Quote of the moment: Newton, giants

Newton, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689

If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.*

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675/1676. Newton was born on December 25 by the Julian Calendar, at a time when it mattered which calendar was used.

[*] Newton’s giants: Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes. Bartlett’s 16th Edition phrases the letter to Hooke a little differently: “If I have seen further than (you and Descartes) it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants.” Others attribute the quote much earlier; it was a saying of the times, it appears, and this is one of the most famous uses of it.

7 Responses to Quote of the moment: Newton, giants

  1. Meridian Prime says:

    “If I have seen farther (than others) it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” HAVE SEEN, is past tense so should it not correctly be: If I have seen farther, it WAS by standing on the shoulders of giants!
    I suspect Isaac Newton was dis-graphic hence the poor writing skills. He may possibly have had mild Asperger’s Syndrome as well; since he was a social misfit who died proud to be a virgin.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Nice to have you back after a few months’ absence from the comments.

    I stumbled into some of that controversy as I was checking the quote out — I collected it over a decade ago, and I was working almost solely off the notes in Bartlett’s.

    The one thing we know for certain: Newton wasn’t the first to say it.

    Maybe more to come. Thanks for the leads.


  3. With apologies for the proliferation of messages,


  4. BTW I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for Standing on the shoulders of giants. W is not a reliable source, of course. But the quote given there makes it look very much as if Newton is referring to Hooke along with Descartes as one of the giants on whose shoulders he stood. Just sayin’.


  5. Some day I’d like to see that letter, in context, and decide whether or not to believe this recently popular account. It’s true that Newton was not a very nice man, but these things can get blown out of proportion after being misinterpreted, and who’s to know? I mean, know whether that’s what Newton intended, or this is just an intellectual fad. (So why don’t I haul out Google and see if the text is posted anywhere? Good question.)

    However, I have a serious point to quibble on. Giordano Bruno, first of all, was no scientist, and there is nothing Newton could have picked up from him other than mystical speculations; to be sure, Newton did plenty of mystical and theological speculation, which would have got him in very hot water had the authorities not chosen to look the other way; but were they Bruno’s ideas? I doubt it.

    However, Newton did get a whole lot from that other Italian, whose name I am amazed to see omitted from the list. In fact, Newton has been much criticized for not giving due credit to Descartes; and, right or wrong, he specifically credited Galileo (not Descartes) for the idea of inertia.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Great stuff. Thanks.

    More stuff to verify . . .


  7. j a higginbotham says:

    What about this story? e.g.

    From: Anna Lindsay (annaxxxxxxx)
    Subject: Re. Newton’s quotation…

    Thought this might interest you about Newton’s quotation, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

    (From An Underground Education by Richard Zacks, p.37)

    “Pundits use this quote as the ultimate expression of humility in genius, but what they miss (and almost everyone else does too) is that Newton wrote that line to a very, very, short man, a hunchbacked fellow scientist with whom he was having a bitter feud.

    “Newton (1642-1727) was furious that Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was staking claim to many key discoveries in optics and calculus. (Hooke did in fact build the first reflecting telescope). […]

    “Newton wrote a long letter to Hooke on February 5, 1675, defending himself from charges of intellectual piracy, praising Hooke for trifles, and then Newton built to the famous `standing on the shoulders of giants’ line. (Newton, by the way, adapted it from a line about pygmies in a then-famous book called Anatomy of Melancholy.)

    “You might translate Newton’s sentiments: `While I admit to building on the work of my scientific predecessors, I certainly didn’t learn anything from a dwarf like you.'”

    Also noted by Mike Sloane (msloanexxxx). -Anu

    Merton not only coined but loved memorable phrases and the patterns of association and evocation in which they were passed on. One of his most famous books traces the phrase, “if I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” through centuries of use. The phrase is most commonly associated with Sir Isaac Newton, though with the widespread success of On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), Merton must be a very close second. What Merton showed with dazzling erudition and more than a few entertaining digressions was that the aphorism originated with Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century. This corrected not only those who cited merely Newton but those who credited the phrase to ancient authors, including apparently nonexistent ancient authors, perhaps thinking thereby to accord it greater dignity and impress readers with their Latin references (that South Philadelphia high school taught Merton four years of Latin).


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