Natural Histories and Newton’s Theory of the Tides
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Newton’s work on the tides. In the Principia Book 3, Newton identified the physical cause of the tides as a combination of forces: the Moon and Sun exert gravitational pulls on the waters of the ocean which, together, cause the sea levels to rise and fall in regular patterns. This theory of the tides has been described as one of the major achievements of Newtonian natural philosophy. Most commentators have focussed on the fact that Newton extended his theory of universal gravitation to offer a physical cause for the tides—effectively reducing the problem of tides to a mathematical problem, the solution of which, in turn, provided ways to establish various physical features of the Moon, and set the study of tides on a new path. But in this post, I want to focus on the considerable amount of empirical evidence concerning tidal phenomena that underwrites this work.
Let’s begin with the fact that, while Newton’s empirical evidence of tidal patterns came from areas such as the eastern section of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Sea, and the Chilean and Peruvian shores of the Pacific Ocean, Newton never left England. So where did these observational records come from?
Newton’s data was the result of a collective effort on a massive scale, largely coordinated by the Royal Society. For example, one of the earliest issues of the Philosophical Transactions published ‘Directions for sea-men bound for far voyages, drawn up by Master Rook, late geometry professour of Gresham Colledge’ (1665: 140-143). Mariners were instructed “to keep an exact Diary [of their observations], delivering at their return a fair Copy thereof to the Lord High Admiral of England, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and another to Trinity-house to be perused by the R. Society”. With respect to the tides, they were asked:
“To remark carefully the Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea, in as many places as they can, together with all the Accidents, Ordinary and Extraordinary, of the Tides; as, their precise time of Ebbing and Flowing in Rivers, at Promontories or Capes; which way their Current runs, what Perpendicular distance there is between the highest Tide and lowest Ebb, during the Spring-Tides and Neap-Tides; what day of the Moons age, and what times of the year, the highest and lowest Tides fall out: And all other considerable Accidents, they can observe in the Tides, cheifly neer Ports, and about Ilands, as in St. Helena’s Iland, and the three Rivers there, at the Bermodas &c.”
This is just one of many such articles published in the early Philosophical Transactions that articulated lists of queries concerning sea travel, on which mariners, sailors and merchants were asked to report. In its first 20 years, the journal published scores of lists of queries relating to the tides, and many more reports responding to such queries. This was Baconian experimental philosophy at its best. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to construct a Baconian natural history of tides: using the method of queries, they gathered observational data on tides from all corners of the globe which was then collated and ordered into tables.
Newton’s engagement with these observational records is revelatory of his attitudes and practices relating to Baconian experimental philosophy. Firstly, especially in his later years, Newton was regarded as openly hostile towards natural histories. However, here we see Newton explicitly and approvingly engaging with natural histories. For example, in his discussion of proposition 24, he drew on observations by Samuel Colepresse and Samuel Sturmy, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1668, explicitly offered in response to queries put forward to John Wallis and Robert Boyle in 1665:
“Thus it has been found by experience that in winter, morning tides exceed evening tides and that in summer, evening tides exceed morning tides, at Plymouth by a height of about one foot, and at Bristol by a height of fifteen inches, according to the observations of Colepress and Sturmy” (Newton, 1999: 838).
I have argued previously that Newton was more receptive to natural histories than is usually thought. The case of the tides offers additional support for my argument. Newton’s notes and correspondence show that, from as early as 1665, he was heavily engaged in the project of generating a natural history of the tides, although he never contributed data. And eventually, he was able to use these empirical records to theorise about the cause of the tides. This suggests that Newton didn’t object to using natural histories as the basis for theorising. Rather, he objected to treating natural histories as the end goal of the investigation.
Secondly, I have previously discussed the fact that Newton seldomly reported ‘raw data’. The evidence he provided for Phenomenon 1, for example, included calculated average distances, checked against the distances predicted by the theory. Newton’s empirical evidence on the tides, as reported in the Principia, was similarly manipulated and adjusted with reference to his theory. Commentators have largely either condemned or ignored this ‘fudge factor’, but such adjustments are ubiquitous in Newton’s work, suggesting that they were a key aspect of his practice. Newton recognised that ‘raw data’ had limited use: to be useful, data needed to be analysed and interpreted. In short, it needed to be turned into evidence. The Baconians appear to have recognised this: queries guide the collection of data, which is then ordered into tables in order to reveal patterns in the data. As this case makes clear, however, Newton’s theory-mediated manipulation of the data went beyond basic ordering, drawing on causal assumptions to reveal phenomena from the data.
