Abstract considerations: disciplines and the incoherence of Newton's natural philosophy

Historians have long sought putative connections between different areas of Newton’s scientific work, while recently scholars have argued that there were causal links between even more disparate fields of his intellectual activity. In this paper I take an opposite approach, and attempt to account for certain tensions in Newton’s ‘scientific’ work by examining his great sensitivity to the disciplinary divisions that both conditioned and facilitated his early investigations in science and mathematics. These momentous undertakings, exemplified by research that he wrote up in two separate notebooks, obey strict distinctions between approaches appropriate to both new and old ‘natural philosophy’ and those appropriate to the mixed mathematical sciences. He retained a fairly rigid demarcation between them until the early eighteenth century. At the same time as Newton presented the ‘mathematical principles’ of natural philosophy in his magnum opus of 1687, he remained equally committed to a separate and more private world or ontology that he publicly denigrated as hypothetical or conjectural. This is to say nothing of the worlds implicit in his work on mathematics and alchemy. He did not lurch from one overarching ontological commitment to the next but instead simultaneously—and often radically—developed generically distinct concepts and ontologies that were appropriate to specific settings and locations as well as to relevant styles of argument. Accordingly I argue that the concepts used by Newton throughout his career were intimately bound up with these appropriate generic or quasi-disciplinary ‘structures’. His later efforts to bring together active principles, aethers and voids in various works were not failures that resulted from his ‘confusion’ but were bold attempts to meld together concepts or ontologies that belonged to distinct enquiries. His analysis could not be ‘coherent’ because the structures in which they appeared were fundamentally incompatible.Author Keywords: Connectionism; Incoherence; Appropriateness; Setting; Discipline; Genre; Structure
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsa.2004.06.004
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References found in this work BETA
Ernan McMullin (1985). Galilean Idealization. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 16 (3):247-273.
Isaac Newton & H. W. Turnbull (1961). The Correspondence of Isaac Newton. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 12 (47):255-258.

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Steffen Ducheyne (2009). Understanding (in) Newton's Argument for Universal Gravitation. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 40 (2):227 - 258.

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