Standing on the shoulders of giants

Standing on the shoulders of giants
Library of Congress, Rosenwald 4, Bl. 5r.jpg

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.[1] It was famously uttered by seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton (see below). The picture is derived from the Greek mythology where the blind giant Orion carried his servant Cedalion on his shoulders.


Attribution and meaning

The attribution to Bernard is due to John of Salisbury. In 1159, John wrote in his Metalogicon[2]:

"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."
("Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea")

According to medieval historian Richard Southern, Bernard is comparing the modern scholar (12th century) to the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome[3]:

[The phrase] sums up the quality of the cathedral schools in the history of learning, and indeed characterizes the age which opened with Gerbert (950-1003) and Fulbert (960-1028) 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 visual image (from Bernard of Chartres) appears in the stained glass of the south transept of Chartres Cathedral. The tall windows under the Rose Window show the four major prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) as gigantic figures, and the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as ordinary-size people sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, "see more" than the huge prophets (since they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke).

The phrase also appears in the works of the Jewish tosaphist Isaiah di Trani (c. 1180 – c. 1250)[4]:

"Should Joshua the son of Nun endorse a mistaken position, I would reject it out of hand, I do not hesitate to express my opinion, regarding such matters in accordance with the modicum of intelligence alloted to me. I was never arrogant claiming "My Wisdom served me well". Instead I applied to myself the parable of the philosophers. For I heard the following from the philosophers, 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."

References during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries

Didacus Stella took up the quote in the sixteenth century; by the seventeenth century it had become commonplace. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–51), quotes Didacus Stella thus:

"I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself."

Later editors of Burton misattributed the quote to Lucan; in their hands Burton's attribution Didacus Stella, in luc 10, tom. ii "Didacus on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10; volume 2" became a reference to Lucan's Pharsalia 2.10. No reference or allusion to the quote is found there.

Later in the seventeenth century, George Herbert, in his Jacula Prudentum (1651), wrote "A dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two."

Isaac Newton famously remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke dated February 5, 1676 that:

"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours 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.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in The Friend (1828), wrote:

"The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on."

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 Greeks" (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.[5]

Application to the free software movement

The metaphor of "standing on the shoulder of giants" is often used to promote and validate the Free software movement.

In the book Free as in Freedom, Bob Young of Red Hat supports the Free software movement by saying that it enables people to stand on the shoulders of giants. He also says that standing on the shoulders of giants is the opposite of Reinventing the wheel.[6]

An excerpt from the book:

"In the western scientific tradition we stand on the shoulders of giants, says Young,
echoing both Torvalds and Sir Isaac Newton before him. “In business, this translates
to not having to reinvent wheels as we go along. The beauty of [the GPL] model is you
put your code into the public domain. If you're an independent software vendor and
you're trying to build some application and you need a modem-dialer, well, why reinvent
modem dialers? You can just steal PPP off of Red Hat Linux and use that as the core
of your modem-dialing tool. If you need a graphic tool set, you don't have to write your
own graphic library. Just download GTK. Suddenly you have the ability to reuse the
best of what went before. And suddenly your focus as an application vendor is less on
software management and more on writing the applications specific to your customer's

Another excerpt from the book quoted by Linus Torvalds:

"Integrating GCC improved the performance of Linux. It also raised issues. Although
the GPL's “viral” powers didn't apply to the Linux kernel, Torvald's willingness to borrow
GCC for the purposes of his own free software operating system indicated a certain
obligation to let other users borrow back. As Torvalds would later put it: “I had hoisted
myself up on the shoulders of giants.”74 Not surprisingly, he began to think about what
would happen when other people looked to him for similar support."

Contemporary references

  • The British two pound coin bears the inscription STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS on its edge; this is intended as a quotation of Newton.[7]
  • Google Scholar has adopted "Stand on the shoulders of giants" as its motto.
  • In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville utters the words when speaking to Nicholas of Morimondo, the master glazier at the monastery. Nicholas says about his art: "We no longer have the learning of the ancients, the age of giants is past!", to which William replies: "We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they".
  • Linux Mint installation slideshow has a slide titled "Standing on the shoulder of giants" meaning Ubuntu, Debian and GNU.
  • It is referenced by Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, in the 2010 film The Social Network.
  • The fourth studio album from British rock band Oasis is titled "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants".
  • In Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm argues that John Hammond's research and advancement in the field of genetics was based on the work of those before him, limiting his responsibility in whatever happens, stating: "You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could..."
  • The X-Files episode "Roland" features a scientist murdering his former colleagues from beyond the grave for taking credit for his research. At the final confrontation, the thieving scientist remarks "If I have seen further than other men it's because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."
  • Stephen Hawking's compilation of works by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein is entitled On The Shoulders of Giants. The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, (Running Press 2002) ISBN 076241698X.
  • The American rock band R.E.M. uses the phrase "Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold" in the song "King of Birds" from their fifth studio album Document.


  1. ^ Robert K. Merton, On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, Free Press (1965)
  2. ^ The Metalogicon of John Salisbury. University of California Press. p. 167. 
  3. ^ Richard Southern (1952). Making of the Middle Ages. Ch.IV(II.B)
  4. ^ Teshuvot (responsa) haRid 301-303. See Shnayer Z. Leiman, Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants, Tradition Spring 1993.
  5. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Keith Ansell-Pearson, and Duncan Large. "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks." The Nietzsche Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. 101-13. Print.
  6. ^ Williams, Sam (2002). Free as in freedom. O'Reilly Media. ISBN 9780596002879. 
  7. ^ "United Kingdom Two Pound Coin Design". Royal Mint. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 

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