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Monday, July 13, 2015

Andrew Janiak on Isaac Newton, Philosopher

Photo: Geoffrey Mock
"To understand Newton's genius, Duke professor recreates the intellectual world of 1700." according to Geoffrey Mock, Manager of Internal Communications, Duke Today.

The argument that Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist ever gets a lot of support these days, but there’s one important person who might disagree: Newton himself.

In his new book "Newton," Duke philosophy professor Andrew Janiak makes the case for considering Newton as Newton himself did – a "natural philosopher." This isn't just a quirk of language; Janiak says it's essential to understanding his remarkable achievements.

Born on Christmas Day in 1642, Newton benefited from what we call the Scientific Revolution, but Janiak writes that the word "scientist" didn't come into use until more than two centuries later. There was no consensus on issues such as the value of math or experimental results in describing the world. The great thinkers of the time closely tied their study of the world with philosophical discussions of the nature of matter and their belief in God.

The one consensus of the great thinkers of the time was that the world ran on mechanistic principles and that the role of the scholar was to describe the method of the workings of the world, much in the way they would describe the workings of a clock. Descartes, for example, believed planets moved around the sun because of a vortex in which particles carried the planets in their orbit.

Janiak said Newton's genius was to ignore all this. His major work, "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" – frequently referred to as "Principia" – represents a break from the beliefs of the time and constitutes Newton's defense against criticisms from leading philosophers of the day, particularly Gottfried Leibniz and his followers.

Portrait of Isaac Newton, around 1715. Photo: English School via Wikimedia Commons
Below, Janiak discusses his book in a conversation with Geoffrey Mock of Duke Today.
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Source: Duke Today