Newton in 1675 famously said about his work, that if he was seeing further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.*

Doing so he acknowledged the lineage of the things he worked on, which he added his own combinatory creativity to, gaining us all very considerable new insights.

This weekend reading Chris Aldrich’s essay about the often actively ignored history of the things that make up the current wave of note making methods and tools, Newton’s turn of phrase crossed my mind again. Chris Aldrich showcases the history of something that currently is mostly discussed as building on a single person’s practice in the 1950s to 1990s, as an actually very widely used set of practices going back many centuries.

I think it is a common pattern. Repeating endlessly in bigger and smaller forms, because we’re human.
I also think the often re-used ‘shoulders of giants’ metaphor makes it worse, actively hiding any useful history of most things.

Every output is the result of processes, and building blocks that go beyond the person making the output. And most of those inputs and earlier practices are of a mundane origin. There aren’t that many giants around, that we all can stand on their shoulders for all we come up with.

Everything has a lineage, and all those lineages have something to tell you about the current state of things you’re working on. Along all those lineages knowledge and experience has been lost, not because it wasn’t useful moving forward, but because it wasn’t transferred well enough. Going back in such lineage, to use as feedback in your current practice can be tremendously valuable.
It’s something actively used as a tool of exploration in e.g. ‘the future, backwards’ exercises. In PKM, the example that triggered this posting, it is common to use your old self in that way (talking about how you’re learning from ‘previous me’ and as ‘current me’ write notes for ‘future me’) It’s even what makes Earth’s tree of life special.

It takes looking for that lineage as a first step. Yet if then all we do is scanning history’s horizon for giants that stand out, we may find none, several, or usually one nearer that will have to do as big enough and simply assume that’s where the horizon is, while overlooking everyone else that any giants and we are always building on.

Everything has a deep lineage with a story to tell. Everyone stands on everyones shoulders, of all sizes. It is shoulders all the way down.

If I have seen further it is by knowingly standing on the shoulders of Giants everyone.

Photo ‘Santa Teresa, feria del Vendrell 2019’ by Joan Grífols, license CC BY NC SA

* Most of us may recognise Newton’s 1675 phrase in a letter he wrote. Newton probably knew it was much older. But do we individually generally acknowledge it was at least 500 years old when he wrote it down, or usually attribute it to Newton?

17 reactions on “Shoulders All The Way Down

  1. Ton overpeinst een post van Chris Aldrich, eerder deze week, en gaat wat dieper in op de vaak onzichtbare geschiedenis die achter veel zaken schuil gaat — de verschillende manieren waarop mensen informatie vastleggen en weer terugvinden, in dit geval.

    Hij geeft daarbij de uitdrukking “op de schouders van reuzen” aan als één van de oorzaken, en hoewel ik daar absoluut in mee kan gaan, zie ik de oplossing toch net iets anders: ik kies niet voor “op de schouders van iedereen”.
    Nee, je moet inderdaad niet gaan zitten wachten tot jouw persoonlijke reus bij je langskomt om je een stel schouders aan te bieden. maar er is mijns inziens wel degelijk verschil tussen reuzen en niet-reuzen. Er zijn genoeg mensen die, wat mij betreft, niet meetellen bij de “iedereen” die op welke manier en in welke mate dan ook heeft bijgedragen. Mensen die juist een negatieve bijdrage hebben geleverd, die dingen stukmaken terwijl de gemiddelde mens probeert te bouwen.
    We staan wel degelijk op de schouders van reuzen. Maar een reus is niet zeldzaam, dat ben ik met Ton oneens; het zijn er genoeg, in verschillende maten van reusachtigheid.
    Schouders zat, je hoeft er alleen maar op te klimmen.

  2. (Skip to citations)

    We are “standing on the shoulders of giants” who, in turn, were leveraging the work of those who have gone before. And if their incremental contributions are put into atomic, tweet-length sentences, we can visualize these relationships in various ways, most impressively as done by Deniz Cem Önduygu in his History of Philosophy.

    Incidentally, Ton Zijlstra mentioned the shoulders, and Chris Aldrich noticed the atomicity (zettelkasten structure) of Önduygu’s philosophy presentation, just when I was trying to assemble the philosophers who influenced my own thinking.

    Kindly, Stephen Downes released some short versions of his core ideas:

    Downes says

    “Cognition is based in similarity, and network semantics are similarity-based semantics.

    Learning is to practice and reflect, and it is essentially the same as association mechanisms of machine learning: Hebbian and Boltzmann, respectively, plus back propagation.

    A new theory of human learning ought to be informed by ‘learning theory’ in machine learning (connectionist artificial intelligences, today known as “deep learning”).

    Neural and social networks are similar; successful ones may have a a Boltzmann-like mechanism that may be related to sensations of peacefulness, and the learning of ethics.

    Not all connections are of equal strength in the neural metaphor of Connectivism.

    Relevance and salience are based on context-dependence and a network of similarities.

    Knowledge is having dispositions, based on recognition, i.e. being organized in such a way as to respond in an appropriate way to a partial pattern.

    What we know about the world is irreducibly interpretive; our thoughts about objects are not representations of the external world, they are not inferred from experience.”

    Of course, the reduced listing of these sentences does hardly do justice to their full power. But imagine the rich connections of disagreement, contrast, refutation, and agreement, similarity, expansion, to previous sentences by other giants, and how much work this involved! (Again, the links seem more interesting than the isolated nodes, as I learned from Connectivism.) Unfortunately, having no philosophical training, I am not able to identify most of these connections except a few most obvious ones.

    But I created some new functions in my tool to make it technically easier to add such links and format them as the arcs in Önduygu’s linear (chronological) representation, in addition to my own favorite 2D format (allowing topical gestalt), if you want to link the above sentences, or your own ones, to all the relevant predecessors, and display them in one of two interactive visualizations.

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