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Stock and bulk in the latest Newton scholarship

  • H. Floris Cohen (a1)

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In his biography of Isaac Newton, which forms the most recent production in this flourishing genre, Niccolò Guicciardini states as his first point of departure that Newton's work arose not from ‘attempts to answer questions that came to him spontaneously, but [from addressing] those posed by his contemporaries’ (p. 20). Right he is to communicate to the larger audience for which he is writing this principal fruit of by now almost a century of professional history-of-science writing – a deep-seated awareness that every scientific view or finding, even if looking timeless in retrospect, has emerged from some given historical context that shows us where the scientist in question started, and that helps explain how, and in what direction, they managed to venture beyond the original context. Indeed, the same truth (or rather truism) applies to every genuine – that is, in some way innovative and also worthwhile – contribution to scholarship. And so it is, therefore, with the three books here under review, which I intend to examine with the following leading question in mind: what in each of them is new and what, in what turns out to be new indeed, has been worth learning?

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References

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1 Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Book 5, Chapter 1, third paragraph (passage found in Fischer, David Hackett, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, New York: Harper, 1970, p. 303).

2 I contributed the piece to the e-published proceedings of a conference on Science and Religion held in Athens in September 2015 (at http://narses.hpdst.gr/proceedings; pp. 305–312). Below I quote one passage from that piece literally.

3 Westfall, Richard S., Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 330, 333.

4 Buchwald, Jed Z. and Feingold, Mordechai, Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 127.

5 Davis, Edward B., ‘That Isaac Newton's mechanistic cosmology eliminated the need for God’, in Numbers, Ronald L. (ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, p. 118.

6 For example, in Snobelen, Stephen D., ‘The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, Newtonianism, and the Enlightenment’, in Firestone, C.L. and Jacobs, N. (eds.), The Persistence of the Sacred in Modern Thought, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012, pp. 149184, esp. 162–163.

7 Westfall, R.S., ‘Newton and Christianity’, in Cohen, I. Bernard and Westfall, R.S. (eds.), Newton: Texts, Background, Commentaries, New York: Norton, 1995, pp. 356370, 368.

8 Westfall, op. cit. (5), p. 370, my emphasis.

9 Westfall, op. cit. (5), p. 370.

10 Westfall, op. cit. (5), pp. 359–360, my emphasis.

11 Westfall, op. cit. (5), pp. 359–360.

Stock and bulk in the latest Newton scholarship

  • H. Floris Cohen (a1)

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