Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

8

Newtonianism and Anti-Newtonianism
in the Early Enlightenment: Science,
Philosophy, and Religion

1. ENGLISH PHYSICO-THEOLOGY

Amid so great a crisis gripping religion and religious authority in western Europe, it was only to be expected, given the recent stunning advances in astronomy, physics, and mathematics, that theologians and philosophers should turn to a new source—science—for help, guidance, confirmation, and support. This placed the predominant Early Enlightenment grouping in European science—Newton and the Newtonians—in a commanding position at the very centre of the intellectual debate; and they were well equipped to preside over the moderate mainstream Enlightenment in the West since, for them, as the Scottish mathematician and Newtonian Colin MacLaurin (1698–1746) expressed it, it was axiomatic that science, or what they termed natural philosophy, is subservient to purposes of a higher kind, and is chiefly to be valued as it lays a sure foundation for natural religion and moral philosophy, by leading us, in a satisfactory manner, to the knowledge of the author and governor of the universe'.1 Science, held the Newtonians, reveals the handiwork of he whom Newton grandly dubbed 'rerum omnium fabricator ac dominus': scientific enquiry 'is to search into His workmanship; every new discovery opens to us a new part of His scheme'.

Newtonianism, then, entailed a full-scale revolution, not only in physics and astronomy but also philosophy, religion, and all erudite endeavour, his acolytes attributing their idol's unparalleled accomplishment to his scrupulously inductive method and aversion to that unfortunate 'love of systems' deemed to have ruined Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz. 'In this philosophy', proclaimed Sir Isaac, 'propositions are deduced from phenomena and made general by induction.'2 Newton allegedly refused to 'set out with any favourite principle or supposition, never proposing to himself the invention of a system', and supposedly

1 MacLaurin, Account, 3; Willey, Eighteenth-Century Background, 135–6; Stewart, 'Religion', 39, 56;
Broadie, 'Human Mind', 61.

2 Newton, Philosophiae naturalis principia, 484.

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