When John Ruskin first coined the term pathetic fallacy he truly did mean that people were committing a fallacy when describing inanimate objects as having characteristics (or having pathos so were, therefore, pathetic).

The more modern meaning, however, is pretty much the same literary technique, but as an actual technique rather than a fallacious over-description.

The phrase pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, or when rocks seem indifferent. (Wikipedia)

The same article shows that the original meaning appears to have mostly survived in science, but it is considered fallacious in a more modern meaning of being logically false rather than Ruskin's original meaning of being simply a lie. Nowadays the fallacy is to attribute human characteristics to non-human concepts in scientific papers (although a good educational tactic for teaching science).

In science, the term “pathetic fallacy” is used in a pejorative way in order to discourage the kind of figurative speech in descriptions that might not be strictly accurate and clear, and that might communicate a false impression of a natural phenomenon. An example is the metaphorical phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum", which contains the suggestion that nature is capable of abhorring something. There are more accurate and scientific ways to describe nature and vacuums.

How and why has pathetic fallacy undergone such a semantic shift both in literature and in science?

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    Are you implying that one shouldn't attribute human emotions to scientists? – Edwin Ashworth Jul 22 '16 at 10:46
  • @EdwinAshworth Oh no, only that attributing human emotions to scientific concepts is considered fallacious by the scientific community; "atoms want to have a full outer shell of electrons". Obviously current understanding is that atoms have not feeling and so cannot want anything, using such language in a scientific paper would be considered a fallacy. On the other hand in science education I think that this sort of explanation is beneficial to learning and should be promoted. I think it depends on the context. – BladorthinTheGrey Jul 22 '16 at 10:58
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    I've just read the Wikipedia article you cite (which you should link to). Nowhere in it does it say that the current meaning of pathetic fallacy in science is the original meaning. And I really don't see these meanings as anywhere close to each other. The meaning has undergone two quite different, and substantial, semantic shifts, one in literature and the other in science. – Peter Shor Jul 22 '16 at 11:07
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    @PeterShor From my understanding of the original, it means that it is fallacious to describe an inanimate object that has no emotions as actually having them. Is this not the same as the current scientific definition? – BladorthinTheGrey Jul 22 '16 at 11:09
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    From the article: The word “fallacy” nowadays is defined as an example of a flawed logic, but for Ruskin and writers of the 19th century and earlier, “fallacy” could be used to mean simply a “falseness”. In the scientific world today, "fallacy" in "pathetic fallacy" is taken to mean "flawed logic", not "technically false". – Peter Shor Jul 22 '16 at 11:13

The expression "pathetic fallacy' has not undergone a semantic chance, it has simply been applied first to literary works and later to scientific and technical writings. From the sources available online (among which I've chosen the following one) the expression was originally coined to refer to the use of a kind of "personification" in literature and poetry and it was later used (with a derogatory connotation) in science/technical fields to critize expressions that were considered incorrect and possibly misleading in scientific contexts. The following extract explains the story:

  • Pathetic fallacy is the association of feelings, sensations, or thoughts to inanimate objects, such as when a writer describes a cruel sea or a brooding cliff or an unyielding boulder. Nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin wasn’t being pejorative when he first described the concept; pathetic, in his usage — indeed, in its original sense — refers not to something pitiful, as the dominant modern connotation implies, but to something associated with feeling. (Pathos, the Greek word from which pathetic is derived, means “emotion, experience, or suffering.”)
  • Pathetic fallacy also applies to scientific and technical contexts.
  • For example, the widely misquoted and misunderstood statement “Information wants to be free” imputes a motive to information. (The entire comment by technology writer Stewart Brand has been manifested variously, including this version: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. . . . That tension will not go away.”)


  • as the noted philosopher-warrior Yoda sagely observed, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Strictly speaking, no inanimate object or phenomenon can attempt something; it can only accomplish or fail to accomplish it. But even scientific and technical writers often indulge in poetic license, describing how, for example, electricity tries to complete a circuit, as if the force were engaged in an endeavor prompted by a cognitive cue. That’s not too far removed from, for example, a novelist’s or a poet’s reference to icy fingers of gusting wind trying to penetrate a ramshackle cabin during a blizzard.


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