Publication 4237

Bunnell P. (2003) American Society for Cybernetics, a society for the art and science of human understanding: Reflections on the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 10(3–4): 164–168. Fulltext at
Often we like to attribute credit for something we have accomplished by saying that we could not have done it except for the far greater work done by some predecessor. As Isaac Newton put it If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants. This phrase has now become common usage, and we use it to pay our deepest respect to someone whose work has substantially contributed to what we ourselves do. Many people in the American Society for Cybernetics have my deepest respect and have contributed greatly to my thinking. Not the least of these is Heinz von Foerster who I had the opportunity to visit several times over the last seven years. However I would not speak of myself as standing on his shoulders; it does not seem like a comfortable thing to do, and furthermore, like many memorable phrases, it evokes various listenings; various thoughts and emotions which do not pertain to the way I related to this wonderful man. Sometimes the claim I stand on the shoulders of is heard as trivial, as a stock phrase used in a formal dance to satisfy a perceived requirement for deference. Sometimes it is heard as trite, in the sense of superficiality. Of course it is sometimes both uttered and heard as having both conviction and depth, yet even then a number of interesting ambiguities persist, and it is those that I wish to reflect on now.

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