Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Story Behind Newton’s Famous Metaphor for How Knowledge Progresses
How hubris and humility conspired in illuminating the nature of creativity.
By Maria Popova
“Newton was so right about so many things,” cosmologist Janna Levin wrote in her magnificent meditation on madness and genius, “that it seems ungenerous to dwell on where he was wrong.” And yet in his day, even his most revolutionary rightness — especially his revolutionary rightness — was met with ungenerous opposition by his smaller-spirited peers. Chief among them was the English polymath Robert Hooke, whose famous rivalry with Newton resulted in humanity’s finest metaphor for how knowledge grows.
Science writer extraordinaire James Gleick, in his biographical masterwork Isaac Newton (public library), calls Hooke “Newton’s most enthusiastic antagonist,” his “goad, nemesis, tormentor, and victim.” Hooke, generally known for his curmudgeonly temperament and cynical disposition, reserved an especially caustic contempt for Newton, whose youthful genius aggrieved Hooke and aggravated his vain ego.
Where Hooke presented his ideas with unabashed hubris, Newton delivered his with humility — even if it was at times a false humility, for he too was a man animated by great ambition and in possession of a robust ego, it still stemmed from a hard realism about the fact that knowledge progresses not toward the definitive but toward the infinite.
Where Hooke bombastically proclaimed in his treatise on microscopes that “there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry,” Newton reported his own experiments on microscopy with the grounding caveat that the future would bring new instruments capable of magnifying four thousand times more powerfully, eventually making even the atom visible. Hooke, of course, was wrong and Newton right — something evidenced by our still-evolving understanding of matter five centuries later.
Newton’s humility sprang from an early and formative understanding of how knowledge builds upon itself, incrementally improving upon existing ideas until the cumulative adds up to the revolutionary. From a young age, he kept a commonplace book — a gift from his father, in which he copied passages from the books he read and supplemented them with extensive notes of his own, thus transmuting existing knowledge into original ideas. He named it his “Waste Book” — a testament to usefulness of useless knowledge and the combinatorial nature of creativity, or what his twentieth-century counterpart, Albert Einstein, would come to call “combinatory play.” This ability to originate by way of connection became the basic infrastructure of Newton’s mind — his singular superpower of perception.
When he observed the world it was as if he had an extra sense organ for peering into the frame or skeleton or wheels hidden beneath the surface of things. He sensed the understructure. His sight was enhanced, that is, by the geometry and calculus he had internalized. He made associations between seemingly disparate physical phenomena and across vast differences in scale. When he saw a tennis ball veer across the court at Cambridge, he also glimpsed invisible eddies in the air and linked them to eddies he had watched as a child in the rock-filled stream at Woolsthorpe. When one day he observed an air-pump at Christ’s College, creating a near vacuum in a jar of glass, he also saw what could not be seen, an invisible negative: that the reflection on the inside of the glass did not appear to change in any way. No one’s eyes are that sharp… He communed night and day with forms, forces, and spirits, some real and some imagined.
Hooke was different. The friction between the two men began even before Newton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1672. The previous year, the Society, where Hooke was curator of experiments, asked for a demonstration of the reflecting telescope Newton had invented three years earlier — known today as a Newtonian telescope, this then-revolutionary optical device for astronomical observation was significantly smaller than the refracting telescope that preceded it and used two mirrors instead of a lens to form an image by reflecting light. The invention led Newton to develop an entire theory of colors (which would later inspire Goethe’s theory of color and emotion).
Hooke immediately pounced on Newton’s ideas, dismissing them as mere “hypothesis” — a term Newton found particularly offensive. Hooke also boasted in private correspondence with members of the Royal Society that he had invented an even smaller and more powerful telescope himself three years before Newton, but hadn’t bothered to actually build it on account of the Great Plague that ravaged London at the time.
