Newton’s Empiricism and Metaphysics

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Abstract

Commentators attempting to understand the empirical method that Isaac Newton applies in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) are forced to grapple with the thorny issue of how to reconcile Newton’s rejection of hypotheses with his appeal to absolute space. On the one hand, Newton claims that his experimental philosophy does not rely on claims that are assumed without empirical evidence, and on the other hand, Newton appeals to an absolute space that, by his own characterization, does not make any impressions on our senses. Howard Stein (1967, 2002) has offered an insightful strategy for reconciling this apparent contradiction and suggested a way to enhance our understanding of Newton’s ‘empiricism’ such that absolute space can be preserved as a legitimate part of Newton’s experimental project. Recently, Andrew Janiak (2008) has posed a worthy challenge to Stein’s empirical reading of Newton and directed our attention to the metaphysical commitments that underlie the experimental philosophy of Newton’s Principia. Although Stein and Janiak disagree on the degree to which Newton’s empiricism influences his natural philosophy, both agree and clearly show that an adequate treatment of Newton’s empiricism cannot be divorced from consideration of Newton’s views on God and God’s relationship to nature.

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