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.


  1. Cool. I will check it out. When you think about it, it was a strangely modest thing for the awfully immodest Newton to say. And I guess the point ultimately is: to climb onto the shoulder of a giant you have to be somewhat gigantic yourself.

    anyway, thanks for the tip.

  2. he was making fun of one of the men before him, who was so short he was a functional midget, never underestimate the pettiness of newton.

  3. “Anfractuosity”!? O swoon!

  4. Re Sociology, I haven’t had time to read the whole thing, only about a third and the end, and it seems quite apt: It’s Louis Menand in the August 26th edition of The New Yorker.

  5. David Marjanović says

    he was making fun of one of the men before him, who was so short he was a functional midget, never underestimate the pettiness of newton.

    The “notoriously short” Robert Hooke, IIRC.

  6. John Cowan says

    “Among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.” —Sam: Johnson

  7. The e-book is available to borrow for free (registration required) at the Internet Archive. It’s currently, ahem, on loan.

  8. Excellent! I hope you enjoy it.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I didn’t. Indeed, I found it impossible. Not only did it require downloading and installing about 60 megabytes of clunky Adobe software, but once I had done so I found myself trying to use an interface that would have seemed old-fashioned in 1990. Does the Internet Archive belong to Adobe? If not, why couldn’t they just allow download of a normal PDF file?

  10. Weird. Internet Archive usually provides a bunch of options — .mobi, .pdf, etc. Well, here’s the actual list: ABBYY GZ, B/W PDF, DAISY, EPUB, FULL TEXT, ITEM TILE, KINDLE, PDF, SINGLE PAGE ORIGINAL JP2 TAR, SINGLE PAGE PROCESSED JP2 ZIP, TORRENT.

  11. For non-copyright works, Internet Archive offers a wide variety of formats and download options.

    For works still in copyright, access is only one-at-a-time to registered user via the browser, or some DRM compliant formats like Adobe’s or Daisy for the blind. Reading in your browser is not ideal for borrowing a book and reading it cover-to-cover, but it’s very convenient for looking things up, checking sources, etc.

  12. Ah, I guess that makes sense.

  13. John Cowan says

    The IA is on the same footing as a public library: they can lend books to anyone, but not more books than they actually have, hence the need for the DRM.

    ABBYY is a very expensive, but excellent, multilingual OCR program. $EMPLOYER uses it to convert scanned PDFs to text for linguistic analysis. They charge users by the page (and so do we.)

  14. The Wikistub mentions the founder (I would not have guessed that David Yang was an Armenian name) but says nothing about the origin of the acronymic-looking name ABBYY; do you happen to know?

  15. January First-of-May says

    I’ve heard somewhere (I no longer recall where, but it was a fairly official source) that it’s supposed to be (someone’s impression of) Proto-Miao-Yao; don’t recall the (supposed) exact intended meaning, however.
    (I see that the Russian Wikipedia article gives the same story, and provides the intended meaning as “clear eye”.)

    With the all-capital spelling, their name does look like an acronym, though apparently was not intended as one; it’s (supposed to be) pronounced as a single word – /ˈʌbɪ/ (as given by Russian Wikipedia).

    I would not have guessed that David Yang was an Armenian name

    David is the Armenian name (which it indeed is); Yang was the surname of his Chinese father.

  16. Makes sense, thanks!

  17. There are probably no Christian, Jewish, or Muslim nations which lack Davids. David M has said that his parents had this in mind when naming him.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    You need to be a bit careful in Hausa: Dauda = “David”; dauɗa = “filth.”
    Practice those implosives!

  19. David Marjanović says

    which lack Davids

    Outside of Wales, Georgia and English-speaking Protestants, the name used to be very rare among Christians, because few people knew there are (several!) saints with that name. The name was still known, though, because of that one sufficiently prominent fellow in the Old Testament.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I have a Czech colleague called David, which surprised me when I first met him; he tells me he knows lots of Czech Davids, though. He blames Hollywood.

    We had a German au pair when I was small who assumed that we were Jewish on account of all three of us children having more or less archetypally Jewish names. We do in fact have remote Jewish forebears, but our names are nothing to do with that at at all. Standard Brit. (I recently attended a wedding of my niece-by-marriage Rebecca to a Jacob. Completely gentile, not to say Irish.)

