Early Reception and Influence Essay - Critical Essays

Early Reception and Influence


Early Reception and Influence

Newton had a profound impact on the realms of mathematics and science through his discoveries, methods, and conclusions. Although some of his principles have been replaced by modern theories and twentieth-century advancements, his work remains the foundation of many aspects of modern science. Not only have his achievements influenced later scientific developments, but his principles and discoveries also deeply penetrated the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century philosophical and literary arenas as well.

Critical Reception

Critics such as Henry Guerlac and P. M. Rattansi have analyzed the reception Newton received in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While many scholars have held that the Principia was ignored on the European continent, Guerlac asserts that this was not the case. Prior to the publication of Principia, Newton was hailed as a mathematical genius; his work in mathematics was held in higher regard than his theories of light and color and his invention of the reflecting telescope. Publication of Principia served to further bolster Newton's status as a mathematician. Guerlac does concede that German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Dutch mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Christian Huygens (1629-95) were "competent, sophisticated, and persistent critics of Newton's theory of celestial motions." Leibniz's criticisms and his later conflict with Newton over who had discovered calculus (among other areas of debate) notwithstanding, Leibniz greatly admired Newton's work, Guerlac insists. Rattansi also takes note of Huygens' and Leibniz's critiques of Newton's theories, contrasting their negative appraisals with English astronomer Edmond Halley's (1656-1742) "awe" of Newton's thinking. Rattansi goes on to trace the influence of Voltaire (1694-1778) in familiarizing an educated public with Newton's scientific ideas. In his crusade to promote Newton, Rattansi argues, Voltaire had to "dethrone" René Descartes and his purely mechanistic conception of the universe.

In the nineteenth century, poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) commented on Newton in a number of letters and notes, noting the debt Newton owed to Johannes Kepler. Remarking on the limitations of Newton's way of thinking, Coleridge observed that Kepler, John Milton, and William Shakespeare were all "greater" individuals than Newton. In addition to criticizing Newton's Opticks, Coleridge contended that Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. Johin seems to be "little less than mere raving." Other nineteenth-century writers and thinkers, including Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), and William Blake (1757-1827), also took issue with Newton's work. M. J. Petry analyzes Hegel's opposition to Newton and Newtonianism, demonstrating that Hegel criticized "the scientific procedures on which Newtonianism was based." Petry stresses, however, that Hegel's arguments were focused more on the way Newton was being interpreted and used by Hegel's nineteenth-century contemporaries than on Newton himself. Both Newton and Hegel, Petry explains, believed that "all valid knowledge concerning the natural world must be based upon observation and experiment." Petry also notes that Hegel attempted to demonstrate that Goethe's theory of colors was superior to Newton's. Dennis L. Sepper investigates Goethe's arguments against Newton's theory of white light and colors. While acknowledging the limitations of Goethe's polemic against Newton's theory, Sepper maintains that Goethe's critique was justified on several grounds. One of Goethe's primary difficulties with Newton's theory, Sepper explains, was that Newton's methodology "misconceived" the proper relationship between theory and phenomenon. Like his German counterparts, Blake lodged a complaint against Newton's science as well, objecting to what he viewed as Newton's spiritless, mechanical conception of the universe. Stuart Peterfreund analyzes Blake's objection to Newtonian physics as evidenced by his Milton. Unlike Hegel and Goethe, who focused their attention on Newton's Opticks, Blake's anti-Newtonianism stemmed from his reading of Principia. Peterfreund demonstrates that Blake viewed "the painful and oppressive conditions of human existence … as being in part descended from the 'reasonable' assumptions of Newtonian physics, translated into Newtonian metaphysics and implemented as social policy."

