Digressions&Impressions (2023)

In an unpublished manuscript sheet, which was part of Newton’s preparations for the second edition of the Principia, Newton recorded that the most wise order of things could not have arisen “from matter alone and motion or from the nature of things [a materia sola et motu aut a rerum Natura].”102 Newton argued that God regulates the natural world by means of certain “active Principles,” which cause—inter alia—gravitation, fermentation, and cohesion.103 Correspondingly, in an unpublished draft version of what was to become Query 31, he wrote,

Whence it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its ↓laws of↓ motion as well as for its existence. The Cartesians make God the author of all motion & its as reasonable to make him the author of the laws of motion. Matter is a passive principle & cannot move it self. It continues in its state of moving or resting unless disturbed. It receives motion proportional to the force impressing it. And resists as much as it is resisted. These are passive laws & to affirm that there are no other is to speak against experience. For we find in or selves a power of moving our bodies by or thought ↓Life & thinking ↓will↓ are active Principles by wch we move our bodies, & thence arise other laws of motion unknown to us↓==Newton [CUL Add. Ms. 3970, 619r [drafts prepared for Opticks (1717)].]

The above remarks square nicely with Newton’s denial that motion results from qualities that are inherent to matter itself and with his belief that for their motions bodies require divinely governed secondary causes, which serve as the immaterial sources of activity and motion. Steffen Ducheyne, "Newton on Action at a Distance." Journal of the History of Philosophy 52.4 (2014): 691-692

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As I noted yesterday, inspired by, and partially correcting, Howard Stein, according to my interpretation of Newton, as Newton developed the ideas of the Principia in the 1680s, Newton came to the following position: a body has (at least) two dispositions: (i) a “passive” disposition to respond to impressed forces which is codified in the second law of motion; (ii) whereas an “active” disposition to produce gravitational force is treated as a distinct interaction codified in the third law of motion. And the “cause” of the action is “the conspiring nature of both” bodies. For the “conspiring” to occur, the bodies must share a “nature.” (For the full defense of these ideas see hereandhere.) And I argue that for Newton the disposition to gravitate is a universal, albeit contingent, relational quality of matter. Despite grounding my views in a textial analysis Treatise of the System of the World (a work that appeared shortly after Newton died), my view has not generated consensus.

Among my critics, Ducheyne is most inclined to draw on archival material. And the passage quoted above is especially important to his (2014) attempt to refute my position. He refers back to it twice more (on pp. 692-693). The reason why it is important to Ducheyne's argument is that it seems to give him the smoking gun he needs. It's one of the few places where Newton explicitly says that matter is passive.

Now, I had already (in 2011) responded to this passage, in a (2009) criticism of Hylarie Kochiras (who had criticized an early version of my argument). (Looking back, I am quite amazed by how polemical we all were!) I wrote (now quoting myself): "Yet, the published version of the Opticks, is agnostic on this matter. In Query 31 he contrasts the “passive principle by which the bodies persist in their motion or rest, receive motion in proportion to the force impressing it, and resist as much as they are resisted” with “active principles, such as are the cause of gravity, by which planets and comets keep their motions in their orbits, and bodies acquire great motion in falling; and the cause of fermentation,” and so on. Shortly thereafter, he lists “gravity, and that which causes fermentation, and the cohesion of bodies” among the “active principles” (Newton, 1952, pp. 400–401)."

My response to Kochiras clearly did not convince Ducheyne (who cites Kochiras' exchange with me, so he is aware of it). So, normally I would now throw up my hands and leave it to others to figure out who gets the better of the burden shifting. But two distinct new, additional arguments occur to me. The first argument would be to concede Ducheyne's (and Kochiras's!) reading of this passage, and fall back on the acknowledgment that Newton changed his mind and that after 1700 he was more inclined to accept the passivity of matter as the draft suggests. This response would be open to me because officially I am primarily committed to attributing to Newton the view sketched above to the mid 1680s (as he was drafting the Principia). In the Principia itself he is explicitly agnostic, after all--and this is agreed by everybody.

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This (first) concessive response fits would also allow me to take on board some of Ducheyne's arguments about the theological significance of embracing the passivity of matter; or at least recognizing that Newton actively distanced himself from being taken to embrace active matter after the initial reception of the Principia. These theological issues and the question of the nature of mature are related to the challenge to Newton being taken as a kind of neo-Epicurean (and Kant and Adam Smith hint) or a(adherent of "blind fate") crypto-Spinozist (as Leibniz suggested at the start of his correspondence with Clarke). I have explored this connection in various places; see here & and forthcoming.

But as Ducheyne correctly notes in his paper, I have been greedy; I have also used other passages from different periods in Newton's life as converging evidence for my interpretation of his view in the mid 1680s. And so I have kind of suggested that except for when Newton toys with ether theories, my reconstruction of his dispositional account of gravity is Newton's fall-back position. And so now I would have give up on that material.

