Last updated
Title page of Isaac Newton's Opticks Opticks by Sir Isaac Newton.png
Title page of Isaac Newton's Opticks

Newtonianism is a philosophical and scientific doctrine inspired by the beliefs and methods of natural philosopher Isaac Newton. While Newton's influential contributions were primarily in physics and mathematics, his broad conception of the universe as being governed by rational and understandable laws laid the foundation for many strands of Enlightenment thought. Newtonianism became an influential intellectual program that applied Newton's principles in many avenues of inquiry, laying the groundwork for modern science (both the natural and social sciences), in addition to influencing philosophy, political thought and theology.



Newton's Principia Mathematica , published by the Royal Society in 1687 [1] but not available widely and in English until after his death, is the text generally cited as revolutionary or otherwise radical in the development of science. [2] The three books of Principia, considered a seminal text in mathematics and physics, are notable for their rejection of hypotheses in favor of inductive and deductive reasoning based on a set of definitions and axioms. This method may be contrasted to the Cartesian method of deduction based on sequential logical reasoning, and showed the efficacy of applying mathematical analysis as a means of making discoveries about the natural world. [2]

Newton's other seminal work was Opticks , printed in 1704 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society , of which he became president in 1703. The treatise, which features his now famous work on the composition and dispersion of sunlight, is often cited as an example of how to analyze difficult questions via quantitative experimentation. Even so, the work was not considered revolutionary in Newton's time. [2] One hundred years later, however, Thomas Young would describe Newton's observations in Opticks as "yet unrivalled... they only rise in our estimation as we compare them with later attempts to improve on them." [3] [4]

Mathematical philosophy

The first edition of Principia features proposals about the movements of celestial bodies which Newton initially calls "hypotheses"—however, by the second edition, the word "hypothesis" was replaced by the word "rule", and Newton had added to the footnotes the following statement:

... I frame no hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. [5]

Newton's work and the philosophy that enshrines it are based on mathematical empiricism, which is the idea that mathematical and physical laws may be revealed in the real world via experimentation and observation. [2] It is important to note, however, that Newton's empiricism is balanced against an adherence to an exact mathematical system, and that in many cases the "observed phenomena" upon which Newton built his theories were actually based on mathematical models, which were representative but not identical to the natural phenomena they described. [2]

Newtonian doctrine can be contrasted with several alternative sets of principles and methods such as Cartesianism, Leibnizianism and Wolffianism.

Newton's other beliefs

Despite his reputation for empiricism in historical and scientific circles, Newton was deeply religious and believed in the literal truth of Scripture, taking the story of Genesis to be Moses' eyewitness account of the creation of the solar system. Newton reconciled his beliefs by adopting the idea that the Christian God set in place at the beginning of time the "mechanical" laws of nature, but retained the power to enter and alter that mechanism at any time. [6]

Newton further believed that the preservation of nature was in itself an act of God, stating that "a continual miracle is needed to prevent the Sun and fixed stars from rushing together through Gravity". [6] [7]


Portrait of French physicist and Newtonian Emilie du Chatelet Inconnu, portrait de madame Du Chatelet a sa table de travail, detail (chateau de Breteuil) -002.jpg
Portrait of French physicist and Newtonian Émilie du Châtelet

Between 1726 and 1729, French author, philosopher, and historian Voltaire was exiled in England, where he met several English scholars and devotees to the Newtonian system of thought. Voltaire would later bring these ideas back to France with his publication of Lettres Philosophiques and Philosophie de Newton, which popularized Newton's intellectual practices and general philosophy. [8] Later, prominent natural philosopher and friend of Voltaire, Émilie du Châtelet, would publish a French translation of Principia, which met with great success in France. [6]

While Newton was opposed by some members of the religious community for his non-Trinitarian beliefs about God, others believed science itself to be a philosophical exercise, that if done correctly, would lead its practitioners to a greater knowledge and appreciation of God. [9]

In 1737, Italian scholar Count Frencesco Algarotti published a book entitled Newtonianismo per le dame overro dialoghi sopre la luce e i colori, which aimed to introduce female audiences to the work of Newton. The text explained the principles of Newton's Opticks while avoiding much of the mathematical rigor of the work in favor of a more "agreeable" text. The book was later published with a title that made no reference to women, leading some to believe that the female branding of the book was a ploy to avoid censorship. [6]

Influence on other scholars

Scottish philosopher David Hume, likely inspired by the methods of analysis and synthesis which Newton developed in Opticks, was a strong adherent of Newtonian empiricism in his studies of moral phenomena. [10]

Newton and his philosophy of Newtonianism arguably led to the popularization of science in Europe—particularly in England, France, [6] and Germany [9] —catalyzing the Age of Enlightenment.

