The Cambridge Companion to Newton

By I. Bernard Cohen; George E. Smith | Go to book overview

10
Newton, active powers, and
the mechanical philosophy
ALAN GABBEY

Among the notable eighteenth-century expositions of Newton's achievements were Henry Pemberton's A View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy (1728), Willem Jacob 'sGravesande's Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy confirm'd by experiments: or, an introduction to Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy (6th edn, 1747), and Colin Maclaurin's posthumous An Account of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophical Discoveries (1748). To the modern eye, there is something puzzling about these titles. We note the terms “philosophy, ” “natural philosophy, ” and “philosophical, ” and we wonder what they mean in this setting. Take Maclaurin's Account, the best of the genre, and written by one of the leading Newtonians of the day. Newton made great scientific discoveries, and we can learn what most of them are from reading An Account, but what philosophical discoveries did he make? Maclaurin describes Newton's work in mechanics, rational and celestial, and in physics, theoretical and experimental (though not optics). But Newton the philosopher? To answer these questions requires a preliminary disentanglement of the disciplinary classifications that clustered around the business of “philosophy” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In Newton's day the predominant framework of university instruction in philosophy was that of the Peripatetic or scholastic tradition, adapted to local religious and cultural requirements (Protestant in Germany, Holland, and Britain; Catholic in France, Spain, and Italy). In that tradition, Philosophy divides into speculative and practical philosophy. Speculative philosophy divides in turn into three principal sciences (scientiae):metaphysics or first philosophy, natural philosophy, and mathematics; to which are added the middle sciences (scientiae mediae), which include theoretical

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The Cambridge Companion to Newton
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Figures vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Preface xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Notes *
  • 1 - Newton's Philosophical Analysis of Space and Time 33
  • Notes *
  • 2 - Newton's Concepts of Force and Mass, with Notes on the Laws of Motion 57
  • Notes *
  • 3 - Curvature in Newton's Dynamics 85
  • Notes *
  • 4 - The Methodology of the Principia 138
  • Notes *
  • 5 - Newton's Argument for Universal Gravitation 174
  • Notes *
  • 6 - Newton and Celestial Mechanics 202
  • Notes *
  • 7 - Newton's Optics and Atomism 227
  • Notes *
  • 8 - Newton's Metaphysics 256
  • Notes *
  • 9 - Analysis and Synthesis in Newton's Mathematical Work 308
  • Notes *
  • 10 - Newton, Active Powers, and the Mechanical Philosophy 329
  • Notes *
  • 11 - The Background to Newton's Chymistry 358
  • Notes *
  • 12 - Newton's Alchemy 370
  • Notes *
  • 13 - Newton on Prophecy and the Apocalypse 387
  • Notes *
  • 14 - Newton and Eighteenth-Century Christianity 409
  • Notes *
  • 15 - Newton Versus Leibniz: from Geometry to Metaphysics 431
  • Notes *
  • 16 - Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence 455
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography 465
  • Index 481
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