“We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish”


Marshall McLuhan frequently used the fish being unaware of water metaphor as a comment on humans going about their lives, oblivious of the environments created by their technologies, especially media technologies, until these produce disturbances or problems, such as pornography, spam or privacy invasion, or until someone of  “integral awareness,” notably artists, shock us into awareness of the subliminal environment. Then we see the environment as the heretofore hidden ground, previously obscured by the figures that held our attention because they were patently obvious……..AlexK

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” ― Marshall McLuhan, War & Peace in the Global Village (1968)

“Media effects are new environments as imperceptible as water to a fish, subliminal for the most part.” – Counterblast (1969, p. 22)

“I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible. This problem is doubly acute today because man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension.” – Marshall McLuhan, Playboy Interview, 1969

“…all I can say in this particular medium” by Mort Gerberg, published in ‘The New Yorker’, March 20, 1995, p. 66


The New Yorker: “Because I’ve already said all I can say in this particular medium.” by Mort Gerberg, March 20, 1995, p. 66. © Condé Nast. From Mort Gerberg’s official website .

The following discussion is republished from the Quote Investigator Blog, which seeks to explore the origins of notable quotations: http://tinyurl.com/o76xqdx :

Who First Created this Quotation?: Marshall McLuhan? Albert Einstein? Pierce Butler? James C. Coleman? John H. Fisher? John Culkin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes an individual embedded in a particular culture or environment can become blind to the prevailing norms within his or her domain. I have heard a figurative expression that illustrates this predicament. Here are three versions:

We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.
I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.
The fish will be the last to discover water.

These words are often credited to the communication theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, but I have not found a good citation. Could you examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in 1966, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he attributed the words to an anonymous “someone”. He also used the expression in later speeches. Detailed citations for McLuhan are given further below.

An entertaining precursor was published in a 1915 novel titled “The Cheerful Blackguard”, but in this instance a fish did discover water. The discovery was a figurative analogy leading to a discussion of human behavior. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Once upon a time there was an inventive fish, who discovered water.
Some day, perhaps an inventive man may discover love, the atmosphere our souls breathe. And other men will tell him, “How you’ve changed!”

In 1936 Albert Einstein wrote a compact three-paragraph essay titled “Self-Portrait”. It was published in English in 1950 together with a set of other essays in the volume “Out of My Later Years”. Einstein envisioned a fish that was oblivious to the surrounding water: 2

Of what is significant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware, and it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?

The passage above caught the attention of some book readers. For example, in 1950 Einstein’s two sentences were reprinted in the “New York Times” when “Out of My Later Years” was reviewed. 3

In 1954 a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing about the United Nations and invited testimony form a lawyer named Pierce Butler. His written remarks mentioned fish and the non-detection of water: 4

So men who have developed in a climate of thought use their customary responses when practical necessities transfer them to new regions. It has been said that men are governed by their imaginations, but it would be more accurate to say that they are governed by their lack of imagination. It wasn’t fish who discovered water.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1960 a psychology textbook titled “Personality Dynamics and Effective Behavior” by James C. Coleman was published. The author used an expression that matched the third example listed by the questioner; however, the attribution given was anonymous: 5

Curiously enough, the individual is usually so deeply immersed in his culture that he is scarcely aware of it as a shaping force in his life. As someone has remarked, “The fish will be the last to discover water.” People who know no other cultural patterns but their own tend to regard them as God-given and intrinsically right.

In 1966 the first edition of “A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning” by William G. Moulton was published. The foreword was written by John H. Fisher, Executive Secretary of the Modern Language Association. It was dated March 28, 1966, and Fisher employed a concise instance of the adage: 6 7

No fish ever discovered water and no monolingual speaker ever understood the unique qualities of his own language.

In April 1966 “Ramparts” magazine printed an article titled “Understanding Marshall McLuhan” by Howard Gossage. The saying appeared in the text, but it was credited to a follower of McLuhan named John Culkin [Professor John Culkin, SJ of Fordham University] and not to McLuhan himself: 8

In the ordinary course of events, we are not aware of our environment any more than a fish is aware of his. As Father John Culkin of Fordham, a leading McLuhanite, says, “We don’t know who it was discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

In November 1966 Marshall McLuhan attended a symposium called “Technology and World Trade”, and during a discussion period he employed an instance of the saying, but he specified an anonymous attribution: 9

Dr. McLuhan: … Someone said once, “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish!” We are all in this position, being surrounded by some environment or element that blinds us totally; the message of the fish theme is a very important one, and just how to get through to people that way is quite a problem.

We have from the moment of birth a fear of the new environment. We always prefer the old one.

The next day at the same symposium another speaker assigned the expression directly to McLuhan: 10

Marshall McLuhan was here yesterday. You know he talks about how we don’t see the environment we’re in. The comment he made that I think best captures this notion is, “I don’t know who discovered water but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.”

In March 1967 McLuhan delivered a speech at the University of Toronto that included the following line: 11

A wit has said we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter released “They Became What They Beheld” in 1970, and it included an instance of the adage with an attribution to Culkin: 12

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re certain it wasn’t a fish.” John Culkin

In 1974 “The Atlantic” magazine published a profile piece titled “The Adman Who Hated Advertising: The Gospel According to Howard Gossage” by Warren Hinkle. Note that the April 1966 citation given previously was from an article written by Gossage. The author of the profile indicated that Gossage used the expression himself: 13

“…we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” That was another of Gossage’s favorite quotations, a line of absolutely Delphic ambiguity. It came from his McLuhan Period, when he was schlepping McLuhan around the country, introducing him as Mohammed to his friends ruling the media mountains.

