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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Understanding Newton’s Principia as part of the Baconian Tradition

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Lately I have been examining Baconian interpretations of Newton’s Principia. First, I demonstrated that Newton’s Moon test resembles a Baconian crucial instance. And then, I demonstrated that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Bacon’s method of gradual induction. This drew our attention to some interesting features of Newton’s approach, bringing the Principia’s experimental aspects into sharper focus. But they also highlighted a worry: Newton’s methodology resembling Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon. Bacon and Newton were gifted methodologists—they could have arrived independently at the same approach. One way to distinguish between convergence and influence is to see if there’s anything uniquely or distinctively Baconian in Newton’s use of crucial experiments and gradual induction. Another way would be if we could find some explicit references to Bacon in relation to these methodological tools. Alas, so far, my search in these areas has produced nothing.

In this post, I’ll consider an alternative way of understanding Baconianism in the Principia. I began this series by asking whether we should regard Newton’s methodology as an extension of the Baconian experimental method, or as something more unique. In answering, I have hunted for evidence that the Principia is Baconian insofar as Newton applied Baconian methodological tools in the Principia. But you might think that whether Newton was influenced by Bacon isn’t so relevant. Rather, what matters is how the Principia was received by Newton’s contemporaries. So in this post, I’ll examine Mary Domski’s argument that the Principia is part of the Baconian tradition because it was recognised, and responded to, as such by members of the Royal Society.

Domski begins by dispelling the idea that there was no place for mathematics in the Baconian experimental tradition. Historically, Bacon’s natural philosophical program, centred on observation, experiment and natural history, was taken as fundamentally incompatible with a mathematical approach to natural philosophy. And Bacon is often taken to be deeply distrustful of mathematics. Domski argues, however, that Bacon’s views on mathematics are both subtler and more positive. Indeed, although Bacon had misgivings about how mathematics could guide experimental practice, he gave it an important role in natural philosophy. In particular, mathematics can advance our knowledge of nature by revealing causal processes. However, he cautioned, it must be used appropriately. To avoid distorting the evidence gained via observation and experiment, one must first establish a solid foundation via natural history, and only then employ mathematical tools. In short, Bacon insisted that the mathematical treatment of nature must be grounded on, and informed by, the findings of natural history.

Domski’s second move is to argue that seventeenth-century Baconians such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke understood and accepted this mathematical aspect of Bacon’s methodology. Bacon’s influence in the seventeenth century was not limited to his method of natural history, and Baconian experimental philosophers didn’t dismiss speculative approaches outright. Rather, they emphasised that there was a proper order of investigation: metaphysical and mathematical speculation must be informed by observation and experiment. In other words, there is a place for speculative philosophy after the experimental stage has been completed.

Domski then examines the reception of Newton’s Principia by members of the Royal Society—focusing on Locke. For Locke, natural history was a necessary component of natural philosophy. And yet, Locke embraced the Principia as a successful application of mathematics to natural philosophy. Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. She writes:

[O]n Locke’s reading, Newton used a principle—the fundamental truth of universal gravitation—that was initially ‘drawn from matter’ and then, with evidence firmly in hand, he extended this principle to a wide store of phenomena. By staying mindful of the proper experimental and evidentiary roots of natural philosophy, Newton thus succeeded in producing the very sort of profit that Sprat and Boyle anticipated a proper ‘speculative’ method could generate (p. 165).

In short, Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes.

In summary, Domski makes a good case for viewing the mathematico-experimental method employed in the Principia as part of the seventeenth-century Baconian tradition. I have a few reservations with her argument. For one thing, ‘speculative naturalist’ is surely a term that neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with. And for another thing, although Domski has provided reasons to view Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as related to, and a development of, the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society, I’m not convinced that this shows that they viewed the Principia as Baconian. That is to say, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. I’ll discuss these issues in my next post, and for now, I’ll conclude by discussing some important lessons that I think arise from Domski’s position.

Firstly, we can identify divergences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers. And these could be surprising. It’s not, in itself, his use mathematics and generalisations that makes Newton different—Domski has shown that even the hard-out Baconians could get on board with these features of the Principia. The differences are subtler. For example, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, Boyle, Sprat and Locke advocated a two-stage approach to natural philosophy, in which construction of natural histories precedes theory construction. But Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Indeed, in the Principia, we find that Newton commences theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.

Secondly, the account highlights the fact that early modern experimental philosophy was a work in progress. There was much variation in its practice, and room for improvement and evolution. Moreover, its modification and development was, to a large extent, the result of technological innovation and the scientific success of works like the Principia. Indeed, it was arguably the ability to recognise and incorporate such achievements that allowed experimental philosophy to become increasingly dominant, sophisticated and successful in the eighteenth century.

Thirdly, the account suggests that, already in the late-seventeenth century, the ESD framework was being employed to guide, and also to distort, the interpretation and uptake of natural philosophy. By embracing the Principia as their own, the early modern experimental philosophers intervened on and shaped its reception, and hence, the kind of influence the Principia had. This raises an interesting point about influence.

As I have already noted, it is difficult to establish a direct line of influence stretching from Bacon to Newton. But, by focusing on how Bacon’s program for natural philosophy was developed by figures such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke, we can identify a connection between Bacon’s natural philosophical program and Newton’s mathematico-experimental methodology. That is, we can distinguish between influence in terms of actual causal connections—Newton having read Bacon, for instance—and influence insofar as some aspect of Newton’s work is taken to be related to Bacon’s by contemporary (or near-contemporary) thinkers. Indeed, Newton could have been utterly ignorant of Bacon’s actual views on method, but the Principia might nonetheless deserve to be placed alongside Bacon’s work in the development of experimental philosophy. Sometimes what others take you to have done is more important than what you have actually done!