Blake was not the only poet influenced in some manner by Newton and Newtonianism. Julia L. Epstein and Mark L. Greenburg trace the changing image of the rainbow in literature, maintaining that, following the publication of Newton's Opticks and the absorption of its ideas into both scientific and popular culture, the image of the rainbow was dramatically transformed. Prior to Newton, the rainbow image in science, religion, and literature served primarily as a symbol for the relationship between God and humankind. In post-Newtonian poetry, "biblical authority" has been replaced by "human genius, acting to discover the workings of the wondrous image." In the poetry of James Thomson (1700-48), Epstein and Greenburg state, the relationship between Newton and the physical world is sexualized, with a feminized nature yields herself to the masculine scientist. Thomson's depiction of a rainbow, they observe, "personifies a natural phenomenon in intimate embrace with Newton in a richly-evocative scene that … concerns light, the scientist's participatory eye, and the power of Newton's mind to 'transpierce' a willing lover's outer garments in order to delight in her inner form." Richard Glover (1712-85) followed Thomson's lead in his own poetry, portraying Newton's investigations of light as "a charming encounter between lovers." Coleridge, John Keats (1795-1821) and other nineteenth-century Romantic poets took a different view of Newton, nature, and the rainbow, however; these writers protested that the image of rainbow was diminished by Newton's analysis of it. In Blake's poetry, however, the rainbow was invigorated with new life. According to Epstein and Greenburg, Newton's probings embodied for Blake "the potential for a commingling, not between God and his creation, or between the poet and God, or even between the poet and Newton, but instead a commingling between artist and audience."


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (essay date 1834?)

SOURCE: "Isaac Newton," in Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century, edited by Roberta Florence Brinkley, Duke University Press, 1955, pp. 399-408.

[In the following excerpts, which are taken from various published and unpublished sources, including letters and notes written in the margins of books, Coleridge comments on Newton's debt to Johannes Kepler, criticizes Newton's Opticks, and notes that Newton's Observations on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations are "little less than mere raving." Given the variety of sources from which these observations are drawn, the date assigned is based on the year of Coleridge's death.]

Galileo was a great genius, and so was Newton; but it would take two or three Galileos and Newtons to make one Kepler. It is in the order of Providence, that the inventive, generative, constitutive mind—the Kepler—should come first; and then that the patient and collective mind—the Newton—should follow, and elaborate the pregnant queries and illumining guesses of the former. The laws of the planetary system are, in fact, due to Kepler. There is not a more glorious achievement of scientific genius upon record, than Kepler's guesses, prophecies, and ultimate apprehension of the law of the mean distances of the planets as connected with the periods of their revolutions round the sun. Gravitation, too, he had fully conceived; but, because it seemed inconsistent with some received observations on light, he gave it up, in allegiance, as he says, to Nature. Yet the idea vexed and haunted his mind; "Vexat me et lacessit," are his words, I believe.7

When, however, after a short interval, the Genius of Kepler, expanded and organized in the soul of Newton, and there (if I may hazard so bold an expression) refining itself into an almost celestial Clearness, had expelled the Cartesian Vortices, then the necessity of an active power, of positive forces present in the Material Universe, forced itself on the conviction. For as a Law without a Law-giver is a mere abstraction; so a Law without an Agent to realize it, a Constitution without an abiding Executive, is, in fact, not a Law but an Idea!8

In the system of gravity, Newton only developed the idea of Kepler. He advanced a step, and there he fixed his followers. Kepler would have progressed, or have been stationary in act at least.9

What a thing, what a living thing is not Shakespeare—and in point of real utility I look on Sir Isaac Newton as a very puny agent compared with Milton—and I have taken some pains with the comparison and disputed with transient conviction for hours together in favour of the former.10

Newton was a great man,. but you must excuse me if I think that it would take many Newtons to make one Milton.11

My opinion is this—that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton's works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind, & therefore to you, that I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespere or a Milton. But if it please the Almighty to grant me health, hope, and a steady mind, (always the 3 clauses of my hourly prayers) before my 30th year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton's Works—at present, I must content myself with endeavouring to make myself entire master of his easier work, that on Optics. I am exceedingly delighted with the beauty and newness of his experiments, & with the accuracy of his immediate Deductions from them—but the opinions founded on these Deductions, and indeed his whole Theory is, I am persuaded, so exceedingly superficial as without impropriety to be deemed false. Newton was a mere materialist—mind, in his system is always passive,—a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God's Image, & that too in the sublimest sense—the Image of the Creator—there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system."12

