Characterisations in Britain of Isaac Newton’s Approach to Physical Inquiry in the Principia between 1687 and 1713

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In order to gain a better understanding of the impact and circulation of the first edition of the Principia, we offer an analysis of public perceptions in Britain of Isaac Newton’s approach to physical inquiry in the Principia between the appearance of its first and second editions, in 1687 and 1713, respectively. We treat Newton’s readers as actors with distinctive scholarly backgrounds and interests rather than as followers or popularisers of a “Newtonian philosophy,” a label we find to be largely absent in the historical record before 1713, when it was purposefully used by Roger Cotes in his preface to the second edition of the Principia. Through our survey, we gain considerable insight into how Newton’s readers characterised the Principia and its author. We establish that British readers of the first edition of the Principia ascribed a relatively stable and interrelated number of characteristics to Newton’s natural philosophical approach, although different readers emphasised different things. We also show that the most detailed accounts of Newton’s natural philosophical approach were, not surprisingly, given in polemical contexts. We find that it is only at the very end of this period, and in polemical contexts, that the notion of a “Newtonian philosophy” with a specific and pathbreaking approach to physical inquiry arose.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)341-372
Number of pages32
JournalEarly Science and Medicine
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2021


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