Isaac Newton and the Problem of Action at Distance
Keywords:Isaac Newton, action at a distance, gravity, occult qualities, mechanical philosophy, Richard Bentley, Newtonian historiography
Action at a distance has more often than not been regarded as an unacceptable means of explanation in physics. Seeming to defy all attempts to assign proper causes to effects, action at a distance has generally been eschewed as occultist nonsense. The rejection of action at a distance was a major precept of the Aristotelianism which was so long dominant in European natural philosophy, and, it remains to this day a major assumption of our modern physics. There was, however, a period of interregnum; a period when actions at a distance were readily accepted by the majority of natural philosophers. The major influence on this radical new approach to the nature of physical causation was, of course, Isaac Newton. Newton’s universal principle of gravitation seemed to many to provide not only an undeniable example of a force of nature which could not be reduced to any kind of mechanical contact action between bodies, but also a model for other putative forces which might be supposed to account for chemical, biological and other physical phenomena. Throughout the eighteenth century, therefore, as a number of important historical studies have shown, natural philosophers sought to bring to fruition Newton’s wish, expressed in the Preface to the Principia, that all the phenomena of nature be explained in terms of attractive and repulsive forces operating at a distance between the minutest particles of bodies. So great is the modern prejudice against the legitimacy of actions at a distance, however, that a number of leading Newtonian scholars have insisted that Newton never really believed in actio in distans and was completely misunderstood by the succeeding generation. This paper reasserts that Newton did believe in action at a distance and refutes the arguments of recent Newtonian scholars that he did not.
Anstey, Peter. The Philosophy of Robert Boyle. London and New York, Routledge, 2000.
Dobbs, B. J. T. “Newton’s Alchemy and his ‘Active Principle’ of Gravitation”, en: Scheurer, P. B. and Debrock, G. (eds), Newton’s Scientific and Philosophical Legacy. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1988, pp. 55-80.
____________. The Janus Faces of Genius. The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Bennett, J. A. “Magnetical Philosophy and Astronomy from Wilkins to Hooke”, en: Taton, R. and Wilson, C. (eds.). Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics, Part A: Tycho Brahe to Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University press, 1989, pp. 222-30.
Bentley, Richard. A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World. London, 1693.
Cohen, I. B. “Newton’s Third Law and Universal Gravitation”, en: Journal of the History of Ideas, 48, 1987, pp. 571-93.
____________. “The Principia, Universal Gravitation, and the ‘Newtonian Style’, in relation to the Newtonian Revolution in Science: Notes on the Occasion of the 250th Anniversary of Newton’s Death”, en: Bechler, Z (ed.). Contemporary Newtonian Research. Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1982, pp. 21-108.
____________. The Newtonian Revolution: With Illustrations of the Transformation of Scientific Ideas. Cambridge, Cambridge University press 1980.
Copenhaver, Brian P. “The Occultist Tradition and Its Critics”, en: Garber, D. and Ayers, M. (eds.). The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 454-512.
Cudworth, Ralph. A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. Edited Sarah Hutton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Dear, Peter. “Totius in verba: Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society”, en: Isis, 76 (1985), 145-61.
Force, James E. “Newton’s God of Dominion: The Unity of Newton’s Theological, Scientific, and Political Thought”, en: Force, J. E. and Popkin, R. H (eds.). Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1990, pp. 75-102.
Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gal, Ofer. Meanest Foundations and Nobler Superstructures: Hooke, Newton and the “Compounding of the Celestiall Motions of the Planetts”. Dordrecht, Kluwer, 2002.
Grant, Edward (ed.). A Sourcebook in Medieval Science. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1974.
____________. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
____________. Much ado about Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
____________. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Alexander, H. G. (ed.). The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1956.
Hall, A. Rupert. Henry More: Magic, Religion and Experiment. Oxford, Blackwell, 1990.
____________. The Scientific Revolution. London, Longman, 1962.
____________. The Revolution in Science, 1500-1750. London, Longman, 1983.
Heimann, Peter M. y McGuire, J. E. “Newtonian Forces and Lockean Powers: Concepts of Matter in Eighteenth-Century Thought”, en: Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 3, 1971, pp. 233-306. pp.
Henry, John, “Animism and Empiricism: Copernican Physics and the Origins of Gilbert’s Experimental Method”, en: Journal of the History of Ideas, 62, 2001, pp. 99-119.
____________. “Causation”, en: Ferngren, Gary (ed.). Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 130-42.
____________. “England”, en: Porter, R. y Teich, M. (eds.). The Scientific Revolution in National Context. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 178-210.
____________. “Henry More versus Robert Boyle: The Spirit of Nature and the Nature of Providence”, en: Hutton, Sarah (ed.). Henry More (1614-1687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1990, pp. 55-75.
____________. “National Styles in Science: A Factor in the Scientific Revolution?” en: Livingstone, David, N. and Withers, Charles W. J. (eds.). Geography and Revolution. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 43-74.
Hiscock, W. G. (ed.). David Gregory, Isaac Newton and their Circle: Extracts from David Gregory’s Memoranda, 1677-1708. Oxford, for the editor, 1937.
Koyré, Alexandre. “Gravity an Essential Property of Matter?” en: ídem. Newtonian Studies. London, Chapman and Hall, 1965.
Kubrin, David. “Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy”, en: Journal of the History of Ideas, 28, 1967, pp. 325-46.
