Newton, Isaac

(1642–1727)
British mathematician and physicist, and a principal source of the classical scientific view of the world. The man Hume called ‘the greatest and rarest genius that ever arose for the ornament and instruction of the species’ was born in Lincolnshire and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. His major mathematical discoveries are usually dated to between 1665 and 1666, when he was secluded in Lincolnshire, the university being closed because of the plague. In 1669 he became professor of mathematics. His great work, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’, usually referred to as the Principia ), was published in 1687. In 1696 he was given the post of Warden of the mint, where he supervised the reformation of the currency (but, according to Voltaire, because the Treasurer, Lord Halifax, was enamoured of his niece).
Throughout his career, Newton engaged in scientific correspondence and controversy. The often-quoted remark, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants' occurs in a conciliatory letter to Robert Hooke (1635–1703), the secretary of the Royal Society, concerning priorities in making optical discoveries (wittingly or not, Newton was in fact echoing the remark of Bernard of Chartres in 1120: ‘we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’). The dispute with Leibniz over the invention of the calculus is his best-known quarrel, and certainly the least edifying, with Newton himself appointing the committee of the Royal Society that judged the question of precedence, and then writing the report, the Commercium Epistolicum, awarding himself the victory. Although the father of the ‘age of reason’, Newton was himself interested in alchemy, prophecy, gnostic wisdom, and theology (his manuscripts include some 1,300,000 words on biblical subjects, as well as Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St John, 1733).
The philosophical influence of Principia was incalculable, and from Locke's Essay onwards philosophers recognized Newton's work as a new paradigm of scientific method, but without being entirely clear what different parts reason and observation play in the edifice. Although Newton ushered in so much of the scientific world view, in the general scholium at the end of Bk. iii of Principia he argues that ‘it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions’, and hence that his discoveries pointed to the operations of God, ‘to discourse of whom from phenomena does certainly belong to natural philosophy.’ Newton confesses that he has ‘not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena’: hypotheses non fingo (I do not make hypotheses). It was left to Hume to argue that the kind of thing Newton does, namely place the events of nature into lawlike orders and patterns, is the only kind of thing that scientific enquiry can ever do. See also action at a distance, field.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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