Fifteen months after he was elected to the Royal Society, Newton decided to withdraw from public debate — the incessant obstructionism by Hooke and other critics, who still remained merely epistolary bullies he was yet to meet in person, had started to wear down his sanity. Gleick writes:
He had discovered a great truth of nature. He had proved it and been disputed. He had tried to show how science is grounded in concrete practice rather than grand theories. In chasing a shadow, he felt, he had sacrificed his tranquillity.
But the private rivalry persisted. In 1675, Hooke alleged to have discovered what we now know as diffraction — the way light bends around a sharp edge. At the time, the nature of light was a mystery — some, like Descartes, considered it a particle, while others, like Hooke, thought it the product of motion. Because if an obstacle like an edge could stand in light’s path and bend it, diffraction supported the motion model, implying that light is a wave rather than a particle. (Today, we know that light can be both a particle and a wave, depending on how we measure it.)
This development excited Newton but, his mind by now an enormous commonplace book of knowledge, he recalled having read about diffraction experiments by a French Jesuit theologist, who built upon earlier ideas by a Bolognese mathematician — long before Hooke claimed the invention. He similarly challenged Hooke’s claims to originality in other aspects of the properties of light, urging the Royal Society to “cast out what [Hooke] has borrowed from Des Cartes or others.”
This recognition of the incremental, combinatorial character of knowledge came naturally to Newton, but even though the invention of the Gutenberg press two centuries earlier embodied it perfectly, it was still radical at the time. Gleick writes:
The idea of knowledge as cumulative — a ladder, or a tower of stones, rising higher and higher — existed only as one possibility among many. For several hundred years, scholars of scholarship had considered that they might be like dwarves seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but they tended to believe more in rediscovery than in progress.
This notion was particularly infuriating to Hooke, who saw any connection of his ideas to earlier ones not as a natural function of how science progresses but as an affront to his originality. He hungered to be seen as a giant — not as a dwarf who stood on the shoulders of giants — but hid his egomaniacal impulses behind the pretense of deference. He assured Newton that he was uninterested in a feud, that their experiments “aim both at the same thing which is the Discovery of truth” and as “two hard-to-yield contenders,” they should be able to “both endure to hear objections.”
And so, in their epistolary sparring, Newton’s famous metaphor was born — between pats of politesse, he delivered his legendary slap. Calling Hooke a “true Philosophical spirit,” he invited him to sort out their differences in private correspondence rather the public debate. In a letter penned on February 5, 1675, Newton wrote:
What’s done before many witnesses is seldome without some further concern than that for truth: but what passes between friends in private usually deserves the name of consultation rather than contest, & so I hope it will prove between you & me.
What Des-Cartes 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 of Giants.
Hooke, who as far as it is known never replied, maintained an antagonistic attitude toward Newton for the remainder of his life. However vast his intellect may have been, he revealed himself as far from a giant, for it is the mark of a small spirit to hide behind one-directional criticism while fleeing from intelligent two-way discourse.
As for the metaphor itself, it too is a meta-testament to Newton’s point — although he popularized it and immortalized it in his iconic language, it originated at least five centuries earlier and underwent several transmutations, including a famous one in Robert Burton’s 1621 masterpiece The Anatomy to Melancholy.
Gleick considers how Newton’s famous proclamation frames his paradoxical life and immensely far-reaching legacy:
Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity. He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos. He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact. He established principles, and they are called his laws.
Solitude was the essential part of his genius. As a youth he assimilated or rediscovered most of the mathematics known to humankind and then invented the calculus — the machinery by which the modern world understands change and flow — but kept this treasure to himself. He embraced his isolation through his productive years, devoting himself to the most secret of sciences, alchemy. He feared the light of exposure, shrank from criticism and controversy, and seldom published his work at all. Striving to decipher the riddles of the universe, he emulated the complex secrecy in which he saw them encoded…
“I don’t know what I may seem to the world,” he said before he died, “but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Gleick’s Isaac Newton (public library) remains not only one of the finest biographies ever written, but a foundational text for anyone seeking to understand how the modern world as we know it came into view. Complement it with Hegel on knowledge and the true task of the human mind.