Locke and Newton on Space and Time and Their Sensible Measures

In Zvi Biener & Eric Schliesser (eds.), Newton and Empiricism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press: pp. 119-137 (2014)

Edward Slowik
Winona State University
Geoffrey Gorham
Macalester College
It is well-known that Isaac Newton’s conception of space and time as absolute -- “without reference to anything external” (Principia, 408) -- was anticipated, and probably influenced, by a number of figures among the earlier generation of seventeenth century natural philosophers, including Pierre Gassendi, Henry More, and Newton’s own teacher Isaac Barrow. The absolutism of Newton’s contemporary and friend, John Locke, has received much less attention, which is unfortunate for several reasons. First, Locke’s views of space and time undergo a dramatic evolution that mirrors the overall absolutist trend of the era. Second, there are good reasons to suppose that Locke was influenced late in this evolution by Newton’s Principia, which he read and reviewed shortly after its 1687 publication. It is even possible that Locke read or knew of the earlier and unpublished, though now famous, Newtonian tract De Gravitatione. Third, despite the influence of Newton, Locke’s retains a skeptical attitude concerning our empirical knowledge of absolute space and time. He is especially cautious about absolute time, bucking a widespread tendency to treat time as strongly analogous to space. Their disagreement about the measure of absolute time, we will suggest, reflects a deeper disagreement in the philosophy of science. While Locke counts as scientific knowledge only ideas and demonstrations derivable from immediate experience, Newton endorses a more theory-driven brand of empiricism, which holds that our best explanations of the phenomena provide genuine knowledge that goes beyond what we can directly observe.
Keywords Locke  Newton  empiricism
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