The following is popular on lists of "quotable quotes":

Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.

The Google Books drilldown gives its earliest record in Cohen & Cohen (1971) The Penguin dictionary of modern quotations.

Do we have a proper source for this, or is it spurious?

  • I'm not sure this is the right place for this kind of question, but I could be wrong. – Robusto Jan 31 '11 at 13:23
  • 2
    @Robusto: I'm not sure either, but historical questions about origins of stock phrases are on topic, and it's not explicitly off topic, so... – Charles Stewart Jan 31 '11 at 13:31
  • This is a history question, not a language question. Language history questions have to do with borrowings and language evolution. This question is more about finding a particular person to originate a saying. I agree it’s kind of marginal, but I’m closing it as off-topic. – nohat Feb 3 '11 at 7:16
  • 3
    @nohat: The closure being conveniently delayed until I had received excellent and complete answers... – Charles Stewart Feb 3 '11 at 9:05

Here's a graph of the number of references of the phrase "really six people present" Click on the first range (1800-1017) and you'll see this, which attributes this statement to Oliver Wendell Holmes. What's perhaps relevant is the reference to "John and James"—I'm guessing two placeholder names.

The next reference isn't until 1962, but it doesn't seem to mention the author.

But I think the solution to your mystery is this 1963 book of quotes, which is the first to attribute it to William James. My guess is that Greenberg vaguely remembered Mullins's quote, but his memory played a trick on him, turning the "John and James" into William James, the author.

| improve this answer | |

Thanks to whitman's answer, which set me on the path to finding this:

It's from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (though those essays were actually reprints, so it's slightly older). The text is at http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/owh/abt03.html, and does not include the exact quotation asked about.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    First: good work. Second: It's amazing how John+Thomas -> John+James -> William James. Third: That's why I hate quotation books. – so-user Feb 3 '11 at 0:35
  • msh, @whitman: This is far more than I expected when I asked the question. Excellent work, both of you. – Charles Stewart Feb 3 '11 at 9:02

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.