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The Impact of Newton's Principia on the Philosophy of Science

Ernan McMullin
Philosophy of Science
Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 279-310
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3080918
Page Count: 32
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The Impact of Newton's Principia on the Philosophy of Science
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Abstract

As the seventeenth century progressed, there was a growing realization among those who reflected on the kind of knowledge the new sciences could afford (among them Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Huygens) that hypothesis would have to be conceded a much more significant place in natural philosophy than the earlier ideal of demonstration allowed. Then came the mechanics of Newton's Principia, which seemed to manage quite well without appealing to hypothesis (though much would depend on how exactly terms like "force" and "attraction" were construed). If the science of motion could dispense with causal hypothesis and the attendant uncertainty, why should this not serve as the goal of natural philosophy generally? The apparent absence of causal hypothesis from the highly successful new science of motion went far towards shaping, in different ways, the account of scientific knowledge given by many of the philosophers of the century following, notable among them Berkeley, Hume, Reid, and Kant. This "Newtonian" interlude in the history of the philosophy of science would today be accounted on the whole a byway. The Principia, despite its enormous achievement in shaping subsequent work in mechanics, was from the beginning too idiosyncratic from an epistemic standpoint to serve as model for the natural sciences generally.

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