Isaac Newton’s Polemical Natural Philosophical Methodology: Deciphering the ‘Rules for philosophizing’ and the ‘Queries’

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a workshop/seminar


Isaac Newton was infamously hesitant to articulate his natural philosophical methodology in publication. The two main places where methodological claims do appear are the ‘Rules for philosophising’ in Principia (1687, 1713, and 1726) and the ‘Queries’ in the Opticks (English 1704, 1717, and 1721; Latin 1706 and 1719). But even there the claims are very short and dense, rendering Newton’s methodology opaque. Additionally, the ‘Rules’ and the ‘Queries’ changed drastically throughout their different published versions. This leaves us guessing how and why Newton changed his outlook on natural philosophical methodology during this period.
Luckily, a large amount of manuscript material with drafts for the two respective sections survives. This allows me not only to construct editorial histories of both the ‘Rules’ and the ‘Queries’ respectively, but to combine the two in a shared editorial history. Based on that history, I offer an account of the development of Newton’s methodological thinking in the early 18th century. Subsequently, I clarify the notoriously opaque methodological passages from the ‘Rules’ and the ‘Queries’ and their respective drafts.
My analysis highlights the highly polemical nature of Newton’s methodological passages. They were by no means standalone elaborations, but were nearly always provoked by criticism or induced by the insistence of his contemporaries.
Period8 Mar 2023
Held atUniversity of Exeter, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational