On the Shoulders of Giants

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) is chiefly remembered as a prominent American sociologist, author of the magisterial Social Theory and Social Structure and a longtime eminence at Columbia University. In the course of a distinguished career, Merton invented the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” popularized the term “role model,” and helped initiate the now-widespread use of “focus groups.” It’s hardly a surprise, then, that on the back cover of one of his books he is pictured wearing the de rigueur tenue of a tenured 1950s academic: a severe white shirt, spectacles, and a dark suit and tie. His closely barbered gray hair is slicked down and crisply parted. There is, moreover, an impressively long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, and he looks . . . serious, like an especially sober judge of the Book of the Month Club.

Who, then, would imagine that this same Merton, the very image of staid propriety, was also the author of one of the most amusing books of the mid-20th century, a crazy-quilt of learned humor called On the Shoulders of Giants? After all, while sociology may not be the dismal science — that honor belongs to economics — neither is it usually thought of as the life of the party. Generally, one imagines it there in a corner of the university dance floor, sporting white socks and tabulating social interactions, while Creative Writing and Cinema Studies are loudly singing along with Lady Gaga or clinging drunkenly to each other during the slower Bette Midler oldies.

Of course, there is a long tradition of academic humor — think of Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who moonlighted as Lewis Carroll, or Monsignor Ronald Knox, author of the mock-solemn “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” or Frederick Crews, who parodied the varieties of modern literary criticism in The Pooh Perplex. Merton, however, proclaims his own book’s distinctive pedigree in its subtitle: A Shandean Postscript. By Shandean, he might, I suppose be likening the experience of reading On the Shoulders of Giants to that of sipping a refreshing summertime drink, i.e., the delicious mixture of cold beer and ginger ale called a shandy. But the book’s form, its methodology, as sociologists would say, obviously derives from Laurence Sterne’s endlessly entertaining and endlessly digressive, Tristram Shandy.

And that, as every schoolboy knows — to borrow a phrase from Thomas Babington Macaulay, who will come in for some licks from Merton — means a volume characterized by footnotes, puns, neologisms, parenthetical asides and interruptions, eccentric characters, extensive quotation, personal outbursts by the author, charts, lists, and scholarly minutiae of all kinds, and, above all, an extremely nonchalant attitude toward anything smacking of logical order, chronology, or the systematic. Indeed, On the Shoulders of Giants is actually presented as a single, rambling letter from Merton to his old friend, Bernard Bailyn, the noted Harvard professor of American history. The entire 290 pages that follow “Dear Bud” might thus be imagined as an unending series of post-scripts, with one P.S., suggesting an additional P.P.S before going on to P.P.P.S. and so forth, ever more delightfully.

Merton justifies all this (apparently) free-wheeling free association by citing his master Sterne: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading! — take them out of this book, for instance, — you might as well take the book along with them; — one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer; — he steps forth like a bridegroom, — bids All-hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.”

But, what, I hear a plaintive voice in the back murmuring, is On the Shoulders of Giants actually about? Attend, kind sir. Be patient, madame. As the Wicked Witch of the West was wont to warble, in a slightly different context: “All in good time, my pretty, all in good time.”

Oh, heck, let me just tell you.

Merton’s book takes its theme from an observation in one of Isaac Newton’s letters to his fellow scientist (and rival) Robert Hooke. “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What, precisely, does this familiar sentence mean? Did Newton find it in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, as has long been assumed? Who first coined the striking image, which is usually phrased: “If we have seen farther, it is only because we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants”?

To answer these and related questions, Merton pursues the Aphorism, as he soon calls it, throughout history. Along the way, he regales his readers with charming gossip, theories about language and human behavior, and mini-biographies of various philosophers and antiquaries, all the while employing a dry scholarly tone perfectly balanced between the tongue-in-cheek and the utterly serious. In the pages of OTSOG, as its admirers call it, erudition has seldom been so eccentric or so entertaining.

Consider, for example, Merton’s penchant for making up seemingly playful, yet tellingly shrewd theories about almost anything. He notes that the grammatical “of course” mood comes into play when a writer smuggles in a clearly disputable statement “by a disarming preliminary phrase: ‘of course,’ ‘ no doubt,’ or ‘it is no exaggeration to say.'” Speaking of the itch to write and publish, what Horace called “cacoethes scribendi,” Merton remarks that “There are indications that its frequency increases steadily in those educational or research institutions which lavish rewards upon the prolific author of scientific papers or scholarly books. . . .” The sociological “Hooke-Newton-Merton” law zeroes in on “the perverse effects of public debate upon intellectual clarity (not to say, integrity).” Finally, there’s Merton’s most impressively named intellectual tic. All too often, he observes, scholars tend to ascribe originality to the writer in which they first read about a certain idea, failing to realize that its true originator was someone else. Accordingly, “in the transmission of ideas each succeeding repetition tends to erase all but one antecedent version, thus producing what may be described as the antopic or palimpsestic syndrome.”

