Friday, June 3, 2011

What Newtonianism was

The thinkers of the scientific revolution, including the scientific geniuses who spearheaded it, had one foot in modernity, one foot in the pre-modern past. We would scarcely recognize their conception of scientific argument as it existed then. Case in point, here are a couple of paragraphs I wrote some years ago about Newtonianism in Newton's time.

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Written 19 November 2003:

A few days ago I read Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob. I once had quite an interest in Newton, circa 1979, when I was interested in the dynamics of the totality of his thought (which includes alchemy and theology) in the cultural-philosophical-ideological complex of his time. This little book shows how archaic Newton was in his overall perspective—he was no mechanist that we would recognize. Aside from his vitalistic conceptions of matter outside of the realm for which he is famous, his aversion to materialism with the ever-present atheistic tendencies attributed to or associated with it reveal a Newton not fully modern and a society caught in irresolvable ideological contradictions. Newtonianism was ideologically tinged with non-scientific political preoccupations: it could be an apology for order or a call to revolution. Newton was of the party of order and moderation, favoring neither revolution nor absolute monarchy.

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Written 17 October 2007, extract from my post on another of my blogs:

For 400 years innovations in the special sciences have yielded master metaphors for organizing an explanation of the entire world and filling in gaps in specific knowledge of all its facets with ideology. From Newtonian physics to Darwinism to relativity to quantum mechanics to information theory to computer science to chaos theory to complexity, the process has never stopped. But in Newton’s time this phenomenon was far worse in that obscurantism per se was not the main issue, but rather the inability to separate scientific theory from metaphysics and theology. (See Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob.) We would not even recognize the arguments over Newtonianism as scientific ones today, as both political and theological positions were staked out with respect to it, and it seems that neither its architects nor its popularizers had an adequate epistemological understanding of the basis of scientific abstraction and how it related to the rest of the world-picture. However, there was some place to go, from astronomy to physics, and finally to chemistry, and the Romantic era coincided with the question as to whether physio-chemical processes alone could account for life. Yet an organismic, vitalistic sense of living matter could not jibe with progress in scientific research, and however mysterious life and consciousness still felt with the progress of " mechanistic" science, vitalism could only lead to mysticism, obscurantism, and regression, and there are no more prospects for it today than there were 200 years ago, when lack of knowledge allowed it a respectable existence. Yet Goldner thinks he can finesse the objective problems of scientific research and its incorporation into a general world-picture by spouting nonsense about cosmobiology, an outmoded basis for world-comprehension.
From: Stephen Eric Bronner (3): Bronner vs. Goldner on science & the Enlightenment

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