Thirdly, this case emphasises Newton’s science as embedded in rich social, cultural and economic networks. The construction of this natural history of tides was an organised group effort. That Newton had access to data collected from all over the world was the result of hard work from natural philosophers, merchants, mariners and priests who participated in the accumulation, ordering and dissemination of this data. Further, the capacities of that data to be collected itself followed the increasingly global trade networks reaching to and from Europe. Newton’s work on the tides was the very opposite of a solitary effort.
On this blog, we have noted in passing, but not explored in depth, the crucial roles played by travellers’ reports and information networks in Baconian experimental philosophy. Newton’s study of the tides is revelatory of the attitudes and practices of early modern experimental philosophers with respect to such networks. I shall discuss these in my next post.
Workshop: Definitions in Early Modern Natural Philosophy, Logic and Mathematics
Workshop: Definitions in Early Modern Natural Philosophy, Logic and Mathematics
13 April 2018
SOPHI Common Room,
Level 8, Brennan MacCallum Building, A18
The University of Sydney
Sponsored by The Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science
10.00: Definitions as principles in early modern natural philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney)
11.00: From Pascal to Arnauld and Nicole: definitions in Port Royalist works
Laura Kotevska (Sydney)
13.30: Logic in definitions and the search for the definition of continuity
James Franklin (UNSW)
14.30: Newton’s definitions
Kirsten Walsh (Nottingham)
See here for further information and registration.
Organiser: Peter Anstey
‘To treat of God from Phenomena’
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last few posts, I’ve discussed some of the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work. In my first post on this topic, I talked generally about how we might consider Newton’s chymistry, theology and Church history to be methodologically continuous with the experimental philosophy of the Principia and the Opticks. And in my second post I considered Newton’s alchemical tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, and identified several features that seem to highlight Newton’s early (albeit tacit) commitment to experimental philosophy.
In today’s post, I’ll begin to discuss an important but relatively understudied aspect of Newton’s work: his theological methodology. Since this blog is primarily concerned with early modern experimental philosophy, I’m going to start with the famous passage from the General Scholium to the Principia: “to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy”. The meaning of the first part of the statement is clear: we have epistemic access to God via our observations of the world. And so, from the phenomena, we can learn about God’s nature and divine will—in the same way that we can learn about, say, gravity. But in what sense is this ‘a part of natural philosophy’? That is, how does this statement fit with Newton’s stated views regarding that topic?
In the General Scholium, Newton explains that, while the laws of motion explain why celestial bodies move in Keplerian orbits, they cannot explain how celestial bodies come to be in their present orbits. And so, he writes, “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”. Prima facie, examples such as this don’t fit with Newton’s natural philosophical method. He seems to employ non-empirical background assumptions about the nature of God’s intervention to plug gaps in his theory. This looks dangerously close to feigning hypotheses. Moreover, from these assumptions, he seems to leap right to the first cause, blocking further scientific inquiry, and contradicting the ‘satis est’ attitude he adopts in his natural philosophy.
I think, however, that Newton’s treatment of God from phenomena is more consistent with his method of natural philosophy than it first appears. But to recognise this, we need to look more closely at how Newton approaches God from the phenomena. In fact, Newton treats of God from phenomena in several different ways. One approach is to move directly from the phenomena to the nature of God’s interactions with the world. For example, in the General Scholium, Newton notes that all celestial bodies move in regular orbits, which tells us that neither planets nor comets encounter any kind of resistance in their orbits. Newton uses the lack of resistance to argue that celestial bodies do not move through vortices but through empty space. However, this phenomenon also reveals that, while God is omnipresent and substantial, he is not material:
God is one and the same God always and everywhere. He is omnipresent not only virtually but also substantially; for action requires substance. In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the bodies feel no resistance from God’s omnipresence (Principia, Cohen & Whitman translation, pp. 941-942).
Another way Newton approaches God is to ask after the nature of his interventions. Here, Newton identifies explanatory gaps between phenomena and theory, and asks whether God could be acting, and if so, what is the nature of that action? For example, in a letter to Bentley Newton notes that that his theory of universal gravitation can explain the motions of the planets, but not their original sizes or positions in the solar system. The latter, he concludes, can only be explained by divine intervention. That God works to achieve such perfect balance in the system of the world tells us that he is “not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry”. Here, the insight is that gravity can destabilise the system of the world—and so the physical world constantly tends towards decay. Thus, God is required to use his skills of design and maintenance to prevent this from happening.
Neither approach looks like ‘feigning hypotheses’. For one thing, Newton doesn’t allow his thinking about God to justify or constrain his theorising. Rather, God is introduced after the physical theory has been established to see what it can teach us about the nature of his intervention. And for another thing, Newton’s ideas about God don’t result from speculation, but from rigorous study of both scripture and the natural world, and the careful application of reason. It is from our post-Enlightenment perspective that rigorous study of scripture seems to fall outside of natural philosophy.
