The theology of Isaac Newton's principia mathematica : A preliminary survey


Abstract
The first edition of Isaac Newton's famous Principia mathematica (1687) contains only one reference to the Scriptures and one mention of God and natural theology. Thus, there is superficial evidence to suggest that this pivotal work of physics is a mostly secular book that is not fundamentally associated with theology and natural theology. The fact that the General Scholium – with its overt theological and natural theological themes – was only added to the Principia a quarter-century later with the second edition of 1713 may also suggest that this theology came as an afterthought and is therefore not integral to the conceptual structure of the Principia . Moreover, the relative paucity of theology in the first edition, combined with the evidence of the appended General Scholium of 1713, could be used as evidence of a ‘theological turn’ in Newton's thought after 1687. This article uses evidence from Newton's private manuscripts to argue that there is more theology in all three editions of the Principia than a simple reading of the published text would imply. This article also demonstrates that the seeds of Newton's theological conception of Nature and the cosmos – conceptions that can be found in manuscripts beginning in the early 1690s, and that are acknowledged in the General Scholium of 1713 – are already present in Newton's private papers prior to 1687. Newton engaged in a great deal of theological writing after 1687, but the period of the composition of the Principia only marks the end of the first third of Newton's six-decade intellectual career and thus it should not be surprising to find more theology after the Principia than before. Nevertheless, there are important theological writings going back to the 1660s that show that Newton's strongly biblical and providentialist theology pre-dates the Principia and, crucially, that his theological conception of the cosmos does as well. The first edition of the Principia , therefore, was composed after Newton had begun to formulate his theology and theological understanding of the cosmos
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DOI 10.1515/nzst.2010.023
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