On the Shoulders of Giants


The quote you refer to, as it appears on the biography page of our staff member Joe Yoon is:
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
This quote has been attributed to Sir Isaac Newton since it appeared in a letter he wrote to fellow English scientist Robert Hooke that was dated 5 February in either 1675 or 1676. There is no arguing that this quote in indeed Newton's.

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

However, I suspect that the reason for your confusion is the phrase "on the shoulders of giants," which was borrowed from earlier sources. This phrase was actually quite commonly used by authors and thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Though Newton's reference is probably the best known today, 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury was another well-known source of the phrase. I've come across many variations of his quote, but one of the more commonly cited versions is:

"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."
This quote appeared in a religious book called The Metalogicon that was written by John in 1159. However, John's thought was also inspired by an earlier Christian thinker named Bernard of Chartres. John was born in France and studied there during the early 12th century. It is likely that John learned the phrase at this time, for he later moved to England where he continued his theological research. The only example of Bernard's quote I've come across thus far was from Robert Merton's book On the Shoulders of Giants. Merton quotes Bernard as saying, in about 1130:
"We are like dwarfs standing [or sitting] upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients."
In addition, Merton goes on to point out that at least the idea Bernard was attempting to convey goes back to a 6th century grammarian named Priscian, who wrote:
"The younger the scholars, the more sharp-sighted."
The common theme of these thoughts is that modern researchers owe much to the knowledge that earlier scientists have discovered. While many believe that was the sentiment being expressed by Newton in his letter to Hooke, some researchers have suggested he was actually using the phrase "on the shoulders of giants" as a veiled insult of Robert Hooke, who was a rather short man. Newton had a reputation as a petty and vindictive man whose ego clashed with those of his rivals in the scientific and mathematical communities. One of these rivals was Robert Hooke, who had been in a long-running feud with Newton over which one had discovered the inverse square law. Although Newton's letter to Hooke appeared courteous on the surface, some historians have concluded he cleverly employed the phrase "on the shoulders of giants" to ridicule Hooke's lack of physical stature and imply that he lacked intellectual stature as well.

Although Newton may have borrowed the phrase "on the shoulders of giants" from earlier writers, the specific quote referenced on our site is his and his alone. The phrase is indeed a commonly cited one, as the following examples illustrate.

"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
"If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders."
- Hal Abelson
Such commonality in thoughts is not at all unique to this phrase alone. Consider the following, somewhat more amusing example as well.
"I think, therefore I am."
- René Descartes, Le Discours de la Mèthode, 1637
"I am, therefore I think."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
"I think that I think, therefore, I think that I am."
- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911
"I think I am. Therefore, I am . . . I think."
- George Carlin
"I don't think, so, therefore I'm probably not."
- anonymous
"I think, therefore I am. But I'm micromanaged, therefore I am not."
- Scott Adams, Dilbert comic strip, 1997
"On the shoulder of giants" has generated a great deal of interest in recent years, particularly after Great Britain included the phrase "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" on the edge of its £2 coin starting in 1997. A new coin of the series is released every year, each one celebrating a significant contribution to science made by a British citizen.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 8 February 2004

Update!

A teacher named Carla recently pointed out what appears to be a grammatical error in Isaac Newton's quote. She suggested that we change the text from the following:

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
to this:
"If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Carla's reasoning is farther refers to distance (e.g. "I traveled FARTHER from home than my relatives") while further designates degree (e.g. "Critics charge that welfare encourages FURTHER dependence"). Carla makes a valid point, but since the article describes a specific quote, we have chosen to leave Netwon's statement as is.
- answer by Greg Alexander, 22 March 2009


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