Moreover, Newton’s introduction of God doesn’t stop inquiry. Rather, it raises further questions about how and why God intervenes on the system of the world. And these, in turn, lead back to physical inquiry. For example, Newton’s discussions about God’s role in the sizing and positioning of the planets leads to a fruitful inquiry about the specific compositions of the planets and why the biggest planets are furthest from the Sun. That the inquiry continues highlights the fact that Newton doesn’t view the cause of a given phenomenon as either natural or supernatural: every phenomenon is generated by both natural and supernatural causes. That is, physical objects act on one another as natural causes, subject to physical and mathematical laws, but God is the first-cause, and hence, behind all actions. And so, when Newton treats of God from phenomena, the inquiry doesn’t end there.
Finally, as a good experimental philosopher, Newton knows that we only have direct epistemic access to the evidence of our senses, so our knowledge of God is necessarily limited. However, as he makes clear in query 28 of the Opticks, we mustn’t be put off by our inability to discover the first cause directly. Instead, we must work to uncover intermediate causes—proximate causes—and work slowly to uncover deeper and deeper levels of causes until we come to the first cause. And, importantly, these intermediate causes can also reveal the nature of God:
And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself… And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued (Optics, Dover edition, p. 370).
Locke’s earliest use of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’
Peter Anstey writes…
It is well known that the leading English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) had much exposure to the writings and practice of experimental philosophers within his ambit from the early 1660s. For example, Locke was involved in some of Boyle’s natural historical projects and read most of Boyle’s writings as they came off the press. Likewise, he read Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy which appeared in 1664.
It is hardly surprising then that Locke’s early medical essays, ‘Anatomia’ (1668) and ‘De arte medica’ (1669) contain many of the leading methodological ideas of the English experimental philosophers, not least the decrying of hypotheses and the endorsement of natural history. Nevertheless, Locke seems not to have used the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in any of his medical writings from the 1660s nor in the early drafts of the Essay dating from c. 1671.
The earliest use of the term in his own writings that I have found appears in a journal entry from 8 February 1677 written while Locke visited Montpelier during his long sojourn in France. The entry has various marginal headings indicating the subject. It opens with the heading ‘Understanding’ followed by ‘Knowledg its extent & measure’, ‘End of Knowledg’ and then simply ‘Knowledg’. Here is what Locke says:
we need no other knowledge for the attainment of those ends [being happy in this world and the next] but of the history and observation of the effects and operations of natural bodies within our power, and of our duties in the management of our own actions as far as they depend on our wills, i.e. as far also as they are in our power. One of those is the proper enjoyment of our bodies and the highest perfection of that, and the other our souls, and to attain both those we are fitted with faculties both of body and soul. Whilst then we have abilities to improve our knowledge in experimentall naturall philosophy, whilst we want not principles whereon to establish moral rules, nor light … to distinguish good from bad actions, … we have no reason to complain if we meet with difficulties in other things. (Cited from Locke: Political Essays, ed. M. Goldie, Cambridge, 1997, p. 264, with modifications)
The sentiments of this passage certainly appear in the published Essay. And, in fact, there are verbal parallels between the whole entry and Essay IV, chapter 3, called ‘Of the extent of human knowledge’. The subjects broadly overlap and so does some of the terminology. For example, Locke uses terms such as ‘canton’ (which only appears once in the Essay) and ‘abyss’ in both passages in similar ways.
So what are we to make of this early appearance of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’? Well first, it is worth pointing out that it is accompanied in the entry with other comments that suggest that Locke was thinking about our knowledge of nature from the perspective of experimental philosophy. We note in the above extract the reference to ‘history and observation’ of the ‘effects and operations of natural bodies within our power’. It is almost certain that Locke has natural history in mind here. This is because Locke claims earlier in the entry that we need only trouble ourselves with ‘the history of nature and an enquiry into the qualities of the things in this mansion of the universe’. Likewise, we find Locke expressing the standard warning against hypotheses:
They might well spare themselves the trouble of looking any further, they need not concern or perplex themselves about the original, frame or constitution of the universe, drawing this great machine into systems of their own contrivance and building hypotheses obscure, perplexed, and of no other use but to raise disputes and continue wrangling. (Locke: Political Essays, p. 262)
There is, therefore, no doubt that Locke has imbibed the methodology of the experimental philosophers and that this is informing his musings on the nature and extent of human knowledge in the winter of 1677.
