Newton and Descartes: Theology and natural philosophy

Southern Journal of Philosophy 50 (3):414-435 (2012)
Abstract
Scholars have long recognized that Newton regarded Descartes as his principal philosophical interlocutor when composing the first edition of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. The arguments in the Scholium on space and time, for instance, can profitably be interpreted as focusing on the conception of space and motion in part two of Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (1644). What is less well known, however, is that this Cartesian conception, along with Descartes's attempt to avoid Galileo's fate in 1633, serves as an essential background to understanding Newton's own (poorly understood) view of the theological implications of his theory of space and motion. In particular, after withdrawing Le Monde from publication in 1633 because of its Copernican leanings, Descartes later introduced what some regard as a “fudge factor” into the theory of motion in the Principles: from an ordinary perspective the earth does move; but from a philosophical one, it does not. This background indicates the novelty and originality of Newton's own attempt to explicate how scriptural passages concerning the motions of the heavenly bodies can be reconciled with the philosophical views he developed during the 1680s. New evidence from archival sources and correspondence supports this argument, shedding light on the Scholium and on Newton's conception of philosophy's relation to theology
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