I am reading a book which contains the following quote by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe at the beginning of a chapter:

For him who seeks the truth, an error is nothing unknown.

What does it mean? In particular, what does "nothing unknown" mean?

For those who are curious about the context of this quote, it is in Chapter 5 "Randomized Algorithms" of the textbook "Algorithmics for Hard Computing Problems" by Juraj Hromkovič, and randomized algorithms typically allow the possibility of making mistakes as long as the error probability is small enough.

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    Hello, hengxin. 'For him who seeks the truth, an error is nothing unknown.' could mean either 'Anybody who honestly seeks the truth will soon realise that there are many misconceptions in what is generally vaunted as irrefutable / "the facts" ' or 'Anybody who honestly seeks the truth will soon realise that they themselves are quite capable of getting things wrong' or 'Anybody searching for truth is bound to get things wrong'. // I wouldn't like to say which of the above (any? / all? / none?) Goethe intended. Have you researched the quote? Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 9:09
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks. I searched it on Google, but failed to find explanations. I have not done research on it. I am not sure which meaning you suggested is intended in the context.
    – hengxin
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 9:12
  • There's a verse in the Bible – in James, I think – that says 'We all make many mistakes'. And James (half-brother of Jesus, not the brother of John) probably outranked Peter in Jerusalem at the time. The verse isn't often preached upon, in my experience – but a certain Mr Grice once came out with "How many of you know that we learn most from our mistakes? ... So, we should be out there making more of them!" (The implication is that Christians should risk mistakes by being pioneers, not that they should rejoice in foul-ups.) Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 9:17
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    Although I've heard this construct (nothing + adj) in English before, maybe this could be considered a subtle germanism: in Goethe's language, nicht eine unbekannte Sache (not an unknown thing) normally contracts to keine unbekannte Sache (no thing unknown).
    – mcadorel
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 10:49
  • @mcadorel '... an error is not an unknown thing' resonates more closely with '... making an error is not an unknown thing'. Do you know whether this is the thrust of the German? (Though as the quote is very rare on the internet, this becomes off-topic on ELU as merely a translation issue.) Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 14:01

1 Answer 1


It would appear to be a way of saying that

Those who seek truth are accustomed to making mistakes in the process.

The double negative construction of the original is familiar to educated English speakers (especially Britons and scientific writers) as a way of softening an assertion. The use of “nothing unknown” rather than direct statement is also literary. It conveys a certain irony or philosophical generality.

As the original German is by Goethe, this style can be regarded as appropriate.

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