A second point is just how naturally Locke deploys the term. Its first appearance in Locke is as an obiter dicta: Locke seems to use the term quite naturally with no special focus or emphasis. If the evidence of Locke’s early medical essays is not enough, it is clear that by the time of his travels in France Locke had come to conceive of the acquisition of knowledge of nature in the terms of the new experimental natural philosophy.
Is this Locke’s earliest use of the term? I would be most grateful to any reader who could direct me to an earlier usage.
Vegetative and mechanical processes in Newton’s Chymistry
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last post, I started thinking about the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work—his chymistry, theology and Church history—in order to learn more about his methodology. In particular, I wondered what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are across his many projects. In this post, I’ll focus on a tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, from Newton’s alchemical corpus. Newton probably wrote this piece in 1672—the year that he wrote his ‘New Theory of Light and Colour’. The piece represents Newton’s attempt to give a synopsis of his early alchemical reading and to come up with, essentially, a ‘theory of everything’.
There is a great deal to interest us in this tract, including an early mechanical-æthereal theory of gravity and a discussion of the nature of God. But here, I’ll focus on one idea: Newton’s distinction between mechanical processes and vegetative processes. Where ‘vegetation’ is the generative process through which animals, plants and minerals grow, putrefy and regenerate themselves, ‘mechanical’ processes involve adding, subtracting and rearranging parts (described as “a gross mechanical transposition of parts” (5r)). Newton considers these processes to be exhaustive: “Natures actions are either vegetable or purely mechanical” (5r).
Newton’s discussion of this idea highlights several methodological continuities. I’ll discuss two of them here.
The first concerns the way Newton infers physical processes from observed phenomenal patterns. Drawing comparisons across the ‘three kingdoms of nature’—animal, vegetable and mineral—Newton notes that some metals grow, putrefy and regenerate within the Earth, much in the way that trees grow out of the earth, suggesting that some metals and minerals ‘vegetate’. In contrast, some salts and minerals appear to generate by the simple combining and arranging of parts. And so Newton proposes that there are two distinct processes at work in nature: vegetative and mechanical. The postulated distinction in turn guides further exploration of natural phenomena, enabling him to unify some patterns of generation and to differentiate others. The phenomena he explores go well beyond the initial cluster of metals and salts, eventually including organic life, heat and flame, and gravitation. And these phenomena, in turn, offer further clues about nature’s hidden processes. In short, observed phenomena illuminate underlying processes, which, in turn, guide further exploration of phenomena.
We see Newton engaging in similar inferential patterns in both the Principia and the Opticks. In the Principia, from the observed Keplerian orbits of the planets, Newton infers the inverse-square centripetal force. The inverse-square force, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration of other celestial phenomena, allowing him to calculate the motions of comets, the shapes of planets, and also to correct for perturbations of orbits. Similarly, in the Opticks, from the phenomena of the unequal refraction of light, Newton infers the heterogeneity of white light. The heterogeneity of white light, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration and theorising of other optical phenomena, including the colours of thin plates, thick plates and coloured fringes. In other words, this inferential feedback loop between phenomena and processes appears to be a standard feature of Newton’s methodology. In Query 31 of his Opticks, Newton describes this in terms of the joint methods of ‘analysis’ and ‘composition’. ‘Of Natures obvious laws’ might be considered an early manifestation of this method.
A second feature worth considering is the way Newton operationalised the concept of vegetation in order to develop a quantitative test for such processes. The term ‘vegetative’ was familiar to those concerned with the study of life and vitalism, and Newton was happy to speculate on the nature of this process:
The principles of her vegetable actions are noe other than the seeds or seminal vessels of things those are her onely agents, her fire, her soule, her life (5r).
But such a qualitative description of the process wasn’t very helpful for establishing which phenomena were generated by which processes. Especially since, as he noted, some natural phenomenon might appear to have been generated through vegetative processes, but in fact be produced mechanically. The way to distinguish between the two kinds of effects was to analyse them—i.e. break the entity down into its parts—and then try to put it back together again. If the recomposition was successful, then this indicated mechanical processes, if it wasn’t, then vegetative processes were operative. And so the methods of resolution and composition, or analysis and synthesis, provided him with a way of testing for vegetative processes. And thus ‘vegetation’ was effectively operationalised: the concept was defined through the operations which tested for it.
We see Newton engaging in a similar practice in his study of interference phenomena. His hypothesis on the nature of light postulated a hypothetical cause for the observed pattern of coloured rings: an æthereal ‘pulse’. Operationalising the concept of a pulse gave Newton a unit of measurement and, eventually, a way of formalising and abstracting the explanation. I have argued that Newton’s hypotheses played sophisticated supporting roles in his optical investigations. The role performed by the hypothesis of vegetation in this alchemical tract, and the way Newton links it to observation and experiment, looks similarly rich and sophisticated.
