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 Although some of his principles have been replaced by modern theories and twentieth-century advancements, his work remains the foundation of many aspects of modern science.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.
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...
(The entire section is 928 words.)