Even where, as in the Optics of Sir I. Newton, or rather in that part of the Newtonian optics which relates to colour, the premises are derived from experiment, the facts must have been proved before the scientific reasoning begins. In reference both to the process and to the result or product of science and as far as the knowledge is scientific, there is no difference in the character of the premises. Whether self evident, or the evident result of some other science grounded on self evident truths, or prepared for the occasion by observation, or experiment, the premises occupy the same place & exercise the same function as premises of a science. For if they were not (expostulata and prœconcessa) demanded on the one side & preconceded on the other, the science could not have commenced; it would have perished in birth.13

Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the last edition of his Optics, supposes that a very subtile & elastic fluid, which he calls æther, is diffused thro' the pores of gross bodies, as well as thro' the open spaces that are void of gross matter; he supposes it to pierce all bodies, and to touch their least particles, acting on them with a force proportional to their number or to the matter of the body on which it acts. He supposes likewise, that it is rarer in the pores of bodies than in open spaces, & even rarer in small pores and dense bodies, than in large pores and rare bodies; & also that its density increases in receding from gross matter; so for instance as to be greater at the 1/100 of an inch from the surface of any body, than at its surface; & so on. To the action of this æther he ascribes the attractions of gravitation & cohæsion, the attraction & repulsion of electrical bodies, the mutual influences of bodies & light upon each other, the effects & communication of heat, & the performance of animal sensation & motion. David Hartley from whom this account of æther is chiefly borrowed, makes it the instrument of propagating those vibrations or confygurative motions which are ideas. As it appears to me, no hypothesis ever involved so many contradictions: for how can the same fluid be both dense & rare in the same body at one time? yet in the Earth as gravitating to the Moon, it must be very rare; & in the Earth as gravitating to the Sun, it must be very dense. For, as Andrew Baxter well observes, it doth not appear sufficient to account how this fluid may act with a force proportional to the body to which another is impelled, to assert that it is rarer in great bodies than in small ones: it must be farther asserted that this fluid is rarer or denser in the same body, whether small or great, according as the body to which that is impelled is itself small or great. But whatever may be the solidity of this objection, the following seems unanswerable.

If every particle thro' the whole solidity of a heavy body, receive its impulse from the particles of this fluid, it should seem that the fluid itself must be as dense as the very densest heavy body, gold for instance; there being as many impinging particles in the one, as there are gravitating particles in the other which receive their gravitation by being impinged upon: so that, throwing gold or any heavy body upward, against the impulse of this fluid, would be like throwing gold thro' gold; and as this æther must be equally diffused over the whole sphere of its activity, it must be as dense when it impels cork as when it impels gold: so that to throw a piece of cork upward, would be as if we endeavoured to make cork penetrate a medium as dense as gold: & tho' we were to adopt the extravagant opinions which have been advanced concerning the progressions of pores, yet however porous we suppose a body, if it be not all pore, the argument holds equally; the fluid must be as dense as the body in order to give every particle its impulse.

It has been asserted that Sir Isaac Newtons philosophy leads in its consequences to Atheism; perhaps not without reason, for if matter by any powers or properties given to it, can produce the order of the visible world, & even generate thought; why may it not have possessed such properties by inherent right? & where is the necessity of a God? Matter is, according to the mechanic philosophy, capable of acting most wisely & most beneficently without consciousness of Wisdom or Benevolence; & what more does the Atheist assert? if matter could possess these properties, why might it not possess them from all eternity? Sir Isaac Newtons Deity seems to be alternately operose & indolent, to have delegated so much power as to make it inconceivable what he can have reserved. He is dethroned by Vice-regent second causes.

We seem placed here to acquire a knowledge of effects. Whenever we would pierce into the Adyta of Causation, we bewilder ourselves—and all, that laborious Conjecture can do, is to fill up the gaps of Imagination. We are restless, because invisible things are not the objects of vision—and philosophical Systems, for the most part, are received not for their Truth, but in proportion as they give to Causes a susceptibility of being seen, whenever our visual organs shall have become sufficiently powerful.14

I am anxious to leave the specific objections of the Mathematicians to Goethe's Farbenlehre as far as it is an attack on the assumptions of Newton. To me, I confess, Newton's assumptions, first, of a...