This feature helps me to say something more specific about, what I have termed, Newton’s ‘rhetorical style’. As I have noticed in previous posts, Newton took familiar terms and stretched them to fit his methodology. It is well-known that he did this with physical concepts such as ‘force’ and ‘mass’, and I have shown, on this blog, that he did this with methodological concepts such as ‘query’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘principle’. Bill Newman has demonstrated that Newton also borrowed the concepts of ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and ‘redintegration’ from chymistry and adapted them to his optical work—massaging them to fit his own needs. But Newton’s use of ‘vegetation’ highlights a particular feature of his rhetorical style: Newton took common terms with imprecise, qualitative meanings and defined them in terms of methods which measure, quantify or detect certain processes. And so what was really innovative in this case wasn’t that Newton used analysis and synthesis to investigate salts and metals, but rather, that he defined mechanical and vegetative processes in terms of that kind of intervention. In other words, Newton’s rhetorical style involved operationalising concepts—turning them into tools of measurement.
I closed my last post by pointing out that Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising. Newton’s chymical papers were circulated much more privately and so, presumably, the same political motivations didn’t apply. Moreover, Newton did not describe himself as an ‘experimental philosopher’ in his published work until 1713. So it is not surprising that we find no explicit mention of experimental philosophy or the methods of the Royal Society in this tract, which predates that explicit declaration by at least 40 years. However, the two features I’ve identified highlight Newton’s commitment to observation- and experiment-based theorising. That this commitment is evident, absent of any political pressure, suggests that it was genuine.
Call for Papers: Causa sive ratio: causality and reason in modernity between metaphysics, epistemology and science
Call for Papers: Causa sive ratio: causality and reason in modernity between metaphysics, epistemology and science
14-16 November 2017, Università degli Studi di Milano
Submission deadline: 15 June 2017
Confirmed keynote Speakers
Jeffrey Mcdonough (Harvard U.)
Katherine Brading (Duke U.),
Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge U.)
Walter Ott (U. of Virginia)
Ansgar Lyssy (LMU München)
Hylarie Kochiras (IAS Bologna)
Andrea Sangiacomo (U. Groningen)
Organizers : Tzuchien Tho, Stefano Di Bella
The very advent of modernity in philosophy could be interpreted through the lens of the fundamental redefinition of causality in the ontological, epistemological and logical separation of cause from reason. From the rejection of formal and final causes in the generation of Descartes and Gassendi, the debates on these questions in the period of Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, to the phenomenalization of causation in Hume and its subsequent idealization in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, we can see the definitive conceptual separation between logical implication, epistemic explanation and physical causation. It is this historical conceptual transformation and its present consequences that is the object of this conference.
What does this separation between cause and reason mean for the role of rationality, the property of intelligibility and the ontology of grounding in the development of metaphysics and the foundations of science in the 17th and 18th century? How do the emergent concepts of the general laws of nature and universally conserved physical magnitudes harmonize the rationality of nature and the uniqueness of causes in a new cosmology? What becomes the status of the self-caused? How does the early modern rejection of formal and final causes return, in other guises, and transform the semantic content of physical theories? How does the identity or distinction of reason and cause continue to inform contemporary philosophy?
The aim of this conference is to explore the distinction (and relation) of cause and reason from a historical examination of early modern philosophy and science while engaging with the contemporary debates surrounding grounding, causation and scientific explanation. Aside from paper presentations by invited and selected speakers, short reading groups of primary source texts (relevant to the presentations) will be led by conference organizers and invited speakers.
We invite papers addressing these problems of reason and cause based on historical studies and contemporary problems. We are particularly interested in papers that are able to connect 17th and 18th century thinkers with contemporary issues in metaphysics and philosophy of science. However, papers focusing on these issues contextually based in the 17th and 18th century are also enthusiastically welcomed.
Presentations are planned to be 45 minutes, leaving 15-20 minutes for discussion.
Please submit an abstract of 500 words, including the title of the presentation, to easychair. The abstract should be prepared for blind review. We welcome Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars as well as more established colleagues.
Notification of acceptance by 30 June 2017
For more information, see the conference website.
Please direct any futher questions to Tzuchien Tho.
How general was Newton’s experimental philosophy?
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Newton is often taken to have spawned two important, but different, sciences: an experimental science exemplified in the Opticks, and a mathematical science exemplified in the Principia. I. Bernard Cohen and George Smith, for example, write:
There is, perhaps, no greater tribute to the genius of Isaac Newton than that he could thus engender two related but rather different traditions of doing science.
