Hume's Interest in Newton and Science

Hume Studies 13 (2):166-216 (1987)
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Abstract

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:166 HUME'S INTEREST IN NEWTON AND SCIENCE Many writers have been forced to examine — in their treatments of Hume's knowledge of and acquaintance with scientific theories of his day — the related questions of Hume's knowledge of and acquaintance with Isaac Newton and of the nature and extent of Newtonian influences upon Hume's thinking. Most have concluded that — in some sense — Hume was acquainted with and influenced by Newton's thought in particular and scientific thought in general. The genesis of this paper is the recent point of view put forward by Peter Jones which challenges the many permutations of this almost ritualistic standard line by removing Hume entirely from the Newtonian and the scientific scenes of thought. Jones argues that Hume knew less about Newton and science, and needed to know less about Newton and 2 science, than he believes is required by the above interpretation. Indeed, Jones argues that Hume's fundamental assumptions, which, according to Jones, derive ultimately from a form of Ciceronian humanism, drive a "wedge" between Newton's thought and that of 3 Hume. Even Hume's introductory remarks in the Treatise about his universal "science of man" are, for Jones, a declaration of independence from the materialistic trend (as Jones sees it) of Newtonian 4 science and not, as so many commentators have maintained — however tenuously or strongly evidence for linkage of Hume's project with Newtonian or scientific thought. Jones baldly argues that Hume totally lacked interest in science in general and in Newton and Newtonian science in particular. Following J. H. Burton's observation that Hume's work is surprisingly free from the "opinions" of contemporary scientists, 167 Jones states there is no evidence that Hume ever studied science at the University of Edinburgh or that he "pursued" scientific studies of any formal sort. Regarding Newtonian scientific thought, he emphasizes the paucity of specifically Newtonian scientific textbooks in the early eighteenth century 7 which might have been available for Hume to study and argues that nowhere in Hume's writings is there evidence of precise and detailed knowledge of Newton's science beyond what is available in Q Chamber's Cyclopaedia. Jones acknowledges that, in the Introduction to the Treatise, Hume utilizes a "general version" of Newton's "Regulae Philosophandi" from the beginning of Book III of Newton's Principia. Nevertheless, in Jones' view, Hume's fundamentally humanistic orientation separates him completely from g any Newtonian influence. Finally, according to Jones, Hume does not betray the least bit of knowledge of Newton's mathematics and its role in Newton's experimental methodology. On this evidence Jones grounds his central claim of Hume's "total lack of interest in contemporary science." What references there are to Newton and to science in Hume's works Jones finds "traceable to essentially literary predecessors such as Fontenelle or Montesquieu, or to standard works of theologians ] 2 or free-thinkers." The absence of clearly direct references to what Jones feels are scientific works results both from Hume's "total lack of interest in science" and from his commitment to a form of Ciceronian humanism which is "inimical" to what Jones finds to be the obvious materialistic tendencies of 13 science in the early modern period. Jones' account of the Ciceronian and French contexts of Hume's thought is excellent. But his claim that Hume had no interest whatsoever in science 168 is simply too strong and finally forces us to view science in Hume's day as equivalent to science in our own time, a manifestly anachronistic point of view. Throughout this paper, my argument will be conditioned by my view that Hume's interest in science cannot be separated from his epistemology or his religious scepticism. Hume's interest in science was precisely that of a man of letters of the eighteenth century vitally engaged in determining the proper use of scientific methodology in establishing the limits of the secular science of man once it has 14 been freed from the fetters of theology. Hume's interest in theological and epistemological issues inevitably gave rise to a strong interest on his part in the science of his day and in Newton's contributions...

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Citations of this work

Newtonian and Non-Newtonian Elements in Hume.Matias Slavov - 2016 - Journal of Scottish Philosophy 14 (3):275-296.
Universal Gravitation and the (Un)Intelligibility of Natural Philosophy.Matias Slavov - 2019 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 101 (1):129-157.
Hume's Colors and Newton's Colored Lights.Dan Kervick - 2018 - Journal of Scottish Philosophy 16 (1):1-18.

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