Related Research Articles

Empiricism Theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience

In philosophy, empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. It is one of several views of epistemology, along with rationalism and skepticism. Empiricism emphasizes the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas, rather than innate ideas or traditions. However, empiricists may argue that traditions arise due to relations of previous sense experiences.

History of physics Historical development of physics

Physics is a branch of science whose primary objects of study are matter and energy. Discoveries of physics find applications throughout the natural sciences and in technology, since matter and energy are the basic constituents of the natural world. Some other domains of study—more limited in their scope—may be considered branches that have split off from physics to become sciences in their own right. Physics today may be divided loosely into classical physics and modern physics.

Isaac Newton Influential British physicist and mathematician

Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687, established classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.

Science Systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

The Scientific Revolution was a series of events that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature. The Scientific Revolution took place in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century, influencing the intellectual social movement known as the Enlightenment. While its dates are debated, the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is often cited as marking the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

Natural science Branch of science about the natural world

Natural science is a branch of science concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena, based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.

<i>Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica</i> 1687 tract by Isaac Newton

Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often referred to as simply the Principia, is a work in three books by Isaac Newton, in Latin, first published 5 July 1687. After annotating and correcting his personal copy of the first edition, Newton published two further editions, in 1713 and 1726. The Principia states Newton's laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics; Newton's law of universal gravitation; and a derivation of Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Roger Cotes

Roger Cotes FRS was an English mathematician, known for working closely with Isaac Newton by proofreading the second edition of his famous book, the Principia, before publication. He also invented the quadrature formulas known as Newton–Cotes formulas, and made a geometric argument that can be interpreted as a logarithmic version of Euler's formula. He was the first Plumian Professor at Cambridge University from 1707 until his death.

In philosophy of science and in epistemology, instrumentalism is a methodological view that ideas are useful instruments, and that the worth of an idea is based on how effective it is in explaining and predicting phenomena.

Natural philosophy Philosophical study of nature and physical universe that was a precursor to science.

Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature was the philosophical study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science.

<i>Opticks</i> Book by Isaac Newton

Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light is a book by English natural philosopher Isaac Newton that was published in English in 1704. The book analyzes the fundamental nature of light by means of the refraction of light with prisms and lenses, the diffraction of light by closely spaced sheets of glass, and the behaviour of color mixtures with spectral lights or pigment powders. It is considered one of the great works of science in history. Opticks was Newton's second major book on physical science. Newton's name did not appear on the title page of the first edition of Opticks.

Émilie du Châtelet French mathematician, physicist, and author

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet was a French natural philosopher and mathematician during the early 1730s until her untimely death due to childbirth complications in 1749. Her most recognized achievement is her translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton's 1687 book Principia containing basic laws of physics. The translation, published posthumously in 1756, is still considered the standard French translation today. Her commentary includes a profound contribution to Newtonian mechanics—the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy, of which kinetic energy of motion is one element. This led to her conceptualization of energy as such, and to derive its quantitative relationships to the mass and velocity of an object.

The history of scientific method considers changes in the methodology of scientific inquiry, as distinct from the history of science itself. The development of rules for scientific reasoning has not been straightforward; scientific method has been the subject of intense and recurring debate throughout the history of science, and eminent natural philosophers and scientists have argued for the primacy of one or another approach to establishing scientific knowledge. Despite the disagreements about approaches, scientific method has advanced in definite steps. Rationalist explanations of nature, including atomism, appeared both in ancient Greece in the thought of Leucippus and Democritus, and in ancient India, in the Nyaya, Vaisesika and Buddhist schools, while Charvaka materialism rejected inference as a source of knowledge in favour of an empiricism that was always subject to doubt. Aristotle pioneered scientific method in ancient Greece alongside his empirical biology and his work on logic, rejecting a purely deductive framework in favour of generalisations made from observations of nature.

