even if Graham never published it.  After all,
Buffett uses the verb "said", not "wrote".

This is a general problem for anyone better known for their conversations
or speeches than for their writings, at least until the invention of sound
recordings.  Consider this remark from Boswell's Life of Johnson:  "I’ll
come no more behind your scenes, David, for the silk stockings and white
bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities."  This is
unhesitatingly reprinted as a genuine Johnson remark even in carefully
checked sources, although we know from Boswell's journal for that time that
he originally recorded the last phrase as "do make my genitals to quiver"
and bowdlerized it for publication.

And even the earlier version may not be right, for after all Boswell did
not pursue Johnson with pen and paper like a stenographer: he recorded such
conversations in his journal in the evening at home, and was often several
weeks behind.  Boswell asserted only the *substantial* accuracy of his
record.  It is notorious that journalists to this day still mostly use
paper, and often the quotations that get printed simply do not agree with
contemporaneous sound recordings.  Not only are minor changes of wording
present, but there are sometimes vexatious errors that affect meaning.

But what we are to do about it, unless we are to purge everything not
actually published by its creator from all quotation collections, that I
don't know.

John Cowan          http://vrici.lojban.org/~cowan        cowan at ccil.org
Almost all theorems are true, but almost all proofs have bugs.
        --Paul Pedersen

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