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        Response to H. Floris Cohen's essay review on Newtonian scholarship
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        Response to H. Floris Cohen's essay review on Newtonian scholarship
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        Response to H. Floris Cohen's essay review on Newtonian scholarship
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Long ago, George Sarton set down criteria for reviewers. In addition to insisting on the need to compose ‘faithful’ reviews, he cautioned against four types of unfit reviewers: the ‘egoist’, the ‘obscure’ reviewer, the one who is noncommittal, and the pedantic critic. Unfortunately, Cohen's review comes short on several counts. Cohen writes that he intends to examine what is ‘new’ in the three books he reviews, and whether the results therein contained are ‘worth learning’ (p. 687). Cohen denies being given to ‘misplaced hero worship’, insisting that his sole aim is to assess whether ‘scholarly novelty’ (p. 693) has been attained. Nevertheless, given his repeated rebuke of the authors under review for ‘failing to refer back to [Richard] Westfall's work’ on Newton – now nearly half a century old – it seems that he grounded his critique principally on Westfall's interpretation.

Long ago, George Sarton set down criteria for reviewers. In addition to insisting on the need to compose ‘faithful’ reviews, he cautioned against four types of unfit reviewers: the ‘egoist’, the ‘obscure’ reviewer, the one who is noncommittal, and the pedantic critic. Unfortunately, Cohen's review comes short on several counts. Cohen writes that he intends to examine what is ‘new’ in the three books he reviews, and whether the results therein contained are ‘worth learning’ (p. 687). Cohen denies being given to ‘misplaced hero worship’, insisting that his sole aim is to assess whether ‘scholarly novelty’ (p. 693) has been attained. Nevertheless, given his repeated rebuke of the authors under review for ‘failing to refer back to [Richard] Westfall's work’ on Newton – now nearly half a century old – it seems that he grounded his critique principally on Westfall's interpretation.

Cohen acknowledges – in his popular biography, Isaac Newton en het ware weten, which was principally extracted from his How Modern Science Came into the World – that his understanding of Newton is informed almost exclusively by Westfall's two ‘magisterial’ studies – Force in Newton's Physics (1971) and Never at Rest (1980). Westfall's books, Cohen claims in his biography, are the products of two decades of intensive study of everything that Newton had ever written, everything that happened to him or could be known about him in his own time, and most of what has been written about Newton since. Cohen, accordingly, gets his Newton second-hand, and rarely, if ever, through unmediated and prolonged engagement with the primary sources. Surely, therefore, partiality and an uncertain command of the source material renders Cohen a less-than-appropriate judge of what constitutes novelty in Newtonian studies.

Consider his comments on Niccolò Guicciardini's Isaac Newton and Natural Philosophy (2018). Cohen expresses the wish that this ‘sensible’ summation of Newton's life and achievements reaches its intended broad audience, further reckoning that Guicciardini's skilful handling of Newton's mathematics does not chase non-specialists away. Applying the criterion of ‘novelty’ to a book intended for a ‘non-expert’ audience, Cohen admits, is ‘unfair’; he therefore turns to historiography. Guicciardini offers an ‘unassuming, yet scholarly thorough and reliable’, attempt to resolve the divergence of opinion among earlier scholars on the ‘two Newtons’. Such faint praise serves to introduce a caveat. According to Guicciardini, Newton ought to be regarded primarily as a ‘problem solver’ – a claim that Cohen finds ‘astonishing’: not because he himself offers countervailing evidence, but because such a view contradicts Westfall's image of Newton. Cohen devotes nearly a page to narrating how Westfall ‘was concerned time and again to arrive at an insight into what made Newton's achievement so ultra-special by comparing’ him to Hooke and Huygens. And what Westfall discovered was much more than a problem solver: ‘The profound tension that runs through Newton's work and life in Westfall's still-inspiring view is … between a visionary ready to tackle the created world in a bold grab for the whole and an inspector who patiently runs over his calculations and checks his measurements’ (pp. 688–689). This ‘vision’, Cohen asserts, is ‘a good deal more persuasive’ than Guicciardini's estimation, notwithstanding Guicciardini's decades-long immersion in the Newton archives.