As Merton explores ever more deeply the origins of the Aphorism, he discovers that its various Latin versions often merely say that the dwarfs are “positioned” on the giant’s shoulders. Troubling, very troubling: Are they, in fact, “standing” or “sitting”?  Soon, Merton brings all his sociological powers to bear on this important question, until he can say, with some finality: “As students of behavior. . . the conclusion is as clear as it is inescapable: sitting on shoulders was the modal position (probably because it is a position more stable for the superordinate and more comfortable for the underling); standing on shoulders was the deviant position (less frequent, probably, because it is more precarious).”

But then he wonders: How do the dwarfs get up on the giants’ shoulders? And, speaking of precarious, what happens if a giant should stumble and fall? Such conundrums would vex even a medieval schoolman.

Far more crucial, though, is the matter of how one actually interprets the Aphorism. Generally, it’s taken to be a defense of the ancients, those intellectual giants, against the moderns, who are mere puny dwarfs in comparison. But is this correct? The great Renaissance scientist, essayist, and philosopher Francis Bacon asserted that the classical Greeks and Romans were just the opposite of ancient. They represented the beginning, the early dawn of mankind’s intellectual life: in truth, “Antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi,” that is, antiquity of time is the youth of the world.

One might thus turn the meaning of the simile on its head: “In this inversion, the moderns, presumably because they are puffed up with knowledge, become giant-like in contrast to the ancients who lived at an earlier age before knowledge had greatly accumulated and so were condemned to remain puny and dwarflike.” Pushing this paradox further, Merton subsequently notes that Jeremy Bentham, to give just a single example, was of diminutive stature but grew to become the imposing philosopher of utilitarianism: thus Bentham began as a dwarf and ended a giant. “Regarded metaphorically,” he consequently “contains in his own person the extraordinarily inverted figure of a giant mounted upon a dwarf; a vivid figure, which, you will surely grant, should give us pause.”

As On the Shoulders of Giants continues, Merton repeatedly takes to apologizing that one key book or other happens not to be in his home library, while simultaneously suggesting that the exceptionally arcane titles are doubtless on everyone else’s shelves. With repetition these biblio-laments grow funnier and funnier: “It happens that I don’t have a copy of [Peter of Blois’s] epistles at home, nor the folio volume first published at Brussels about 1480 nor the Jacques Merlin edition of 1519 nor even the 1837 edition . . . .” “You should have no great trouble in locating a copy of the Shibbole ha-leket. It was often reprinted. . . . As for myself, I prefer the abridged edition that was turned out in Mantua (in 1514).” “You have probably mislaid your copy of the London Gazette, 29 July 1695 . . .”

Still, it’s difficult to convey through quotation alone the endearing sprightliness of OTSOG. Comparing two rival art historians, Merton writes: “But though the text is Delaporte’s text, the claims are the claims of Mâle.” He simply assumes that the educated reader will pick up the Biblical rhythm of his syntax: “The hands are Jacob’s hands, but the voice is the voice of Esau.” At other times, his humor takes on a wonderful purse-lipped academic prissiness: “Later on in this narrative, I shall have much to say — and rightly so — of Macaulay’s vicious attack on the complex sentence structure of Sir William Temple.” In analyzing the murder of Thomas Becket, he naturally speaks approvingly of the great courage displayed by the historical “Robert, canon of Merton.”

Above all, though, this straight-faced social scientist prides himself on the focus and Cartesian rigor displayed throughout OTSOG: “Here, as before in this narrative, I refuse to be drawn away from the strict history of the giant-and-dwarf similitude.” He regrets that John of Salisbury’s “Policraticus” is “permanently marred by his inexcusable lapses into digressions, illustrations, afterthoughts, and reminiscences. . . .  As I have tried to make clear throughout this letter, when one is drafting a systematic exposition of an important subject, there is simply no excuse for departing from the strict continuity of the argument.” Elsewhere, he complains that certain texts “suffer from an excess of quotations, particularly from the ancients, and it must be plain to you by now that this is one vice I find it hard to condone.”

