The Cultural Context of Newtonianism

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The Cultural Context of Newtonianism


The enthusiastic reception by natural philosophers of Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) difficult Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in 1687, eventually spread Newton's name and influence far beyond the small community of scholars of physics and mathematics. Throughout the eighteenth century, "Newtonian" ideas were put forward in many social and cultural arenas, in England and its colonies in America. Although Newton's name was used to describe many different, even conflicting, viewpoints, most proponents of "Newtonianism" thought of Newton as a paradigm of rational belief and of his work as a model for understanding all aspects of the universe in terms of laws.


It would be impossible to exaggerate Newton's influence on the history of physical science, but his indirect influence on developments in religious, cultural, intellectual, and political life was also profound. How did this happen? Newton's scientific works were notoriously difficult, accessible only to mathematically literate investigators and those who had, like Newton, made forays into careful and intense experimentation. Newton himself was a difficult and at times troubled man, uncomfortable with public interactions and controversies. Although late in his life Newton did take up a public position as Master of the Mint and participate authoritatively in the scientific life of London, throughout the earlier decades of his career Newton led a mostly solitary life at Cambridge University, punctuated primarily by scientific exchanges with a small circle of devoted peers. He struggled mightily for years with private demons entangled with his brilliantly creative ideas. Much of Newton's "scientific" work was in fact deeply concerned with theology and with alchemy, including the more mystical aspects of that ancient practice.

Newton's broad cultural influence, then, did not stem from Newton himself but rather from the inspiration that his work gave to others searching for new ways to approach their own spheres of thought. One of the most direct channels of influence of Newton's work was upon the philosophical architects of the French Enlightenment movement, a group of writers who were known as the "philosophers" and who included the author François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778). Voltaire was an outspoken critic of Catholicism, a "deist" who professed general belief in a supreme being but rejected the principles and institutions of organized religion. Exiled to England for three years in the 1720s, Voltaire marveled at the relative freedom of cultural, social, and intellectual exchange he found in London. Voltaire associated these freedoms with Newton's scientific ideas; he embraced Newton's name, and endorsed Newtonian rationality as an antidote to what he labeled religious intolerance and ignorance in his native France. Voltaire was largely responsible for popularizing Newtonian ideas in Europe, and those who saw Newtonian ideas as a threat to Christianity often drew their interpretation from Voltaire. In addition to Voltaire's own work, his mistress, Madame du Châtelet (1706-1749), made the only translation of Newton's Principia into French and helped popularize Newtonian ideas to a female audience.

Newton's influence on religion was extraordinarily complex. At the same time Voltaire and others were claiming that Newtonianism supported their deism or even atheism, many others were using Newtonian language to defend Christianity. Although he rejected Anglican orthodoxy, Newton himself very much wanted his science to show the power of the Creator, and a number of Newtonians, especially in Britain, did make use of Newton's scientific legacy to support religious belief. Protestant theologians such as Samuel Clarke and Richard Bentley argued passionately that Newton's work had revealed laws of the physical universe that decisively demonstrated its design and order—design and order that confirmed God's existence and revealed his handiwork. Newtonian philosophy was also used by these theologians and others to support a kind of political agenda—the stable, balanced, law-governed authority of Church and state that had emerged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1688-89. This kind of "natural theology" that looked to science for evidence of design in the universe to support Christianity became quite entrenched in England and the American colonies. Its impact was embraced by members of the Anglican majority and was multifaceted, including such diverse developments as the Unitarian Church and Freemasonry.


The cultural force of Newton's name and his ideas remained irresistible throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. The impact of this singular exemplar on the progress of scientific work was mixed. In Newton's own country, Newtonian fervor settled into a kind of orthodoxy that eventually had a stultifying effect on the advance of scientific investigation. This was felt most strongly in the field of mathematics, where nationalistic support of Newton's claim of priority in the discovery of calculus caused English schools to teach Newton's awkward fluxions notation rather than Gottfried Leibniz's (1646-1716) more workable differentials. The presence of Newton himself as the President of the Royal Society for many years had the predictably intimidating effect on the members of that organization. England was, however, noteworthy for the rapidity and breadth of the dissemination of Newtonian ideas to engineers and artisans who applied his principles to important industrial problems in mechanics, hydrostatics, and pneumatics. Widespread enthusiasm for and understanding of the value of careful experiment and the search for mathematical relationships to solve practical physical problems probably helped England achieve its early start in industrialization. This work in applied mechanics was free of theological implications that might have arisen from more theoretical or speculative investigations, and coexisted quietly with the widespread intertwining of Newtonian and Christian ideas.

France, perhaps more than any other country, had a blossoming of mathematical and conceptual talent inspired by Newton and his work. In France, an ideological struggle between Catholic-tinged Cartesian science and the Newtonian science supported by deists such as Voltaire waged for sometime. French scientific institutions such as the important Academie des Sciences did not officially embrace Newtonian science until about 1740. Long before then, however, skilled mathematicians such as Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis (1698-1759) were solving problems posed by the Principia and testing the experiments described in Newton's Opticks (1704), all the while simply ignoring theological disputes about Newton's ideas. (Maupertuis also helped bring Newtonianism to German-speaking countries when he was appointed to head the Berlin Academy of Sciences, where Voltaire was also a visiting member.) Newton's physics of the earth and planets was greatly advanced by French mathematicians such as Maupertuis and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), among many others, who worked even through the upheaval of the French Revolution. By century's end they had transformed Newton's physical laws into a sophisticated system of celestial mechanics—a wholly mathematical system that was completely free of the religious ideas that had animated Newton's own work, and that had been the source of squabbles in French institutions earlier in the century. While these French mathematicians may have ignored religious questions initially to avoid confrontation with established opinion, the result of their work made theology superfluous to physics. In effect, they redefined the field of inquiry about the physical universe to leave questions about a Creator entirely aside.

Newton's ideas surely generated Newtonianism, but that term came to mean many things far removed from Newton's own beliefs. Newton's principle ideas of instrumentalism, of motion determined mathematically by accelerative forces among microscopic elements, and of the continuous mathematics of calculus had farreaching implications for understanding the natural world. Newton's ideas and methods inspired by their success, and others saw them as useful analogies and examples for their own purposes. Newton's personal theological beliefs were for him an underpinning of his scientific endeavors, but they proved to be highly malleable, and eventually superfluous. Those looking for a law-bound but godless universe found it easily in Newton's science; those looking to science to support religion against its challengers found support from Newton as well in the argument from design. Although the view always had well-spoken critics, when England's next scientific giant—Charles Darwin (1809-1882)—emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, the design-based vision of natural theology received a blow far more damaging than that of the godless physics of Laplace. After Darwin, it was no longer straightforward to use science to support religion; where natural theologians had seemingly deliberate designs, Darwin recognized the handiwork only of immense time, variation, and the forces of selection. Those who wished to balance science and belief could still do so, but the easy identification of scientific understanding with God's works that Newton had inspired lost its power to convince, and religion in England once again stood without the support of science.


Further Reading


Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cohen, I.B. The Newtonian Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter and Margaret Jacob. Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

Guerlac, Henry. Newton on the Continent. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Hankins, Thomas. Science in the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Heilbron, John L. Physics at the Royal Society. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.

Wallis, Peter and Ruth Wallis. Newton and Newtoniana, 1672-1975: A Bibliography. Folkstone: Dawson, 1977.

Westfall, Richard. Never at Rest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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The Cultural Context of Newtonianism

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