Like many commentators, they emphasise the differences between the austere, formal mathematism of Newton’s so-called ‘rational mechanics’ and the complex and sophisticated experimentalism of his work on light and colour. And so, the two works are typically taken to exemplify very different methodologies.
In contrast, on this blog, I have emphasised the common features, rather than the differences—presenting a more integrated account of Newton’s methodology. For example, I have argued that his claim, that the Principia is a work of experimental philosophy, is something we should take seriously. And so the mathematico-experimental method is a feature of both the Opticks and the Principia. Moreover, I have argued that Newton’s mathematico-experimental method can be broadly characterised by an epistemic triad: a three-way epistemic division between theories, hypotheses and queries. The epistemic triad drives Newton’s optical work and his rational mechanics in a trajectory from experiment to certainty, using mathematical reasoning.
While the Opticks and the Principia represent two fields to which Newton made important contributions, these impressive tomes do not signify the entirety of his research output—nor even the bulk. During his lifetime, Newton produced vast quantities of written work on chymistry, theology and Church history, as well as mathematics. Over several posts, I plan to explore some of this less well-known work in order to learn more about Newton’s methodology. In particular, I want to see what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are between his many projects.
This may seem like a fool’s errand. Indeed, these lesser-known parts of Newton’s research have a poor reputation. One idea, floated by Jean-Baptiste Biot in his 1829 biography, was that Newton’s intellectual life divided naturally in two: prior to his mental breakdown in 1692, Newton’s life was sane, rational and scientific, but afterwards was mad, irrational and religious. And so Newton’s alchemical and theological manuscripts are often dismissed as the half-baked musings of an old man. In more recent times, however, commentators such as Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, William R. Newman, Rob Iliffe and Sarah Dry (to name just a few!) have aimed to redress this situation. They have demonstrated that Newton’s alchemical and theological pursuits were as much a part of his intellectual life as the optics, rational mechanics and mathematics, for which he is famous. So, firstly, if there was any kind of cleavage, it was not along disciplinary lines, and secondly, these intellectual pursuits should be counted as serious scholarship—not simply to be swept under the proverbial rug.
So what sorts of continuities should we expect to find? In the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few preliminary suggestions.
One striking feature of Newton’s published scientific work is how methodologically reflective it was. Perhaps we should expect similar reflections in his manuscripts on chymistry, theology or Church history. Indeed, a cursory look at the collection shows that Newton approached chymistry, theology and Church history with the same persistence and vigour that we find in his other work. Moreover, we can recognise several of the same methodological and foundational concerns. For example, Newton’s interest in the restoration of an ancient tradition of knowledge that has been lost or corrupted, and the view that reason, hard work and disciplined empirical research are always preferable to speculation.
Another feature of Newton’s work that I have discussed on this blog is what I call his ‘rhetorical style’: Newton borrowed familiar terms and bent them to his own needs. He is, moreover, best characterised as a methodological omnivore—he read widely on different methodologies and approaches, and selected from among them the best tools for the job. We might expect to find the same thing in his chymistry and theology. Again, my preliminary reading offers some support. Newton appears to have been interested in all aspects of chymistry—a heavily experimental discipline, often with a pragmatic eye to profit, as much about developing chemical technologies and pharmaceuticals as it is about turning base metals into gold. However, while Newton worked on the typical alchemist’s project of deciphering ancient myths, he doesn’t seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He appears to have been much more concerned with linking his chymical research to his more mainstream science—for example, his matter theory. In short, in these manuscripts, we can recognise the same desire to penetrate appearances and arrive at the fundamental truths of nature that we find in his physics.
Following on from this, we might also expect to find a concern for unification: the idea that Newton’s many topics of investigation are in fact part of a larger project. For example, in Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton argues for both ontological and methodological unification. Again, looking briefly at some of his alchemical manuscripts, we see a similar preoccupation. Newton’s discussions of the ‘vegetative spirit’, for example, offer insight into the ways in which the various strands of his scholarly endeavours, including chymistry and theology, were united under one grand scheme.