  21. In Brittany we have communes called Saint-Divy and Saint-Yvi, and another one further west called Landivy, all of them named for Dewi Sant.

    Completely gentile, not to say Irish

    Then again there is Betty, my former other-significant-other’s sister-by-choice was in fact that rare thing, an Irish Jew.

  22. David Hilbert was a German, but also a Calvinist. Not sure how that counts, exceedingly rare or Calvinists done it regardless.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    A given name that is probably more common in Chile than it is in Wales, and certainly more common than it is in England, is Gladys (spelt like that, not Gwladys). I have an idea that it’s common in Argentina as well.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    David Hilbert’s grandfather was David Fürchtegott Leberecht Hilbert. So David was probably after him (much better than Fürchtegott).

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Them’s good Calvinist names …

    Though Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz would be even better, of course.

  26. Ffrank L. Wright built a late (1952) spirally house in Arizona for his son & daughter-in-law David & Gladys Wright. It would have been better in adobe, or covered in cream stucco like the Guggenheim. Frank’s family was Welsh but that doesn’t account for ‘Gladys’.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Them’s good Calvinist names …

    Eh, Fürchtegott is just Timotheus. At the time there were probably Catholics with that name.

    Dewi Sant

    Oh, that reminds me. A few years ago I was astonished to find that the completely nativized OHG form Tebit is attested.

    (Also Teniel.)

  28. Stu Clayton says

    John Tenniel illustrated the Alice in Wonderland books.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    Timotheus. At the time there were probably Catholics with that name.

    Saint Timothy for one, the first Christian Bishop of Ephesus ! Long before Hilbert’s grandfather.

  30. John Tenniel illustrated the Alice in Wonderland books.

    Tenniel Surname Definition:

    Is prob. to be referred to the French (Cher) village – name Theniou (formerly Theniol), a diminutive from a Dialectal variant of chêne, ‘oak-tree.’

    Saint Timothy for one, the first Christian Bishop of Ephesus !

    That is the very personage DM was referring to.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    We graciously permit others to use our good Calvinist names. It’s a form of outreach.

  32. David Marjanović says

    That is the very personage DM was referring to.

    Heh, not at all. I mean that in the 17th/18th century there were probably a few Catholics named Fürchtegott, who of course regarded St Timothy as their patron saint. I haven’t bothered to check, though.

  33. What do you mean, “not at all”? When you said “Eh, Fürchtegott is just Timotheus,” who did you have in mind for Timotheus if not St. Timothy? It doesn’t make sense otherwise.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    Jetzt hast du Rede und Antwort zu stehen !

  35. David Hilbert was a German, but also a Calvinist. Not sure how that counts, exceedingly rare or Calvinists done it regardless.

    1648 created Calvinist bits in Germany, because Calvinist princes, cujus regio took their religio.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    Gosh, in talking with a guy I know from the dog park I just learned that there are hotbeds of Pietismus not far from here, im Oberbergischen. The WiPe says Schleiermacher and Kant were “influenced” by it. David, is this Calvinism plus an extra dose of élan vital pieux ?

  37. Heh, not at all.

    What do you mean, “not at all”?

    Maybe the old de re/de dicto strikes again.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah. We Calvinists are cold fish. We leave that sort of thing to gushy Lutherans.

  39. Stu Clayton says

    Then you don’t engage guitarists to play We Shall Overcome at your services, for the congregation to sing along with. I feel a strange attraction coming on. I suppose you don’t have brass-rubbing either, nor little cliques of women who zealously guard their rights to flower arranging, as in Barbara Pym novels.

    PS: I try to distinguish between jealous and zealous where appropriate.

  40. Stu Clayton says

    BTW, if we are to judge a tree by its fruits, there is one that will be spared, due to this section of Spiegel im Spiegel.

  41. David Marjanović says

    Maybe the old de re/de dicto strikes again.

    Perhaps. I had St Timothy in mind, just not directly…

  42. John Cowan says

    distinguish between jealous and zealous

    They are etymological doublets.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    Yes, that’s why I take special care to use the one I mean in each case. Apart from the fact that they have different meanings.

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