Wednesday, October 3, 2018


During construction of Emerson Hall at Harvard University, President Charles Eliot invited psychologist and philosopher William James to suggest a suitable inscription to be placed over the front door of the new home of the philosophy department. After some reflection, James sent Eliot a line from the Greek philosopher Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.”

James never heard back from Eliot, so his curiosity was aroused. After the building was completed, he stopped by to have a look. The inscription above the door was a biblical quotation: “What is man that thou art mindful of him” (Psalm 8:4).

Eliot had selected a quotation from the ancient psalmist rather than the one from the ancient philosopher. There is great distance between these two lines; it’s the distance between the God-centered and the human-centered points of view.