Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Standing on the shoulders of giants.
Heard this phrase before? My guess is that if you have, you attribute it to Sir Isaac Newton. Well here’s a little commons trivia for you, courtesy of Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift. I’ve paraphrased his insights.
In the seventeenth century, the idea of divine origins begins to be replaced or at least augmented by the humanist idea that creativity builds on a
bounty inherited from the past, or gathered from the community at hand. Commons. Sir Isaac Newton famously spoke of himself as having stood “on the shoulders of Giants.” The phrase comes from a letter that he wrote to Robert Hooke in 1675, the context being a debate with Hooke about who had priority in arriving at the theory of colors. Newton combines humility with an assertion of his own achievement, writing:
What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially
in taking the colors of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further
it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. [Merton 31]
The sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a book, On the Shoulders of Giants, in which he shows that this famous phrase did not originate with Newton; it was coined by Bernard of Chartres in the early twelfth century, the original aphorism being “In comparison with the ancients, we stand like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.” The image was a commonplace by the time Newton used it, his one contribution being to erase any sense that he himself might be a dwarf.
What I love here is the double insight, the effort to describe creativity in a commons-sense, and the journey of the description itself through the commons of knowledge and creativity. Art and knowledge are derivative and generative. We take what we know and build on it. I’m reminded of an argument I once had with a faculty member of the film department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She thought that a student’s submission of a work that copied a technique of a well-known experimental filmmaker was thievery, and showed a lack of creativity on the student’s part. I fundamentally disagreed. Not only was this student paying attention in class (a good thing), she was engaged in creativity precisely because she was taking something she learned and making it her own by applying a technique she discovered to her own content. I think that we mistakenly believe in the myth of the creative genius; the hermit locked up in a basement with paints and canvass to produce unique works of art. The truth is that art, whether creative or scientific, has never worked that way. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants.
What do you think?