Today’s NY Times carries the obituary (by Michael T. Kaufman) of Robert K. Merton, “one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, whose coinage of terms like ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘role models’ filtered from his academic pursuits into everyday language.” I know nothing about sociology, so I’ll take their word for his eminence in that field; what I know and love him for is his book On the Shoulders of Giants. The obit says:
Referred to by Mr. Merton as his “prodigal brainchild,” it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that also characterize his academic writing. The effort began in 1942, when, in an essay called “A Note on Science and Democracy,” Mr. Merton referred to a remark by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He added a footnote pointing out that “Newton’s aphorism is a standardized phrase which has found repeated expression from at least the 12th century.”
But Mr. Merton did not stop there. Intermittently during the next 23 years he tracked the aphorism back in time, following blind alleys as well as fruitful avenues and finally finished the book in 1965, writing in a discursive style that the author attributed to his early reading and subsequent rereadings of Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.” Denis Donoghue, the critic and literary scholar, wrote of the book admiringly as “an eccentric and yet concentric work of art, a work sufficiently flexible to allow a digression every 10 pages or so.” He admitted, “I wish I had written ‘On the Shoulders of Giants.’”
This doesn’t begin to do justice to the loony thoroughness and anfractuosity of the book, and anyone who enjoys such investigations should run out and read it posthaste.