In the page 25 of the 3rd edition, printed in 1911, of "The Grammar of Science", by Karl Pearson, the following sentence is written:

Science cannot give its consent to man's development being some day again checked by the barriers which dogma and myth are ever erecting round territory that science has not yet effectually occupied.

It cannot allow theologian or metaphysician, those Portuguese of the intellect, to establish a right to the foreshore of our present ignorance, and so hinder the settlement in due time of vast and yet unknown continents of thought.

For context, in this book, Pearson, among several things, was trying to separate science from metaphysics, in which only science can be used as a method to understand the real world, whereas metaphysics, as well as theology and philosophy, cannot.

  • Perhaps there was a place, better known then than today, where the Portugese did not allow foreigners into the interior of the country. Maybe somewhere on the coast of modern Brazil?
    – GEdgar
    Jun 26 at 23:11
  • I will take the opportunity to say that I am Portuguese myself, and that I don't know my country history as I should. What I know in that 1) We and the British have one of the oldest alliances 2) This alliance wasn't always respected (e.g.: when Europe blocked the coast to the British and we did not yet they provided us no aid against the French, and when we wanted to join two of our old colonies in Africa together the British did not allow us to) and 3) In 1911 the Portuguese empire had already lost Brazil (in 1822) yet still had Indian provinces, so we weren't at the top of our game Jun 26 at 23:26
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    Portugal was pursuing a policy of protectionism around the time this was written, although I don't know if this would be generally known to Pearson's public.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 27 at 10:26

3 Answers 3


A contemporary of Pearson's, George Fullerton, A System of Metaphysics: The Content of Consciousness (1904) seems to interpret the phrase as being an allusion to the poetical or romantic spirit (or perhaps the religious zeal) of the Portuguese:

In a foot-note Professor Pearson tells us that it is perhaps impossible satisfactorily to define the metaphysician, but that the meaning he attaches to the term will become clearer later in his book. The above extract, taken alone, seems to make the accusation against him [the metaphysician] a general shiftlessness of mind, proceeding from a poetic indifference to scientific method. The author regards him as a dangerous member of the community, because it is not recognized that he is merely a poet, and he is apt to be taken seriously. He is a "Portuguese of the Intellect," who endeavors to establish a right to the foreshore of our present ignorance, and may hinder the settlement in due time of vast and yet unknown continents of thought. This science should prevent. But as we read on we discover that the charge against this dark character is a much more specific one. The real head and front of his offending is not so much that her recklessly anticipates the cautious generalizations of science, as that he lays claim to a realm beyond the sphere of science altogether.

According to Fullerton, channeling Pearson's argument, to be a "Portuguese of the intellect" is to refuse to rein oneself in by rigorously adhering to the slow and painstaking method of true science but instead to be transported into fundamentally unscientific realms of thought—magical and poetical, without grounding in the objectively, logically, defensibly knowable. There seems to be a faint echo here of Plato's view that the Republic ought not welcome poets if it is to function as an efficient machine.

A second discussion of this characterization appears in an unidentified article in Medical Life, volume 44 (1937) combined snippets]:

I. Criticisms of Philosophy

Modern physicians have been wary of philosophy. They have subscribed to the viewpoint of Karl Pearson who termed metaphysicians the Portuguese of the intellect. The study of medical history taught them [modern physicians] that admixture of philosophy with medicine always proved disastrous. As examples were cited the sterility of the arguments of the Methodists, Pneumatists, etc., at Rome, the emptiness of the complacent philosophic eighteenth century, the retarding influence of the animism of Stahl, and the barrenness of the first three or four decades of the past century in Germany when physicians soaked in Natur Philosophie followed Hegel and Schelling.

Here the metaphysician is specifically (and invidiously) compared with "the modern physician"—a model of fact- and reason-based empirical thinking.

Whether Pearson intended "those Portuguese of the intellect" as an insult to both metaphysicians and the Portuguese is unclear. Much depends, I suppose, on whether one identifies more strongly with Dmitri Karamazov or Claude Bernard in the perennial conflict between romantic passion and artistic egotiosm (on the one hand) and scientific sobriety and deterministic human fungibility (on the other). It is certainly possible to agree that poets (aside from William Carlos Williams) tend to make bad doctors without subscribing to the notion that, in a nation of good doctors, poets are superfluous.

In a Google Books search, I didn't find any instances of "Portuguese of the intellect" that as not linked to Pearson's phrase, which leads me to believe that the expression was never a set phrase in English and that whatever sense it had in Pearson's work was a product of his mind alone.

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    Thank you for this further insight, I wasn't aware that you could search for specific strings in Google Books, and my Google search came out empty (not it's populated with this question). What you showed does seem to suggest that the sentence was a product of Pearson himself, and not a common saying. Given the circumstances, it seems that the most reasonable thing to do is to consider George Fullerton interpretation of the sentence as correct, instead of speculating more that 100 years later after the book was written. Jun 29 at 19:01

We have several figures of speech in the text those Portuguese of the intellect.

The Portuguese are justly famous for their great navigations during the Age of Discovery during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. These explorations produced the first global empire in history.

So this is both an instance of metonymy as well as an extended metaphor for exploring and discovering new and unknown territory that is applying the idea of explorations in the physical realm to investigations of thought and of the mind.

By 1911 when this was published, the Portuguese Empire was certainly greatly diminished, something which produced what is arguably a national character of wistful longing for the great achievements of long ago, a fading Golden Age never to be regained or repeated, yet made all the grander in collective memory when viewed through the rose-colored glasses of temporal distance.

Unfortunately, dissecting what further connotations all this may carry, perhaps even ones related to national character or church history, requires the analysis and interpretation of literature, an area of inquiry outside our site’s charter.

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    According to this Wikipedia article, the Portuguese attempted to monopolize trade with the areas they discovered and even to monopolize exploration itself (dividing up the world with the Spanish at one point). That seems relevant. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_discoveries
    – Xanne
    Jun 27 at 0:48
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    Indeed, those navigators of the intellect. Very simple. Theologians and metaphysicians navigate the intellect as the Portuguese navigated the seven seas.
    – Lambie
    Jun 27 at 17:41

In 1890 the British Empire issued an ultimatum to their longtime ally, the Portuguese, forcing them to relinquish claims to the stretch of african land that connected Angola to Mozambique, two Portuguese colonies. Portugal had laid claim to this territory on the basis of "historical discovery and recent exploration", without effectively occupying it, which, according to Britain, voided their claim.

Since Pearson's book was first published in 1892, this is the episode he's most likely referring to. In comparing metaphysicians and theologians to "Portuguese of the intellect", he questions their ability to properly "occupy" (that is, to properly explain) the intellectual subjects they claim as their own.

Suppose, for example, that the study of, say, the human mind (a subject we still do not fully understand) was marked of as purely metaphysical. This would inhibit neuroscience's research into it, and therefore, according to Pearson, hinder the subject's "scientific settlement".

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1890_British_Ultimatum

  • I had completely forgotten about that ultimatum in specific, although I've mentioned the event in one of the comments above! That does seem to make sense, not only does the timing of the events match up, but it is also consistent with the message Pearson was trying to convey of metaphysicians throughout the book. I will mark this answer as accepted, as it seems to be the best fit when compared to the answer others have provided, but I'm still open to other possible answers! Jun 27 at 21:59

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