The Genesis of the Queries in Isaac Newton’s Opticks/Optice: The Role of Allegiances and Rivalries

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


Isaac Newton’s magna opera, the Principia and the Opticks, gathered considerable attention upon their first and subsequent appearances. Reactions to the works were varied, seemingly creating “factions” of supporters and opponents. Many of the ensuing conflicts and their effects on contemporaneous debates, for example the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, have already been extensively recorded and discussed. An episode that has received much less scholarly attention is the genesis of the Queries to the English Opticks and the Latin Optice in the years 1704-1717. Although the Queries have garnered ample attention ever since their first appearance, their development throughout the different versions of the Opticks (1704, 1717, 1721, and 1730) and the Optice (1706 and 1719) has been less thoroughly scrutinized. In this presentation, I analyse different drafts of both the Optice (1706) and the Opticks (1717) in search of the alliances and rivalries that inspired Newton to write his Queries. More specifically, I focus on those Queries that contain theology and/or methodology. With regards to the alliances, I consider Samuel Clarke’s involvement in, and intellectual contributions to, the publication of the Optice. After the initial publication of the Opticks (1704) in English, Newton planned to publish a Latin version that was to be translated by Clarke. Additionally, Newton added seven Queries to that version, concerned with subjects such as theology, methodology, chemistry etc. Beyond his work of translation, commentators are unclear about the extent to which Clarke contributed to those new Queries. By looking at the draft material to the Optice, I argue that previously unnoticed marginal notes in Clarke's hand indicate that he was intellectually invested in the process of writing and editing some the Queries. This draft material, as well as that prepared for the 1717 edition, also attest to Newton’s urge to react to his adversaries in writing. Even though he softened or redirected many of his responses in the published versions, they are often still present in a latent form. This allows one to retrace the development of many of the famous Queries and identify Newton’s inspiration for them.
Period24 Sep 2021
Event titleSeventh Young Researchers Days in Logic, Philosophy and History of Science
Event typeConference
LocationBrussels, Belgium
Degree of RecognitionInternational