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Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

By on September 7, 2012 in Society & Culture

This phrase caught my imagination many years ago and is something I continued to contemplate from time to time. When I decided to write about it here, the first thing I did was to look up the quote. I found a number of variations going back to the twelfth century but all with the same basic idea.

standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants

“We are like dwarfs standing [or sitting] upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients.”
– Bernard of Chartres, circa 1130

“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 on sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
– John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, 1159

“A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.”
– Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

“Dwarfs on the shoulders of giants see further than the giants themselves.”
– Stella Didacus, Eximii verbi divini CONCIONATORIS ORDINNIS MINORUM Regularis Observantiae, 1622

“A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees farther of the two.”
– George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum, 1651

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
– Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, 1676

“Newton won the race in part because, as he put it, he had stood on the shoulders of giants and in part because he just happened to be the biggest giant of them all.”
– Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, 1993

“In the sciences, we are now uniquely privileged to sit side by side with the giants on whose shoulders we stand.”
– Gerald Holton

It is a metaphor for how we as individuals (dwarfs) can benefit from all those great minds that have gone before us (collectively a giant) by gaining great insight and understanding beyond what our own intellectual capacity and limited resources would enable us learn in a life time.

The quote is most often attributed to Isaac Newton who would be considered by most to be a genius. He saw himself as benefiting from those that came before him enabling a greater view.

Today my basic understanding of many areas of physics and science would exceed that of Isacc Newton. Would I profess to be smarter than him? OF COURSE NOT. I am a mere dwarf peaking over the shoulder of such giants and my view is only greater by virtue of all those that came after him.

Today we are in a unique position in history. In the West at least we are no longer compelled to be prisoners of superstition and ignorance. This is called the information age and there has never been more of it out there. So much that most of us suffer information overload.

We all crave answers but most of us feel dwarfed by the amount of information and complexity of ideas out there. It’s easier to live our lives in reactive mode as our forefathers have done before us. Just go with the flow and do the best you can as circumstances seem to dictate. This is exactly what most people will do.

If you are reading this far then you are not like most people. You are searching for answers and will not be satisfied without trying to at least glimpse over the shoulder of giants. Don’t be shy. Don’t underestimate yourself or your ability to see further.

Stand on the shoulders of giants and take a look but don’t let anyone put blinkers on you and limit your view.

 

 

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