Home / Christopher Smeenk, Newton’s Empiricism


Christopher Smeenk, Department of Philosophy, University of Western Ontario

Newton’s natural philosophy broke with the mechanical philosophy dominant earlier in the seventeenth century in several ways. Newton’s successes in the Opticks and Principia were built on concepts that contemporary mechanical philosophers regarded as unintelligible, or merely “mechanical” rather than physical, and recent scholarship has clarified how Newton’s conception of inquiry contrasts with that of Descartes and others. This talk will focus on a related problem that has not received as much focused attention, namely, the status of the sensible qualities of objects. Th is a pressing problem because Newton’s innovations in natural philosophy undermine the dominant view of sensible qualities among his contemporaries in (at least) two ways. Mechanical philosophers, from Galileo onwards, held that, roughly put, the constituents of matter (whether atomistic or corpuscular) share the sensible qualities of dry-goods sized objects given in ordinary experience. A preferred set of these, primary qualities such as size, shape, and motion, then provide a sufficient basis for explanatory accounts of our experience. By contrast, Newton’s work, first, directly undercuts the explanatory accounts of experience offered by the mechanical philosophers. The geometrical properties favored by the mechanical philosophers play almost no role within the system of natural philosophy described by the Principia and Optics. Second, and more importantly, the Principia treats the experience of bodies in terms of theoretical quantities that are not directly manifested in experience. For example, the mass of an object is a quantity defined within the theoretical framework provided by the laws of motion. One can infer the mass from a body’s motions granted an inertial reference frame and identification of the relevant forces responsible for the body’s motion. I will argue that in light of these two points, the logical character of the contribution sense experience makes to natural philosophy must be different that that assumed by the mechanical philosophers. This talk will sketch a positive account of Newton’s empiricism in light of these points.

This event is co-sponsored by the Dept. of Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy Group.

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