Yes, indeed. That’s why every page of this marvelous book is as packed with quotations as your favorite edition of Bartlett’s — and why many of those quotations are interrupted by parenthetical intrusions, as when Merton both cites and simultaneously comments on a passage from Sir Thomas Pope Blount: “Let not Men deceive themselves, and think that we live in the Dregs of Time [a phrasing, you will grant, that demands our instant appreciation]. . . .” Still, one can never guess what will lead Merton into a meditation, rant, or list. He charts the kinds of eyes mentioned by John Aubrey in Brief Lives; he names the so-called “fathers” of a multiplicity of disciplines (e.g. Lavoisier, the father of chemistry, Chladny, the father of modern acoustics); he castigates those who misuse the adjective “unique”; he informs us that the wrongly forgotten Henry Carey probably wrote “God Save the Queen” and originated the phrase “Namby Pamby.” And, of course, he tells stories: a reliable authority once testified that he “had seen a very beautiful woman break a steel mirror to pieces, by a single glance of her eyes, and blast some trees by merely looking on them, solo aspectu.” Shades of the X-Men!

Above all, though, any new reader of OTSOG should be prepared for Merton’s grandly mock-heroic diction. He drops in words like “apocope” and “gasconade” and “agelast” (one who doesn’t laugh). He notes that the phrase “a gnomonic gnome” is an example of alliterative paranomasia. He dubs his own book a “hendecachordal anaphora.” Similarly, you may have already noticed his penchant for the phrase “you will grant” — an obvious variant of the “of course” mood. Even his index is drily witty: “Merton, Robert K.: another pupil of George Sarton (q.v.)” “William Shakespeare: inveterate plagiarist of 20th-century psychological knowledge.”

For all its learned self-mocking humor, OTSOG is nonetheless a work of genuine scholarship, and one occasionally tinged with some unobtrusive pathos. Speaking of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholia, Merton writes that: “To say nothing more, Burton’s anatomy has explained more than one bout of my melancholia and ‘inward desolations’ that the intellectual descendants of Freud would hardly dare touch.” He describes “old age, with its decay of faculties proceeding more rapidly than the decline of ambitions and wishes.” Even more distressingly, he maintains that “Misogyny is notoriously difficult to diagnose for it is not easy to tell where valid criticism leaves off and phobic distortion sets in.” As it happens, OTSOG is dedicated to Merton’s children and to his cats, but there is no mention of his wife, from whom he separated three years after its publication. Late in the book, he does mention sending a Harriet Zuckerman to the library to do some research for him. She was soon a fellow sociology professor at Columbia and in 1993 he married her.

Nevertheless, the most tantalizing personal note in OTSOG is the reference to a then unpublished manuscript, written with Elinor Barber, devoted to The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. This investigation into the origins and meaning of the word “serendipity” was composed around 1958, then locked way in a desk drawer. Only 45 years later, after Barber’s death and only at the very end of his own long life, did Merton agree to allow the text to be printed, albeit insisting that it appear without revision or updating.

I reviewed The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity for the Washington Post when the book finally appeared in 2004. In its pages, Merton makes more explicit one of the sub-themes of On the Shoulders of Giants: his professional misgivings about the way modern scientists and researchers traditionally present their findings. The schematic, logical, highly sanitized report tends to ignore or minimize the accident-prone and luck-strewn byways of actual scientific discovery. In truth, what one might call the Shandean method or “Serendipitous Pattern” better reflects the reality of scholarship and experiment.

While less fun than OTSOG, TTAAOS is well worth seeking out. There are reflections, for example on collecting, where much, arguably most, of the pleasure derives from serendipitous discovery. Merton also incisively critiques corporate and academic pressure on researchers to make steady, continuous progress, arguing that scientists and scholars need to follow their instincts and make the mistakes that occasionally result in a happy accidental breakthrough. Merton even meditates on the problem of unexpected evil in life, the dark counterpart to unexpected good luck. He notes that, in many careers, to be lucky is good, but to be too lucky tends to make one seem undeserving of the prestige or honor. Conspicuous good fortune undercuts the claims of hard work and merit.

Clearly a lot of hard work — and years of reading and note-taking — went into the composition of On the Shoulders of Giants. The result, however, is a seemingly effortless classic of both scholarship and humor, a true jeu d’esprit. Still, like its models Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and Aubrey’s Brief Lives, OTSOG may not appeal to everyone — it does help to have some interest in 17th-century intellectual history, the sociology of science, the specialized diction of learned articles, and the odd ways and eccentricities of intellectuals. Once people used to ask if such and such was “funny ha-ha” or “funny peculiar.” On the Shoulders of Giants is all the more wondrous for being, deliciously, delightfully, both.