Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


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. In Greek mythology the blind giant Orion carried his servant Cedalion on his shoulders.

‘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.’

According to medieval historian Richard Southern, Bernard is comparing the modern scholar (12th century) to the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome: ‘[The phrase] sums up the quality of the cathedral schools in the history of learning, and indeed characterizes the age which opened with Gerbert and Fulbert 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: ‘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.’

Isaac Newton famously remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke in 1676 that: ‘What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colors 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 kyphosis. 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.

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 in ‘Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greek’ (1873) writes, it can only come from those rare giants among men, ‘each giant calling to his brother through the desolate intervals of time,’ an idea he got from Schopenhauer’s work in ‘Der handschriftliche Nachlass.’

One Comment to “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

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