I doubt this could be where I originally came across this quip/joke, but a google search found it in footnote #2 of [1]. The footnote reads:

2 Compare the malicious joke: 'Mr. Z claims to have found a counterexample to my theory. But he has misunderstood me, he has not interpreted my words as I intended. For I intended that there be no counterexamples.'

The author died in 2001; so there's no prospect of a direct inquiry as to the origins of this. Am I right in thinking this must be some kind of old chestnut in logic or philosophy? Would anybody know its provenance?

  1. Lewis, David. 1984. “Putnam’s Paradox.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62(3):221–36. doi: 10.1080/00048408412340013.

Edit: Just a note to underscore that I'm asking here mainly about the origins of this 'joke'. Is it something David Lewis made up on the fly here? Or might it be so widely known in philosophy [an 'old chestnut'] that it need not even be cited? (You could, e.g., make an offhand reference to 'The Cave' without explicitly citing Plato.)

  • 2
    Dead men give no counterexamples.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:47
  • The truth is out there. ~ X Files (1990s). The problem is it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
    – Hudjefa
    Jul 29, 2023 at 6:15

1 Answer 1


Yap, Lewis was a prominent philosopher known for his work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and epistemology, so this quip reflects a kind of insider humor among philosophers.

The joke seems to play on the idea that one can always evade criticism of a philosophical claim by saying that any counterexamples are based on a misunderstanding of what was said. This is, of course, a fallacious way of arguing, since it can be used to preclude any possibility of disproving anything. Even if people can be misunderstood.

  • 3
    Lewis was not a true Scotsman.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:48
  • i don't know of many philosophers who claimed to have been completely misunderstood by all their peers. maybe wittgenstein, but then he was arguably the most successful philosopher of the 20th century. for that reason, i think this is a red herring fallacy haha
    – user66760
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:57
  • 1
    @doot_s: Lol. Hegel's dying words were allegedly "There was only one man who ever understood me, and even he didn't understand me." See the pithy summary here existentialcomics.com/comic/302 Hegel is a superlative example of someone who used undisprovable & vague statements to sound profound & avoid scrutiny of his ideas, which are extremely difficult to pin down. He was almost more Daoist mystic than philosopher, but his influence on Marx means he cannot be ignored.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 28, 2023 at 19:49
  • thanks @CriglCragl i was about to say that as a joke, with a punchline, it would be like "to get to the other side" it is so obviously a philosophical error. but you may be right, though the quote is presumably fabricated
    – user66760
    Jul 28, 2023 at 19:53
  • that funny to me, based on the anecdote that i asked someone if i could write my undergrad dissertation on hegel @CriglCragl and he pulled this face as if to say "the second person to understand me was insane"
    – user66760
    Jul 28, 2023 at 19:56

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