When understanding the development of Newton’s thought, I often find it helpful to distinguish between Public-Newton and Private-Newton. I have argued that there are important methodological differences between the work that Newton published (and hence, was willing to assert and defend) and the work he kept private. While the former conforms, in some sense, to the experimental philosophy, the latter is typically much more speculative. The distinction is particularly useful when considering Newton’s optical work, where we find stark differences between draft material and the final published version. But I suspect it won’t be so useful once we turn to his chymistry, theology and Church history, where many of Newton’s unpublished manuscripts were in circulation—some only among his closest circle of like-minded friends, and others, much more widely. And yet, this raises one final issue. Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising. His chymical, theological and Church history manuscripts were circulated much more privately—and presumably the same political motivations did not apply. When working outside the jurisdiction of the Royal Society, did Newton conform to the experimental philosophy?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
Call for Abstracts: Conceptions of Experience in the German Enlightenment between Wolff and Kant
Call for Abstracts: Conceptions of Experience in the German Enlightenment between Wolff and Kant
University of Leuven, February 24-25, 2017
Submission deadline: October 15, 2016
Confirmed keynote Speakers
Christian Leduc (Montréal)
Arnaud Pelletier (Brussels)
Anne-Lise Rey (Lille)
Udo Thiel (Graz)
Organized by Karin de Boer (University of Leuven) and Tinca Prunea-Bretonnet (University of Bucharest)
The purpose of this conference is to analyze the various conceptions of experience at play in eighteenth-century German philosophy between Leibniz’s death in 1716 and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. During this period, the classical Aristotelian definition of experience as cognition of singulars – to some extent still present in Wolff – became confronted with the Baconian and Newtonian accounts of empirical knowledge. In the decades before the mid-century, the views of Locke and Hume, as well as French sensualism and materialism, complicated the prevailing German perspective on experience even more: the notion of empirical or ‘historical’ knowledge became linked to experiment and observation, investigations into perception and sensation took center stage, and ‘inner experience’ grew into a widely discussed topic.
The Berlin Academy, through the prize-essay contests it organized and the writings of its members, importantly contributed to the dissemination of Newtonianism and empiricism. Yet while most philosophers acknowledged the fundamental role of experience, they tried to accomodate the modern notions of experience to a view of cognition and science influenced by Wolffian metaphysics. The question as to the contribution of foundational metaphysical principles and empirical data to scientific knowledge was much discussed, as was the relationship between inner and outer experience, experience and thought, experience and judgment, experience and facts, experience and perception, experience and experiment, and perception and apperception.
Challenging the historiographical opposition between empiricism and rationalism, the conference aims to explore the often ambivalent or fluid conceptions of experience at work in these debates, as well their influence on disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. Whereas all contributions relevant to these topics are welcome, we are particularly interested in contributions on the conceptions of experience elaborated by members of the Berlin Academy and by participants in the contests initiated by this institution.
The conference aims at stimulating fruitful exchanges between established scholars, junior researchers, and PhD students. Presentation time will be 25 minutes + 20 minutes for discussion.
Abstracts (of no more than 500 words) should be sent in MSWord as attachment to email@example.com.
Abstracts should be prepared for double-blind review by removing any identification details. The author’s name, paper title, institutional position and affiliation, as well as contact information, should be included in the body of the e-mail.
Notification of acceptance by November 15, 2016.
Locke and the Newtonian Achievement
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In the Principia, Newton claimed to be doing experimental philosophy. Over my last three posts, I’ve wondered whether we can interpret his so-called ‘experimental philosophy’ as Baconian. In the first two posts, I identified methodological similarities between Bacon and Newton: first, the use of crucial instances; second, the use of Baconian induction. In each case, I concluded that, without some sort of textual evidence clearly tying Newton’s method to Bacon’s, such similarities don’t demonstrate influence. In my third post, I tried a different approach: I considered Mary Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia should be considered Baconian because members of the Royal Society recognised, and responded to, it as part of the Baconian tradition. While Domski’s argument was fruitful in helping us better to understand what’s at stake in discussions of influence, I raised several concerns with her narrative. In this post, I shall address those concerns in more detail.
Let’s focus on Domski’s account of how Locke reacted to Newton’s Principia. Domski argues that 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 short, Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. Last time, I expressed two concerns with this account. Firstly, ‘speculative naturalist’ looks like a contradiction in terms (I have discussed the concept of ‘speculative experimental science’ here), and surely neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with the label. Secondly, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. Domski’s discussion of the reception of the Principia establishes the former, but not necessarily the latter.
We can get more traction on both of these concerns by considering Peter Anstey’s account of how the Principia influenced Locke. Anstey argues that Newton’s achievement forced Locke to revise his views on the role of principles in natural philosophy. In the Essay, Locke offers a theory of demonstration—the process by which one can reason from principles to certain truths via the agreement and disagreement of ideas. In the first edition, Locke argued that this method of reasoning was only possible in mathematics and moral philosophy, where one could reason from certain principles. Due to limitations of human intellect, such knowledge was not possible in natural philosophy. Instead, one needed to follow the Baconian method of natural history which provided, at best, probable truths. However, Anstey shows us that, by the late 1690s, Locke had revised his account of natural philosophy to admit demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’ (that is, principles that were discovered by observation and experiment).
