It may be anachronistic to say that Isaac Newton and his Principia decisively changed physics and philosophy, because separate fields of physics and philosophy did not yet exist. But the notion of decisive change captures something significant about the continuing relevance of studying Newton. What has been aptly termed “Newton's new way of inquiry” (Harper and Smith 1995) was baffling for even his most sophisticated contemporaries, and it took Europe's brightest astronomers and mathematically inclined natural philosophers almost a century in order to evaluate and assimilate the Principia. But for reasons that need not detain us here, few of these figures (e.g., Clairaut, Euler, Laplace), who were fully immersed in Newton's work, really offered a definitive account of the methodology of the Principia. Of course, many scholars from Newton's day onward have offered interpretations of Newton's explicit methodological claims, but surprisingly few have combined this approach with detailed knowledge of Newton's technical practice. As is well known, by the time physics became enshrined as the leading part of the disciplinary structure of science, its attitude toward its own history did not encourage close scrutiny of past practices. In this volume, the three chapters on methodology by George Smith, William Harper, and Ori Belkind all capture important aspects of Newton's new way of inquiry. Newton also changed philosophy in two important ways. First, the body of work eventually known as “Newtonian mechanics” became a privileged form of knowledge that had to be dealt with somehow within metaphysics and epistemology. Second, it initiated a slow process in which philosophy defined itself in terms that often contrasted with – or were modeled on – Newtonian success. But as a consequence, in philosophy's evolving self-conception Newton stopped being central to the history of philosophy. Somewhat surprisingly, philosophical interest in Newton revived at the beginning of the twentieth century, precisely when his physical theory was called into question by Einstein's revolutionary work. Most of the papers in this volume engage with Newton's place within the history of philosophy. Before we turn to a detailed description of the chapters collected here, we offer a brief introduction to the scholarship that in many ways forms the shared background of recent philosophically motivated work on Isaac Newton.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Janiak, A; Schliesser, E

Published Date

  • January 1, 2012

Start / End Page

  • 1 - 10

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9780521766180

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1017/CBO9780511994845.001

Citation Source

  • Scopus