Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia: Science, Religion and Metaphysics

Network Node: 
Thu., Oct. 24, 2013, 8:00am - Sat., Oct. 26, 2013, 7:00pm

“Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia: Science, Religion and Metaphysics”Tercentenary Workshop
October 24-26, 2013
University of King’s College, Halifax, NS

The Situating Science Atlantic Node is pleased to support this workshop as one of the many sponsors and partners.

Workshop overview

This international workshop will bring together a contingent of leading historians and
philosophers of science for a systematic examination of the ideas and legacies of the General
Scholium to the Principia—arguably the most famous portion of Newton’s writings. At once
humanistic and natural philosophical, the General Scholium includes Newton’s reflections on
what he saw as some of the most important natural philosophical, theological and metaphysical
corollaries to the mathematical physics and cosmology of his magnum opus. In the General
Scholium Newton powerfully rejects Cartesian vortices, discusses planetary and cometary
dynamics, champions the inductive method, articulates the design argument, considers the
nature of God, declares that discoursing about God is a part of natural philosophy, touches on
philosophical and metaphysical issues, presents a descriptivist view of gravity, speaks against
feigning hypotheses and speculates about an electric spirit. And this does not exhaust the
themes treated in the General Scholium. Under the surface are links with Newton’s late
alchemical work, hints at heretical theology and responses to his natural philosophical critics.
Well-known and crucial to comprehending the wider goals of Newton’s thought, the General
Scholium is nevertheless comparatively under-researched and still imperfectly understood. This
workshop aims to bring greater clarity to our understanding of the General Scholium, along
with the many ways it intersects with Newton’s scientific, philosophical and religious thought,
and to produce the first book-length study of this text and related themes.

This workshop coincides with the three-hundredth anniversary of the second (1713)
edition of the Principia, in which the General Scholium first appeared in print. The workshop
will be held at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. King’s College is a
small liberal arts college known for its Great Books Programme, interdisciplinary upper-year
honours programmes and School of Journalism. It is affiliated with Dalhousie University, a
research institution and comprehensive university with programmes in the Arts, Social Sciences,
Sciences, Medicine and Law. The workshop has several sponsors and partners, including the
Newton Project, the Newton Project Canada, the History of Science and Technology
Programme (King’s College) and the University of King’s College. Steffen Ducheyne (Vrije
Universiteit Brussels), Scott Mandelbrote (Cambridge University) and Stephen Snobelen
(King’s College) are serving as the workshop organisers and will also edit the proceedings.
The workshop programme will commence formally on the evening of Thursday 24
October with an advertised public lecture in Alumni Hall by Andrew Janiak (Duke University)
entitled “Isaac Newton, philosopher”. This lecture will be live-streamed and followed by a
reception. The video of the lecture will also be digitally archived and made available freely
online. There will also be a public seminar led by Niccolò Guicciardini (University of Bergamo)
on the second edition of the Principia presented in the later afternoon of Friday 25 October.
The first full day will conclude with an evening banquet at a seafood restaurant in Halifax’s
famous waterfront district in the heart of the old city. The second day will conclude with a
planning session for the published proceedings.

Each delegate’s paper will examine its particular theme in terms of 1) the internal content
of both the 1713 and 1726 versions of the General Scholium, 2) the relationship of the General
Scholium to the rest of Newton’s published and unpublished writings as well (including “De
gravitatione”, the Classical Scholia, the Opticks and Optice, the first three published editions of
the Principia, drafts for the various editions of the Principia, the System of the World and the
theological papers) and 3) both relevant contemporary debate, such as the Leibniz-Clarke
correspondence of 1715-16, and the wider context of Newton’s thought in seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century science, religion and metaphysics. Each paper will engage with the
historiography and scholarly opinion relevant to its topic as well. Where relevant the papers will
also discuss links between the General Scholium and new features of the second edition of the
Principia, including editor Roger Cotes’ powerful and polemical preface. Papers will be precirculated
and each session will allow time for feedback, questions and discussion.

Unprecedented access to Newton’s unpublished writings will allow delegates to go far
beyond Newton’s public texts. The Cambridge Digital Library, for example, includes Newton’s
annotated copy of the first edition of the Principia, along with some of his notebooks. The year
2013 also coincides with the completion of the Newton Project’s transcription of Newton’s
theological papers, virtually all of which, along with some scientific and biographical documents,
are now available online for research.

In addition to the two advertised public events, the workshop talks will be open to
interested undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from the Arts, Social Sciences and
Sciences. A small exhibition of all the early Latin editions of the Principia will be open to the
public at the King’s College Library. A new English translation and critical edition of the
General Scholium and its five manuscript drafts will be produced for the workshop. This new
translation, along with the workshop papers and a general introduction, will be published
through an academic press by 2015. This published work will act as an introduction and guide
to the General Scholium that will serve scholars of Newton, early modern science, early modern
philosophy and the history of science and religion. It will also benefit physicists, other scientists
and, more broadly, members of the public who are interested in the scientific, religious and
metaphysical themes presented in Newton’s General Scholium.

For full schedule, please see the "Documents" section below.