Inductivism is the traditional, still commonplace view of scientific method to develop scientific theories. Although involving inductive reasoning, it aims to be, much more, a systematic research approach that, applied diligently, enables scientists to objectively discover the sole naturally true theory in each domain.

The "General Scholium" is an essay written by Isaac Newton, appended to his work of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, known as the Principia. It was first published with the second (1713) edition of the Principia and reappeared with some additions and modifications on the third (1726) edition. It is best known for the "Hypotheses non fingo" expression, which Newton used as a response to some of the criticism received after the release of the first edition (1687). In the essay Newton not only counters the natural philosophy of René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, but also addresses issues of scientific methodology, theology, and metaphysics.

Science in the Age of Enlightenment

The history of science during the Age of Enlightenment traces developments in science and technology during the Age of Reason, when Enlightenment ideas and ideals were being disseminated across Europe and North America. Generally, the period spans from the final days of the 16th and 17th-century Scientific Revolution until roughly the 19th century, after the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic era (1799–1815). The scientific revolution saw the creation of the first scientific societies, the rise of Copernicanism, and the displacement of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Galen's ancient medical doctrine. By the 18th century, scientific authority began to displace religious authority, and the disciplines of alchemy and astrology lost scientific credibility.

American philosophy Activity, corpus, and tradition of philosophers affiliated with the United States

American philosophy is the activity, corpus, and tradition of philosophers affiliated with the United States. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that while it lacks a "core of defining features, American Philosophy can nevertheless be seen as both reflecting and shaping collective American identity over the history of the nation."

British philosophy

British philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the British people. "The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded".

An index list of articles about the philosophy of science.

Deism, the religious attitude typical of the Enlightenment, especially in France and England, holds that the only way the existence of God can be proven is to combine the application of reason with observation of the world. A Deist is defined as "One who believes in the existence of a God or Supreme Being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason." Deism was often synonymous with so-called natural religion because its principles are drawn from nature and human reasoning. In contrast to Deism there are many cultural religions or revealed religions, such as Judaism, Trinitarian Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and others, which believe in supernatural intervention of God in the world; while Deism denies any supernatural intervention and emphasizes that the world is operated by natural laws of the Supreme Being.


  1. Sir Isaac Newton (5 February 2016). The Principia: The Authoritative Translation and Guide: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. University of California Press. ISBN   978-0-520-96481-5.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Bernard., Cohen, Ierome (2002-01-01). The Newtonian revolution : with illustrations of the transformation of scientific ideas. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN   9780521273800. OCLC   265462302.
  3. Young, Thomas (1802-01-01). "The Bakerian Lecture: On the Theory of Light and Colours". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 92: 12–48. doi: 10.1098/rstl.1802.0004 . ISSN   0261-0523.
  4. 1925-2006., Dalitz, R. H. (Richard Henry); Michael., Nauenberg (2000-01-01). The foundations of Newtonian scholarship. World Scientific Pub. ISBN   9789810239206. OCLC   42968133.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. Newtonian Studies. Harvard University Press. 1965-01-01. ISBN   978-0674181854. OCLC   941275050.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 E., Force, James; 1948-, Hutton, Sarah (2010-01-01). Newton and Newtonianism : new studies. Kluwer Academic. ISBN   9781402022388. OCLC   827177278.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  7. "A new theory of the earth, from its original to the consummation of all things wherein the creation of the world in six days, the universal deluge, and the general conflagration, as laid down in the Holy Scriptures, are shewn to be perfectly agreeable to reason and philosophy : with a large introductory discourse concerning the genuine nature, stile, and extent of the Mosaick history of the creation / by William Whiston ..." Retrieved 2017-05-05.
  8. Bell, Arthur E. (1961). Newtonian Science. London: Edward Arnold.
  9. 1 2 R., Rogers, Moira (2003-01-01). Newtonianism for the ladies and other uneducated souls : the popularization of science in Leipzig, 1687-1750. P. Lang. ISBN   978-0820450292. OCLC   469855126.
  10. 1975-, Demeter, Tamás (2016). David Hume and the culture of Scottish Newtonianism : methodology and ideology in Enlightenment inquiry. Brill. ISBN   9789004327313. OCLC   960722703.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)