I now draw your attention to two features of this account. Firstly, Newton’s scientific achievement—his theory of universal gravitation—as opposed to his successful development of a new natural philosophical method per se forced Locke to revise his position on demonstration from principles. (A while ago, Currie and I noted that this situation is to be expected, if we take the ESD seriously.) This feature should make us suspicious of Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia was taken to exemplify the speculative stage of Baconian natural philosophy. Locke did not see Newton’s achievement as a system of speculative hypotheses, but as genuinely empirical knowledge, demonstrated from principles that are justified by observation and experiment. Newton had not constructed a Baconian natural history, but nor had he constructed a speculative system. Rather, Locke recognised Newton’s achievement as something akin to a mathematical result—one which his epistemological story had better accommodate. This forced him to extend his theory of demonstration to natural philosophy. And so, by the late 1690s, we find passages like the following:
“in all sorts of reasoning, every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration; the connection and dependence of ideas should be followed, till the mind is brought to the source on which it bottoms, and observes the coherence all along” (Of the Conduct of the Understanding).
Secondly, Anstey emphasises that Locke didn’t regard Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as Baconian, but only as consistent with his, Locke’s, theory of demonstration. (Anstey also claims that Locke never fully integrated the revisions required to his view of natural philosophy in the Essay.) On this blog, we have suggested that, in the 18th century, a more mathematical experimental natural philosophy displaced the natural historical approach. And Anstey has offered a sustained argument for this position here. He argues that the break was not clean cut, but in the end in Britain mathematical experimental philosophy trumped experimental natural history. That this break was not clean cut helps to explain why experimental moral philosophers, such as Turnbull, thought they were pursuing both a Baconian and a Newtonian project, and were quite comfortable with this.
Notice that I’ve shifted from the vexed question of the extent to which Bacon influenced Newton, to a perhaps more fruitful line of enquiry: how Newton influenced Locke and others. This is no non sequitur. The members of the Royal Society strove to understand Newton in their terms—namely, in terms of Baconianism and the experimental philosophy. Here, it seems that two conclusions confront us. Firstly, we (again) find that Newton was taken as legitimately developing experimental philosophy by emphasising both the role of experimentally-established principles of natural philosophy and the capacity of mathematics to carry those principles forward. These aspects are, at best, underemphasised in Bacon and certainly missing from the Baconian experimental philosophy adopted by many members of the Royal Society. Secondly, we see that Newton’s influence on Locke was due, at least in part, to his scientific achievements. Newton did not argue directly with Locke’s epistemology or method, nor did Locke take Newton’s methodology as a replacement for his own. Rather, Locke took Newton’s scientific success as an example of demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’. This, in turn, necessitated modifications of his own account.
Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion
Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion
University of Warwick, 10-11 May 2016
Keith Allen (York), Cavendish on Colour and Experimental Philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney), Experimental Philosophy and Corpuscular Philosophy
Philippe Hamou (Paris-Ouest Nanterre), John Locke and the Experimental Philosophy of the Human Mind
Dana Jalobeanu (Bucharest), Francis Bacon’s ‘Perceptive’ Instruments
Dmitri Levitin (Oxford), Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, and the Soul: Rethinking Kenelm Digby’s Philosophical Project
Elliot Rossiter (Concordia), From Natural Philosophy to Natural Religion: Teleology and the Theologia Rationalis
Tom Sorell (Warwick), Experience in Hobbes’ Science of Politics
Alberto Vanzo (Warwick), Experimental Philosophy and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Italy
Koen Vermeir (Paris-Diderot), Magnetic Theology
Catherine Wilson (York), What was Behind the Rejection of Hypotheses in Newtonian Science
The full programme is available on the workshop webpage: http://bit.ly/EMExper
– Full fee excluding workshop dinner (includes two buffet lunches and coffee breaks): £20
– Discounted fee excluding workshop dinner: £10
– Full fee including workshop dinner: £49
– Discounted fee including workshop dinner: £39
The discounted fee is available to students, under-employed recent postgraduates and unemployed.
To register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org first to ensure that spaces are still available and, if so, please send a cheque, payable to the University of Warwick, to Dr Alberto Vanzo, Department of Philosophy, Social Sciences Building, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.
Registration closes on Monday 25th April. You are advised to register early as space is limited.
We hope to provide some financial support to those who would like to attend, but require childcare. If you are interested, please email email@example.com.
Available at http://bit.ly/EMExper.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Aristotelian Society, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Society for the History of Science.