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M. J. Petry (lecture date 1981)

SOURCE: "Hegel's Criticism of Newton," in CLIO, Vol. 13, No. 4, Summer 1984, pp. 331-48.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1981, the critic surveys Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's criticism of the scientific procedures that formed the basis of Newtonianism. Petry argues that Hegel opposed the conclusions drawn by nineteenth-century Newtonians, including physicists and philosophers, more than he opposed Newton himself]


Even now, when we look back upon Newton's Principia and Opticks over a period of nearly three hundred years, it is difficult to imagine what modern physics would have...

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Stuart Peterfreund (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Blake and Newton: Argument as Art, Argument as Science," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 10, 1981, pp. 205-26.

[In the following essay, Peterfreund examines the direct relationship of William Blake's Milton to the Principia, demonstrating that Blake's work reveals the poet's opposition to Newton's physics and his conception of the universe.]

There has been a good deal of discussion recently, by George S. Rousseau and others, about the status of the relationship between literature and science as modes of discourse.' Interestingly enough, much of what has been written about literature and science has been focused on the relationship...

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P. M. Rattansi (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Voltaire and the Enlightenment Image of Newton," in History & Imagination: Essays in Honor of H. R. Trevor-Roper, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie Pearl, Blair Worden, eds., Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1981, pp. 218-32.

[In the following essay, Rattansi analyzes Voltaire's interest in Newton and his scientific writings, tracing the impact Voltaire had on the public's acceptance of Newton's conception of the universe, as opposed to that of René Descartes.]

While the publication of the Principia Mathematica in 1687 secured almost universal admiration for the scientific and mathematical genius of Sir Isaac Newton, his contemporaries differed widely in their...

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Henry Guerlac (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Newton on the Continent: The Early Reception of His Physical Thought," in Newton on the Continent, Cornell University Press, 1981, pp. 41-73.

[In the following essay, Guerlac investigates the nature of Newton's reputation in France prior to 1699 and reassesses the view held by some critics that, prior to 1738, there was great opposition between individuals who advocated Newton's physical theories and those who propounded the theories of René Descartes.]

Besides the technical study of Newton's achievements in mathematics, optics, and dynamics, there is a phase of Newtonian scholarship which has attracted renewed interest and which we may call the "influence,"...

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Julia L. Epstein and Mark L. Greenburg (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Decomposing Newton's Rainbow," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January-March 1984, pp. 115-40.

[In the following essay, Epstein and Greenburg examine how the image of the rainbow was affected by Newton's Opticks. The critics focus particularly on how the literary representation of the rainbow changed and developed during and after Newton's life.]

Sir Isaac Newton has intrigued philosophers, poets, artists, and critics alike as the scientist "with his prism and silent face," a "mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone."1 The deified figure of Newton, images and metaphors drawn from Newtonian science, and...

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Dennis L. Sepper (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Goethe against Newton: Towards Saving the Phenomenon," in Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, Frederick Amrine, Francis J. Zucker, Harvey Wheeler, eds., D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 175-93.

[In the following essay, Sepper studies Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's attack on Newton's theory of white light and colors, maintaining that while Goethe's critique is sometimes flawed by "excessive vehemence" and an "all-encompassing condemnation" of Newton's theory, Goethe nevertheless presents a justified opposition to Newton's methods.]

Wer ein Phanomen vor Augen hat, denkt
schon oft druber hinaus; wer nur davon

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Further Reading

Balakier, Ann Stewart and James J. Balakier. "The Addisonian Connection between James Thomson's The Seasons and Sir Isaac Newton's Principia." University of Dayton Review 19, No. 2 (Summer 1988): 69-77.

Examines the relationship between Newton's mechanics of nature, Joseph Addison's formulation of the concept of "a natural sublime," and James Thomson's The Seasons, which, the critics argue, is influenced by the work of both Newton and Addison.

John, David G. "Newton's Opticks and Brockes' Early Poetry." Orbis Litterarum 38, No. 3 (1983): 205-14.

Studies the influence of Newton's theory of light on the German poet Barthold Heinrich...

(The entire section is 208 words.)