Brad Lichtenstein’s blog

Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

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Eduardo Paolozzi's take on the William Blake print of Newton.

Eduardo Paolozzi's take on the William Blake print of Newton.

William Blake's print of Newton.

William Blake's print of Newton.

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?

3 Responses

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  1. This reminds me of the oft-quoted one-liner- “Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing from many is research.”

    I completely agree with you:- even in the field of writing, we are actively or passively inspired by another writer’s work, and mostly unconsciously copy said author’s style or theme. The more we read, the more varied, and thereby harder to attribute to a single person’s work, our writings become. Yet, I am not saying that all authors mix-and-mash other authors’ work – a little creative genius is always there in the best of us, and forms the topping of the pizza whose base and cheese and sauce are the author’s inspiration.


    January 26, 2009 at 9:19 am

  2. We have a saying in architecture school – everything has already been done before, no need to reinvent the wheel. The question is, I guess, is there an original giant? Or those who seem as such? Corbusier (who of course links himself with everyone who used a proportioning system before him) takes what came before and reinvents it through the lens of new technology, new media, new concepts of space. Kuhn would argue, however, that there is a leap from the shoulders – a paradigm shift – where we, to push the metaphor – nurture the offspring of well-known giants.


    January 26, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  3. Wonderful post, thanks.

    I’m not sure why we still adhere to the idea of the hermited genius generating a “eureka” moment. It doesn’t sound like much fun. (And there is so much more potential for dialogue and community-building in co-creation.) The richest works of art or media are those that take us for a journey along a narrative historical thread, making us look at the familiar in an original way. What a better “aha” moment.

    Lina Srivastava

    January 26, 2009 at 3:37 pm

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