We were interested to read the letter from Sette et al.1  regarding our editorial. We agree that the “Shoulders of Giants” analogy extends back into antiquity. Interestingly, one use of this aphorism in the history of the accumulation of knowledge is that it has been used throughout the ages to enable the opinions of early intellectual giants to be amended by subsequent generations, despite their perceived diminished stature.

A classic example is cited here from ancient Jewish rabbinic tradition. There is an accepted step-wise regression in rabbinic legal stature and authority with the passage of generations, but this may impair the forces of progression and innovation. In an elegant attempt to justify his departure from the legal opinions of his forebears, R. Isaiah di Trani (c. 1180–1250), the leading Italian Talmudist of his generation, wrote as follows2 :

I applied to myself the parable of the philosophers … The wisest of the philosophers was asked: “We admit that our predecessors were wiser than we. At the same time, we criticize their comments, often rejecting them and claiming that the truth rests with us. How is this possible?” The wise philosopher responded. “Who sees farther, a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of a dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant, who sees further? Surely the dwarf, for now the eyes of the dwarf are situated at a higher level than those of the giant. So too, we are dwarfs, astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they. …. Wisdom is greater than the wise”.

This passage was cited by Leiman3 , in an encyclopedic review of the aphorism “Shoulders of Giants” in rabbinic literature. He reported that R. Isaiah di Trani “openly acknowledged his literary debt to contemporary non-Jewish philosophers” (in this case to Bernard of Chartres), and went on to state that in the Talmudic context, “the aphorism was particularly ingenious and apt, for it paid tribute simultaneously to progression and regression… On the one hand, the earlier generations are depicted as giants and the later generations as dwarfs – a clear case of regression. On the other hand, the dwarfs see farther than the giants – clearly evidence for progression.”3  We believe that the art and science of medicine rightly share some elements of this duality.

References

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