Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why the Cartesians Rejected Newton's Work on Gravity

In the comments, Greg speculated that the Cartesians rejected Newton because his theory was unfamiliar and, they thought, incorrect. But the actual situation is almost the exact opposite: Newton's theory seemed all too familiar to them: they thought it was a throwback to Scholasticism. Moliere famously lampooned scholastic philosophers in a scene where they "explain" opium's sleep-producing properties as due to its "dormitive principle." Well, that was the way Newton's theory looked to the Cartesians: he was "explaining" gravity by an "attractive principle" contained in matter. It was not that they thought Newton's theory was wrong: they didn't think it had any explanatory power. There were Cartesian theories that contained inverse square laws, but which, to them, provided explanations of gravity, in line with their mechanical philosophy.


  1. Thanks for this correction. It raises interesting questions about what it means for a scientifict theory to explain something. In hindsight, unless I have been grossly misled about the history of scientific thought (always a possibility), it's clear that Newton's theory of gravity was completely meaningful. And yet, the Cartesians evidently failed to notice that at the time.

    1. They did not dispute that it was "meaningful": they said it did not explain gravity. And Newton admitted as much! General relativity, by contrast, DOES offer an explanation of gravity.


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