Guicciardini was not alone in having turned away from Westfall's ‘vision’, one attained ‘while assiduously and meticulously working his way through all the Newton literature’. The other two books under review fare little better in this respect. Consider first Rob Iliffe's Priest of Nature (2017). Cohen downplays Iliffe's recollection of years spent in attempting to decipher poorly photographed manuscripts on microfilm – for Westfall did so too, and earlier. Cohen is wrong. Lavish grants had enabled Westfall to purchase far better reproductions of the manuscripts he needed. I know because I own copies of many of them. Iliffe did not have similar resources. Going further, Cohen in effect dismisses Iliffe's book as at best a trivial codicil to Westfall. For the latter's two decades of ‘assiduous, all-encompassing researches’, Cohen claims, yielded a ‘clear-cut vision of Newton's heretical views and their broader significance’ (p. 694). Indeed, Westfall needed only seventy-nine pages to present his findings in Never at Rest. According to Cohen, in Iliffe's 522 pages, ‘there is very little … that I had not already encountered, more briefly, to be sure, yet otherwise by and large the same, in Westfall's biography’. Illife managed only to confirm ‘Westfall's interpretation in almost every aspect’, just adding details along with a ‘very useful context’ (p. 695).

There are things with which I do disagree in Iliffe's detailed and admirable book, and I have done so in my own review of Priest of Nature.1 But whereas my critique – which included alternative interpretations – was grounded on close familiarity with the manuscripts and with Newton's intellectual milieu, Cohen simply rehearses Westfall's dicta. Iliffe, he charges, ‘agrees completely’ with Westfall on Newton being ‘uniquely radical in his evolving theological views’, on his anticipation of deist arguments, and on ‘the secrecy of his Trinity chambers’ – without mentioning Westfall. ‘In short’, he reiterates, Iliffe ‘reinstates Westfall's interpretation of Newton's theology almost to the full’, without ‘even mentioning by name … the historian who came to that interpretation first’ (pp. 698–699).

It seems that Cohen wishes to protect the reputation of Westfall and other historians on whom he relied for his own interpretations. Thus, just as he vigorously champions Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis, who provided him with the conception of the mathematization and mechanization of nature, so is he uncompromising in defending the legacy of Westfall, who is the ultimate source of so much of Cohen's own scholarship. For example, he undervalues William Newman's contribution to Reading Newton in Early Modern Europe (2017). ‘Newman’, Cohen writes, ‘roundly acknowledges Dobbs and Westfall as the two great pioneers of investigating … Newton's alchemy’, and as such in Cohen's opinion Newman has done little more than amend their interpretation by shedding light on Newton's interest in medical alchemy and chymical pharmacopoeia (pp. 689–690). In my opinion, this strikingly misrepresents Newman's accomplishment by deliberately ignoring Newman's adamant undercutting of Westfall and Dobbs's ‘picture of Newton's alchemy as the primary source of his belief in immaterial forces acting at a distance and as a theocentric attempt to span the gap between the material world and an Arian God’.2 In fact, throughout the article – as well as in his recently published Newton the Alchemist (2018) – Newman exposes the serious limitations of his two predecessors. Cohen, however, is perhaps reluctant to acknowledge as much because he is on record as stating that the ‘like-minded’ interpretations of Westfall and Dobbs ‘have come to appear to [him] as providing the most convincing picture of [Newton] and his work’.3

Newman's chapter is the only one devoted to Newton in Reading Newton in Early Modern Europe, edited by Elizabethanne Boran and myself. The evident incongruity with Cohen's chosen framework raises questions concerning the grounds for its inclusion in his review essay. Considering only six chapters and seeking errors, Cohen devotes a long paragraph to enumerating regrettable typos and inconsistencies in naming individuals. Revealingly, the one ‘howler’ he purports to have detected turns out to be his. ‘Of Descartes (who died in 1650)’, he remarks, ‘it is said that he criticized an aspect of the cosmology of Newton (born 1642)’. Cohen chastises the editors for failing to protect ‘early-career scholars’ by preventing ‘blunders like the Descartes–Newton one reaching print stage’. What the author actually wrote is: ‘proponents of Galileo (1564–1642) and Descartes (1596–1650) strenuously opposed the spread of Newtonian concepts’. No blunder had been committed. Cohen then dismisses the very same early-career scholars as ‘unknown and, frankly, not particularly well-prepared authors’ (p. 691). No scholar should dismiss young researchers in such a way, without even bothering to engage with the content of their essays.