Levi, Anthony. Renaissance and Reformation: The Intellectual Genesis. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 40-67.
Lovejoy, A. O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1936.
Van Lunteren, F. H.. “Gravitation and Nineteenth-Century Physical Worldviews”, en: Scheurer, P. B. and Debrock, G (eds.). Newton’s Scienti c and Philosophical Legacy. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1988, pp. 161-73.
____________. “Gravitation and Nineteenth-Century Physical Worldviews”, en: Scheurer, P. B. and Debrock, G (eds.). Newton’s Scientific and Philosophical Legacy. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1988, pp. 161-73.
McCann, Edwin. “Lockean Mechanism”, en: Holland, A. J (ed.). Philosophy, Its History and Historiography. Dordrecht, Reidel, 1985, pp. 209-29.
McGuire, J. E. “Atoms and the ‘Analogy of Nature’: Newton’s Third Rule of Philosophizing”. en: Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 1 (1970), 3-57.
____________. “Boyle’s Conception of Nature”, en: Journal of the History of Ideas, 33, 1972, pp.523-42.
____________. “Force, Active Principles and Newton’s Invisible Realm”, en: Ambix, 15, 1968, pp. 154-208.
McMullin, Ernan, Newton on Matter and Activity. Notre Dame and London, University of Notre Dame Press, 1978.
Newton, Isaac. Four Letters from Sir Isaac Newton to Doctor Bentley containing some Arguments in Proof of a Deity. London, 1756 (reimpreso en: Cohen, I. B. (ed.) Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy, 2a edición. Cambridge, Mass. and London, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 279-312).
____________. Opticks, or A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, In ections & Colours of Light, basada en la 4ta edición (Londres, 1730), New York, Dover 1979.
____________. The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Trad. Cohen, I. B. and Whitman, Anne. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999.
Oakley, Francis. Omnipotence, Covenant and Order: An Excursion in the History of Ideas from Abelard to Leibniz. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1984.
Pumfrey, Stephen. “Magnetical Philosophy and Astronomy, 1600-1650”, en: Taton, R. and Wilson, C (eds.). Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics, Part A: Tycho Brahe to Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 45-53.
Schofield, Robert E. Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in an Age of Reason. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1970.
Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985.
____________. “Of Gods and Kings: Natural Philosophy and Politics in the Leibniz- Clarke Disputes”, en: Isis, 72 (1981): 187-215.
Shapiro, Alan E. “La ‘filosofía experimental’ de Newton”, en: Estudios de Filosofía, no 35, 2007, pp. 105-141.
Snobelen, Stephen. “William Whiston, Isaac Newton and the Crisis of Publicity”, en: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 35 (2004): 573-603.
Stephenson, Bruce. Kepler’s Physical Astronomy. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.
Thackray, Arnold. Atoms and Powers: An Essay on Newtonian Matter-Theory and the Development of Chemistry. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1970.
Turnbull, H.W. et al. (eds.). The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 7 vols,. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1959-71.
Vailati, Ezio. Leibniz and Clarke: A Study of Their Correspondence. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Westfall, R. S. “Newton and Alchemy”, en: Vickers, Brian (ed.), Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 315-35.
____________. “The Rise of science and the Decline of Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Kepler, Descartes, and Newton”, en: Lindberg, D. C. and Numbers, R. L (eds), God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 218-37.
____________. Force in Newton’s Physics: The Science of Dynamics in the Seventeenth Century. New York, American Elsevier, 1971.
____________. Never At Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
____________. “Newton and Alchemy”, en: Vickers, Brian (ed.). Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 315-335.
Curtis, Wilson. “Euler on action-at-a-distance and Fundamental Equations in Continuum Mechanics”, en: Harman, P. M. and Shapiro, A. E (eds.). The Investigation of Dif cult Things. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 399-42.
Wilson, Margaret Dauler. “Superadded Properties: The Limits of Mechanism in Locke”, y “Superadded Properties: A Reply to M. R. Ayers”, en: Wilson, M. D. Ideas and Mechanism: Essays on Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp.196-208 y pp. 209-14.
Yolton, John W., Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford, Blackwell, 1983.
How to Cite
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
1. The Author retains copyright in the Work, where the term "Work" shall include all digital objects that may result in subsequent electronic publication or distribution.
2. Upon acceptance of the Work, the author shall grant to the Publisher the right of first publication of the Work.
3. The Author shall grant to the Publisher a nonexclusive perpetual right and license to publish, archive, and make accessible the Work in whole or in part in all forms of media now or hereafter known under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoCommercia-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), or its equivalent, which, for the avoidance of doubt, allows others to copy, distribute, and transmit the Work under the following conditions: (a) Attribution: Other users must attribute the Work in the manner specified by the author as indicated on the journal Web site;(b) Noncommercial: Other users (including Publisher) may not use this Work for commercial purposes;
4. The Author is able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the nonexclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the Work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), as long as there is provided in the document an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal;
5. Authors are permitted, and Estudios de Filosofía promotes, to post online the preprint manuscript of the Work in institutional repositories or on their Websites prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work (see The Effect of Open Access). Any such posting made before acceptance and publication of the Work is expected be updated upon publication to include a reference to the Estudios de Filosofía's assigned URL to the Article and its final published version in Estudios de Filosofía.