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The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of "discovering truth by building on previous discoveries". While it can be traced to at least the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres, its most familiar expression in English is found in a 1676 letter of Isaac Newton:
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.
[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).
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.
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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."
What Des-Cartes [sic] did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.
This has recently been interpreted by a few writers as a sarcastic remark directed at Hooke's appearance. Although Hooke was not of particularly short stature, he was of slight build and had been afflicted from his youth with a severe kyphosis. However, at this time Hooke and Newton were on good terms and had exchanged many letters in tones of mutual regard. Only later, when Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton's ideas regarding optics, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate, and 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.
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.
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 needs.
Another excerpt from the book quoting 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.” Not surprisingly, he began to think about what would happen when other people looked to him for similar support.
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