On ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

In 1965, Robert K. Merton published On the Shoulders of Giants, a profound, provocative peregrination along the trail of the aphorism

If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Merton demonstrates — through a series of astonishingly erudite, scholarly and witty digressions — that this saying, commonly attributed to Isaac Newton, was actually first coined by Bernard of Chartres, in the 12th century. OTSOG, as the book was dubbed by Merton, is one of the few texts in which the words “gnomology” and “gnomologist” both appear. The book is brilliant and, in the beginning at least, infuriating, written in the grand digressive and transgressive tradition of Tristram Shandy. Every page is littered with footnotes, some of them stretching across several pages, but the book is consistently amusing, too, mostly thanks to the fact that Merton never takes his incredible erudition—or the conventions of conventional scholarship—too seriously. His passion for this single aphorism—pursued across centuries, cultures, disciplines, languages—is amazing. The book is also replete with fascinating nuggets. We learn, for example, that it was the 17th century English divine John Glanvill who first coined the phrase “climate of opinion.” I learned what the word “stercoraceous” means: “of, containing, like, or having the nature of feces, or dung.” A pasquinade is “a satire or sarcastic squib posted in a public place.” Merton even finds literal depictions of great historical figures seated or standing (there are several hilarious considerations of just how one mounts the shoulder of a giant and whether one sits or stands when one achieves that great height) on the shoulders of even greater historical figures, such as the authors of the four gospels perched on the shoulders of four Old Testament prophets as depicted in the stained glass windows of Chartres. Merton even comes up with a great aphorism, though since he based the saying on a Shandean axiom we must conclude that he himself could only have plucked it from on high because he had a boost from Lawrence Sterne:

I regard an original error as better than a borrowed truth.