The article in “The Atlantic” also stated the following:

The fish-didn’t-discover-water line Gossage, after his fashion, occasionally credited to McLuhan, when the great man was in need of explanation, but the more frequent quotee was Father John Culkin, then a Jesuit and a McLuhanite, now an ex-Jesuit but I suspect still a McLuhanite. Culkin may even have said that, but primary authorship was as difficult to trace in quotations favored by Gossage as the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Different versions of the saying continued to circulate. Here is an instance in an Oregon newspaper in 1976: 14

She thinks parents sometimes are like trees in a forest, or fish “which would be the last to discover water, because they are totally immersed in it.”

In conclusion, Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in speeches by 1966, but he credited “someone” or “a wit”. The underlying idea can be expressed in many ways. Albert Einstein employed a version of the idea in a 1936 essay.

The adamant statement “It wasn’t fish who discovered water” was written by Pierce Butler in 1954. In 1960 James C. Coleman wrote, “The fish will be the last to discover water”, but he attributed the words to “someone”. In 1966 John Culkin was credited with a version that closely matched the first example given by the questioner: “We don’t know who it was discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”


  1. 1915, The Cheerful Blackguard by Roger Pocock, Quote Page 335, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link 
  2. 1995, Out of My Later Years by Albert Einstein, Chapter 2: Self-Portrait (Essay dated 1936), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Citadel Press Book: Carol Publishing Group. New York. (Amazon Look Inside) 
  3. 1950 May 27, New York Times, Books of the Times, (Review of Albert Einstein’s essay collection “Out of My Later Years”), by Charles Poore, Quote Page 28, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) 
  4. 1954, Review of the United Nations Charter, Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Eighty-third Congress, second session, Proposals to amend or otherwise modify existing international peace and security organizations, including the United Nations, Part 6, (Hearings held June 19, 1954, prepared statement by Pierce Butler), Start Page 813, Quote Page 816, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  5. 1960, Personality Dynamics and Effective Behavior by James C. Coleman, Including Selected readings prepared by Alvin Marks, Quote Page 59, Column 2, Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) 
  6. 1970, A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning by William G. Moulton (William Gamwell Moulton), Second Edition, (First edition was published in 1966), (Foreword by John H. Fisher, Executive Secretary, Modern Language Association; dated March 28, 1966), Start Page vii, Quote Page vii, Published by Modern Language Association of America, New York. (Verified on paper in 1970 edition) 
  7. 1966-67 Winter, The Florida FL reporter: Foreign Language Journal, Edited by Alfred C Aarons, In Cooperation with the MLA FL Program, “Quote Unquote”, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Published by Florida FL reporter, North Miami Beach, Florida. (Verified on paper) 
  8. 1966 April, Ramparts, Volume 4, Number 12, Understanding Marshall McLuhan by Howard Gossage, Start Page 34, Quote Page 37, Published in San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper) 
  9. 1967, Technology and World Trade: Proceedings of a Symposium, Held November 16-17, 1966, Morning Session: November 16, 1966, Questions From The Floor, (Quotation spoken by Marshall McLuhan during discussion period), Quote Page 29, Conference Sponsored by U.S. Department of Commerce and National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Bureau of Standards Miscellaneous Publication, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  10. 1967, Technology and World Trade: Proceedings of a Symposium, Held November 16-17, 1966, Morning Session: November 17, 1966, (Speaker Peter G. Peterson, President Bell & Howell Company, Chicago, Illinois), Start Page 83, Quote Page 91, Conference Sponsored by U.S. Department of Commerce and National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Bureau of Standards Miscellaneous Publication, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  11. 2005, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews: Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, (Two part Marfleet Lectureship delivered at the Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto by Marshall McLuhan on March 16 and 17, 1967), “Canada, The Borderline Case”, Start Page 105, Quote Page 106, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview) 
  12. 1970, They Became What They Beheld by Edmund Carpenter, Page title: The Islander, (Epigraph for page), unnumbered page, Published by Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, New York, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) 
  13. 1974 March, The Atlantic (Atlantic Monthly), Volume 233, Number 3, “The Adman Who Hated Advertising: The Gospel According to Howard Gossage” by Warren Hinkle, Start Page 67, Quote Page 69, Column 1,Published by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) 
  14. 1976 November 25, Oregonian, Children at play are learning about life by Fran Jones, Quote Page K1, Column 5, (GNB Page 54), Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank) 

“Fish don’t know water exists till beached.” – Culture is Our Business, (1970, p. 191)

8 Responses to ““We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish””

  1. 1 Melodie Christopher

    When looking into your own life,saying to oneself,”where did I go wrong”,like we all do,hopefully,from time to time,this is a good angle of investigation,so to speak,if you follow the “golden rule”anyway “what can go wrong will”thanks for the insight..Melodie Christopher..asheville NC.


  2. Reblogged this on other side of town and commented:

    You can’t be Rich famous and politically radical

    Just finished listening to Jared Ball on hip hop and

    Mix what I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto
    Jared A. Ball · 2011 · Music
    … to Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “we don’t know who invented water but we know it was not the fish. An all-pervasive medium, a pervasive environment, …



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