Celebrating Newton's General Scholium

Network Node: 

Celebrating Newton's General Scholium
Jason Grier, York University

2013 marked the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of the second edition of Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (The Principia). The second edition is of particular historical interest because it introduced the General Scholium to the Principia. In this brief addition to the end of the Principia, Newton asserted programmatic positions on such topics as experimental philosophy (Newton’s first use of the term in print), hypotheses and the place of God in natural philosophy. Though the first published version of the General Scholium is under 1500 words in the original Latin, it has been of intense interest to scholars over the last three hundred years. To mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of the General Scholium, a symposium was held October 24-26 at the University of King’s College, Halifax, which brought together a collection of scholars representing institutions in seven different countries. The program and video recordings of the presentations can be found on the website: http://isaacnewton.ca/general-scholium-symposium/.

The symposium sought to place the General Scholium into a number of different contexts, not only in relation to Newton’s own work, but also the immediate intellectual context, the larger context of seventeenth-century century scholarship and the legacies of the General Scholium in the eighteenth century. These four approaches can be further divided into two principle categories: the context during which the General Scholium was written and the context of the General Scholium after it was published. In other words, what were the influences and motivations for it being written on the one hand and what is its impact on the other. In the following post, I will expand briefly on each of the four approaches. I have attempted to keep my discussion concise and will only describe the arguments of a handful of the different presentations rather than a full discussion of all fifteen.

Examples of the influences of earlier traditions for Isaac Newton’s own thought can be found in presentations by Dmitri Levitin (Trinity College, Cambridge and University of Edinburgh) and Paul Greenham (University of Toronto) both of whom sought to demonstrate the influence of earlier scholarly traditions on the General Scholium. Greenham demonstrated a legacy of classical theism that was still retained in seventeenth-century scholarship and Levitin showed the scholastic context for Newton’s General Scholium. They both, then, suggested a degree of continuity with scholastic thought rather than the radical break that the so-called Scientific Revolution has often been portrayed as having been.

Eric Schliesser (Ghent University), meanwhile, looked to place the General Scholium within its more immediate philosophical context. The General Scholium has often been regarded as being a response to criticism by Gottfried Leibniz to Newton’s theory of gravitation, especially because Leibniz and Newton’s supporter Samuel Clarke entered into a famous debate shortly after the second edition of the Principia was published. Schliesser, however, suggests that Newton was not primarily concerned with refuting Leibniz; instead, his goal was to establish himself as firmly anti-Spinozist. Faced with contentions that his theory was materialistic and atheistic, Newton wished to demonstrate that God played a central role in his natural philosophy.

While Schliesser, Greenham and Levitin were interested in the broader intellectual context and external influences on Newton, Cesare Pastorino (Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge) concentrated more narrowly on Newton. Specifically, Pastorino showed connections between Newton’s alchemical interests and the development of the General Scholium by drawing attention to a little noted manuscript that Pastorino suggested should be recognized as an early draft of the General Scholium. Also focusing more closely on Newton’s natural philosophy was Mary Domski (University of New Mexico). In her presentation, Domski sought to sharpen Alan Shapiro’s understanding of Newton’s views on hypotheses. While Shapiro regarded deduction from phenomena as an induction, Domski disagrees with this reading. Newton consistently spoke differently about what was shown mathematically and of experiments proved by mathematics and then shown by experiment later. Domski, thus, suggests a crucial difference between what is mathematically certain and experimental demonstration: mathematically certain principles are certain independent of reality; therefore, the demonstrations are necessary.

The presentations by Scott Mandelbrote (Peterhouse College, Cambridge) and Mordechai Feingold (California Institute of Technology) moved away from the development of the General Scholium and focused instead upon its reception and legacy. Mandelbrote drew attention to accusations that the General Scholium was an anti-Trinitarian text—the first of such accusations coming from John Maxwell in 1714, whose book also gave the first major English translation of the General Scholium. Feingold, however, took a rather different view. According to Feingold’s extensive research on the eighteenth-century reception of the General Scholium, Newton was rarely targeted as an anti-Trinitarian. Indeed, when he was brought into such polemics, it was primarily due to his association with Samuel Clarke and Feingold argued that it was Clarke and not Newton who was the principle target.

The conference, therefore, brought together a wide range of different areas related to Newton and the General Scholium and greatly widened the scope of discussion. In doing so, the participants have demonstrated a number of potentially fruitful lines of inquiry for future Newton scholarship. I would like to thank Situating Science for the generous financial assistance which afforded me the opportunity to attend.