Early Reception and Influence Criticism - Essay

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (essay date 1834?)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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[In the following excerpts, which are taken from various published and unpublished sources, including letters and notes written in the margins of books, Coleridge comments on Newton's debt to Johannes Kepler, criticizes Newton's Opticks, and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...

(The entire section is 4031 words.)

M. J. Petry (lecture date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 7456 words.)

Stuart Peterfreund (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 9081 words.)

P. M. Rattansi (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 6948 words.)

Henry Guerlac (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,"...

(The entire section is 12565 words.)

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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 11677 words.)

Dennis L. Sepper (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

(The entire section is 8176 words.)