Cohen's ultimate objective in exposing real or imaginary typos is to insinuate that ‘sloppy writing and editing [are] a fairly reliable pointer to sloppy scholarship’. This is a serious charge, one that Cohen fails to substantiate. His criticism is limited to reproaching authors for claiming that they had provided only minor addenda to what earlier scholars had written decades earlier. Thus Steffen Ducheyne is credited with making initial forays into considering the extent to which Willem Jacob ’s Gravesande and Petrus van Musschenbroek can be considered Newtonians; he is then faulted for not mentioning Bernard Cohen in the two pages devoted to explaining the relation of Book I to Book III of the Principia (pp. 691–692). Likewise, Cohen queries, is there anything new in Marius Stan's account of Leibniz's concept of force? After all, Westfall had ‘dedicated an entire chapter to the subject – a chapter in which he underlined the very features that Stan now lists as if these were fresh findings’ (p. 692). As for my own chapter, Cohen admits that he is ‘not qualified to pass judgment on the merits of [my] treatment of the evidence’. However, he then seizes on my penultimate sentence: ‘Considerable additional research is needed for establishing the precise nature of Newton's own anti-Trinitarianism’. To Cohen this is tantamount to saying that ‘all previous students of Newton's anti-Trinitarian heresy and, really, of his entire theology’ – from Manuel, to Westfall, to Mandelbrote, Snobelen and Iliffe – ‘have managed to miss what it was all about, so that serious investigation of that particular subject is, at best, still at the opening stage’ (p. 693). I invite the readers to determine for themselves whether my sentence can be subjected to such a construal.

Finally, I turn to Cohen's invocation of a work not included in the list of books he reviews – Newton and the Origin of Civilization (2012), which I co-wrote with Jed Buchwald. There we diverge from Westfall on several matters of fact and interpretation, including the origination of Newton's heterodoxy, the dating and content of his theological manuscripts, and the nature of his chronological writings. Among other things, our book has demonstrated, we believe, not only that ‘Theologiae gentilis origins philosophicase’ cannot be considered a theological work – let alone a treatise infused by radical anti-Trinitarian sentiments – but that Westfall and others mistook the nature of Newton's enterprise, as well as the fundamental shift the project had taken soon after its inception.4 That revised project culminated in the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), a trajectory Westfall did not spy, owing to the absence in the book of that religious radicalism he attempted to discern in the earlier treatise. As a direct result, Westfall developed an aversion to the Chronology: ‘A Work of colossal tedium’.5 The Chronology is no doubt tediously long and detailed for the modern reader, and yet it provides unique insight into Newton's special ways with evidence and with history; moreover, it inspired a great deal of discussion throughout the eighteenth century and even beyond.

In the review that is the subject of my response here, Cohen does not engage with the novel argumentation of our book; it is invoked only to controvert a single issue that it raised pertaining to Newton's biography. According to Westfall, Newton's attempt in the early 1670s to receive dispensation from taking holy orders was informed by his anti-Trinitarianism. In our book we challenge such a claim – to Cohen's displeasure. ‘Westfall's effort at plausible reconstruction’, he writes, ‘comes in for quick dismissal’ in our book (p. 697). Notwithstanding the book's joint authorship, Cohen then attempts to distribute authorship. The book is ‘widely praised and (in its mathematics-oriented portions) truly enlightening’ – clearly allotting these portions to Buchwald. He then identifies me alone as asserting that Newton's heresy commenced much later. Not only is such distribution of credit unbecoming a reviewer, but it is entirely false. ‘Feingold’, he charges (thereby excluding Buchwald) ‘needs only eight dismissive words to get rid of [Westfall's account]: “No specific evidence exists to substantiate this claim”’ (p. 697). This is simply not true, either with respect to authorship or with respect to detail. A whole paragraph is devoted to discussing the reason for our conclusion and, in addition, the reader is referred to further literature on the subject.6

Westfall was certainly an accomplished scholar whose books on Newton do indeed still deserve to be read, albeit with a critical eye since scholarship has moved considerably further over the past decades. In my personal view Cohen's almost exclusive reliance on Westfall, and his unfamiliarity with the primary sources, preclude his ability to recognize precisely that which he claims to seek – novelty.

1 Feingold, Mordechai, ‘The religion of the young Isaac Newton’, Annals of Science (2018), pp. 19. https://doi.org/10.1080/00033790.2018.1549686.

2 Newman, William R., ‘Newton's reputation as an alchemist and the tradition of chymiatria’, in Boran, Elizabethanne and Feingold, Mordechai (eds.), Reading Newton in Early Modern Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 313327.

3 Cohen, H. Floris, How Modern Science Came into the World, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010, p. 716.

4 Westfall, Richard S., Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. viii.

5 Westfall, op. cit. (4), p. 815.

6 Buchwald, Jed Z. and Feingold, Mordechai, Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 127128.