Early Reception and Influence Introduction - Essay


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 Although some of his principles have been replaced by modern theories and twentieth-century advancements, his work remains the foundation of many aspects of modern science.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."