What’s in a name? Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica

Newton PrincipiaThemes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title.

What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like many others in his day, Newton was a philosopher of nature rather than a scientist. According to Cunningham, Newton derived his natural philosophy from German physician and natural philosopher Johann Magirus (c.1560-96), particularly his Physiologia peripatetica of 1597. What was unique about Newton’s natural philosophy was his introduction of new mathematical principles. Other than that, he continued the traditional role of the natural philosopher. And this is what Cunningham wants to draw our attention to: “that over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy off from modern science…natural philosophy was about God and about God’s universe.”

Cunningham admits that he is doing nothing new by emphasizing Newton’s theology. By the early 1990s, many scholars had already pointed out Newton’s unique and voluminous theological musings. But many historians of science continue to characterize natural philosophers as religious men in a religious age doing “science.” But this is a mistake. The point Cunningham wants to make in this essay is that, by contrast, the projects of natural philosophers were always “about God and His creation, because that is what the point of natural philosophy as a discipline and subject was.” Indeed, “each and every variety of natural philosophy that was put forward was an argument for particular and specific views of God.” Reiterating his point from the previous essay, Cunningham claims that “modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as God’s creation.”

Newton, therefore, cannot be turned into a “scientist.” He was motivated, for example, to create a natural philosophy against the perceived atheism of Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) natural philosophy. Indeed, Newton had clearly informed Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in 1692 that “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work wth considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” And, in responding to to Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) condemnation that his own work was atheistical or materialist, Newton published his General Scholium in the second edition of the Principia, where he explicitly claimed that discourse about God “certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”

Thus, according to Cunningham, Newton’s wasn’t a religious thinker in a religious age doing “science”; rather, “religious attitudes went into constituting each and every variety of natural philosophy, because natural philosophy was itself about God and His universe.”

When natural philosophy and natural philosophers of the seventeenth centuries are taken seriously, certain important consequences follow. First, according to Cunningham, figures such as Newton distinguished between natural philosophy, which deals with God and His universe (the book of nature), and religion, which deals with revelation (the book of scripture). Secondly, natural theology cannot be the same as natural philosophy; rather, natural theology derived its arguments from the findings of natural philosophy. Thirdly, the question now arises: “when and why people stopped looking for God in nature”? Cunningham does not provide an answer. He simply poses the question for future studies. And finally, we need a better understanding of the meaning of scientia, or “science” in the seventeenth century. Since Cunningham’s essay, many scholars have done just this. Most recently, Peter Harrison has traced the history of the concepts of both “science” and “religion” in his The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not merely concerned with God and His creation. “The ‘scientific’ work of particular natural philosophers,” Cunningham writes, was not merely “theologically or religious concerned or informed.” Rather, natural philosophy as such was “a discipline and subject-area whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.” Anyone who took up the practice of natural philosophy had “God in mind.”

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