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Cedalion standing on the shoulders of Orion from Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicolas Poussin, 1658, Oil on canvas; 46 7/8 x 72 in. (119.1 x 182.9 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantium humeris insidentes) is a Western metaphor meaning "One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past"; a contemporary interpretation. However, the metaphor was first recorded in the twelfth century and attributed to Bernard of Chartres. It was famously uttered by seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton (see below).

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Attribution and meaning

The attribution to Bernard is due to John of Salisbury. In 1159, John wrote in his Metalogicon:

"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."
("Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea")

According to medieval historian Richard Southern, Bernard is comparing the modern scholar (12th century) to the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome:[1]

[The phrase] sums up the quality of the cathedral schools in the history of learning, and indeed characterizes the age which opened with Gerbert (950-1003) and Fulbert (960-1028) and closed in the first quarter of the 12th century with Peter Abelard. [The phrase] is not a great claim; neither, however, is it an example of abasement before the shrine of antiquity. It is a very shrewd and just remark, and the important and original point was the dwarf could see a little further than the giant. That this was possible was above all due to the cathedral schools with their lack of a well-rooted tradition and their freedom from a clearly defined routine of study.

The phrase also appears in the works of the Jewish tosaphist Isaiah di Trani (c. 1180 – c. 1250):[2]

"Should Joshua the son of Nun endorse a mistaken position, I would reject it out of hand, I do not hesitate to express my opinion, regarding such matters in accordance with the modicum of intelligence alloted to me. I was never arrogant claiming "My Wisdom served me well". Instead I applied to myself the parable of the philosophers. For I heard the following from the philosophers, The wisest of the philosophers asked: "We admit that our predecessors were wiser than we. At the same time we criticize their comments, often rejecting them and claiming that the truth rests with us. How is this possible?" The wise philosopher responded: "Who sees further a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of the dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant who sees further? ... So too we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they."

References during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries

Didacus Stella took up the quote in the sixteenth century; by the seventeenth century it had become commonplace. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-51), quotes Didacus Stella thus:

"I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself."

Later editors of Burton misattributed the quote to Lucan; in their hands Burton's attribution Didacus Stella, in luc 10, tom. ii "Didacus on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10; volume 2" became a reference to Lucan's Pharsalia 2.10. No reference or allusion to the quote is found there.

Later in the seventeenth century, George Herbert, in his Jacula Prudentum (1651), wrote "A dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two" and Isaac Newton famously remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke dated February 5, 1676 that:

"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

This has recently been interpreted by a few writers as a sarcastic remark directed against Hooke. This is speculative; Hooke and Newton had exchanged many letters in tones of mutual regard, and Hooke was not of particularly short stature, although he was of slight build and had been afflicted from his youth with a severe stoop. However, at some point, when Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton's ideas regarding optics, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies until Hooke's death.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in The Friend (1828), wrote:

"The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on."

Against this notion, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that a dwarf (the academic scholar) brings even the most sublime heights down to his level of understanding. In the section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1882) entitled "On the Vision and the Riddle", Zarathustra climbs to great heights with a dwarf on his shoulders to show him his greatest thought. Once there however, the dwarf fails to understand the profundity of the vision and Zarathustra reproaches him for "making things too easy on [him]self." If there is to be anything resembling "progress" in the history of philosophy, Nietzsche elsewhere writes, it can only come from those rare giants among men, shouting out to one another across the annals of time.

Contemporary references

  • Melvyn Bragg uses this as a title, and framing metaphor, for the 1998 BBC radio series On Giants' Shoulders in which he interviewed scientists about their eminent predecessors.[3]
  • The British two pound coin bears the inscription STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS on its edge; this is intended as a quotation of Newton.[4]
  • After seeing the inscription on a £2 coin, Noel Gallagher of British band Oasis decided to name their fourth studio album after it, but in his mildly inebriated state, wrote down the inscription as Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. The phrase also appears in the song King of Birds by the U.S. rock band R.E.M. as the lyric "...standing on the shoulders of giants / leaves me cold."
  • The phrase is used by the major figure in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville.
  • Google Scholar has adopted "Stand on the shoulders of giants" as its motto.
  • MIT professor Hal Abelson is credited with the quip "If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders."  Abelson himself attributes it to his Princeton University roommate, Jeff Goll [1].
  • On the Shoulders of Giants is a collection of works by the major scientists Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, all compiled by Stephen Hawking. In his introduction, Hawking addresses Newton's famous version of the quotation above.
  • NASA used the term "on the shoulders of giants" for the Apollo 17 documentary.
  • In a 2009 speech to the NAACP, the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, used the phrase to describe his journey to the White House: the actions of the NAACP meant he was, "here tonight as 44th President of the United States of America... on the shoulders of giants." [5][6]

References

  1. ^ Richard Southern (1952). The Making of the Middle Ages. Ch.IV(II.B)
  2. ^ Teshuvot (responsa) haRid 301-303. See Shnayer Z. Leiman, Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants, Tradition Spring 1993.
  3. ^ see BBC
  4. ^ "United Kingdom Two Pound Coin Design". Royal Mint. http://www.royalmint.com/Corporate/facts/coins/TwoPoundCoin.aspx. Retrieved 2009-01-04.  
  5. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv6EAaoFNno
  6. ^ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/17/AR2009071701596.html

Further reading

External links


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