However, another position, is not to be concessive at all. So, second, I can also simply deny that in the unpublished draft version of what was to become Query 31, Newton is presenting his own view about the passivity of matter at all. For it seems to me that one can read the italicized passage (the italics are Ducheyne's [here is an image of the manuscript; [here is a transcription]as Newton simply reporting or summarizing the Cartesian position on matter. Before I explain that let me quote a wider version of the passage (with a lot of editorial markings removed--Newton obsessively corrected his own texts):

Qu. 23. By what means do bodies act on one another at a distance.The ancient Philosophers who held Atoms & Vacuum attributed gravity to Atomswithout telling us the means unless perhaps in figures: as by calling God Harmony & representing him & matter by the God Pan & his Pipe, or by calling theSun the prison of Jupiter because he keeps the Planets in their orbs. Whence itseems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deityfor its laws of motion as well as for its existence. The Cartesians make God theauthor of all motion & its as reasonable to make him the author ofthe laws of motion. Matter is a passive principle & cannot move it self.It continues in its state of moving or resting unless disturbed. It receives motionproportional to the force impressing it. And resists as much as it is resisted.These are passive laws & to affirm that there are no other is to speak againstexperience. For we find in our selves a power of moving our bodies by ourthought Life & will are active Principles by which we move our bodies, & thence arise other laws of motion unknown to us.

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So, Newton here is taking on the question of action at a distance. And he first describes the innate gravity position of the ancient atomists. He also calls attention to the possibility that they used esoteric and figurative speech to explain the mechanism behind their position. (This sentence inspired one of the most famous papers by McGuire and Rattansi in contemporary Newton scholarship.) He sums up his treatment of the ancients by suggesting they thought God was needed to account for the laws of motion and the existence of matter.

As an aside, something of this view of the Ancients survives in the General Scholium added to the second (1713) edition of the Principia. Against the evidence of the Ancients, who freely speculated about to what degree God/Gods are dispensable to the Epicurean natural philosophy (and who claimed that the Gods were introduced to modify larger population), Newton reads them here as natural philosophical theists of a certain sort. My own view is that he is doing this in order to try out saying that the a-typical epicureanism people are attributing to him need not be "Atheists" in character. (And he may have even sincerely thought that this was a solid reading of the Epicureans.) That fits a lot of other material in this manuscript (which offers a robust assertion, inter alia, for the reality of final causes in experience).

He then moves on to describing the cartesian position. Now on the reading advanced by Ducheyene (and Kochiras) the description of the cartesian position is a sentence: "The Cartesians make God the author of all motion." This would attribute to the Cartesians, in effect, Malebranche's interpretation of Descartes (or at least his own preferred position) being a kind of occasionalists such that God is the author of all motion. But there is an equally respectable Cartesian interpretation in which occasionalism is not the proper Cartesian position, but rather that God is responsible (or the author of) the laws of motion, that's the next half of the sentence ("its as reasonable to make him the author of the laws of motion.")

And on the reading advanced by Ducheyne and Kochiras, Newton then moves on to state his own view. But it is equally plausible, and in fact, I think more plausible (yes, really), that here Newton gives a summary of the Cartesian metaphysics of nature: "Matter is a passive principle & cannot move it self. It continues in its state of moving or resting unless disturbed." So, pace Ducheyne and Kochiras, I think the natural reading here is that what they take to be Newton's position is really just Newton giving a quick and dirty summary of the Cartesian natural philosophy he rejects!

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To be sure, I do not mean to deny that in this manuscript Newton does shift to explaining features of his own position--he regularly invokes the authority of experiments. And where exactly he does that is a matter of judgment. But at the same time he also keeps shifting toward describing alternative views he rejects.

So, if we read the manuscript in the way proposed by Kochiras and Ducheyne then Newton draws a sharp contrast between entities with minds, who can be active, and passive entities that lack such power. In fact, Kochiras and Ducheyne end up treating Newton by implication as a property dualist (with living things being the only kind of entities that can be substances).

But Newton himself is much more cautious than that in the manuscript quoted. He makes it clear that all living things are active. And it is, for Newton in this very document, an open question whether (as the Stoics thought) all of nature is alive in that relevant sense: "We find in our selves a power of moving our bodies by our thoughts ] & see the same power in other living creatures but how this is done & by what laws we do not know. We cannot say that all Nature is not alive. not know her laws or powers any further then we gather them from Phænomena." (Emphasis added.) Nobody has doubted that this is Newton's own position. And this suggests to me that Newton is much more agnostic about the nature of matter in this document than Kochiras and Ducheyne have allowed. Because Newton allows (as Spinoza did) that there may be as of yet undiscovered principles and laws that can explain the materiality of living things. On my reading, these would also be laws and principles of matter.

What Newton does explicitly deny is that vis inertia can explain the generation of (new) motion: "vis inertiæ they continue in their state of moving or resting & receive motion proportional to the force impressing it & resiste as much as they are resisted, but they cannot move themselves; & without some other principle hen the vis inertiæ there could be no motion in the world." For reasons I do not fully understand Ducheyne thinks this shows that for Newton matter is passive. But that's not right. For even I assert -- and this also follows naturally from the second law of motion -- that vis inertiæ is a passive principle, but does not constitute the whole of Newton's matter theory in the Principia.

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