What was Newton’s philosophizing good for?

This week, I met with the media liaison at my campus and we discussed my research project and ways to explain and motivate it to a general public. Inevitably, she wanted to know what the sort of “philosophizing” that Nick and I are undertaking in our ACLS sponsored project was good for. When I explained to her, among other things, reflecting on the conceptual and metaphysical foundations of a physical theory may lead to progress in the science itself. For instance, I elaborated that both Newton and Einstein achieved great progress because they were engaging in serious–one might say philosophical–reflection of fundamental principles and concepts such as space and time. She liked that, but it was way too abstract. Sure, Newton unified celestial mechanics and terrestrial physics and was able to reproduce, from few basic assumptions, Kepler’s and Galileo’s laws. And sure, this led to a greater understanding of these matters. But she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to know whether either Newton’s or Einstein’s philosophizing led to anything tangible, something to which everybody could relate to. I told her that Newton’s laws allowed for the prediction of the motion of celestial bodies (even though Ptolemy and Copernicus could do that too), as well as the calculation of the trajectories of projectiles (and thus helped the military to determine the angle at which they had to put their cannons, etc, but she didn’t really like that). The GPS systems now so common in our cars, I continued, relied on computations based on both special and general relativity, which in turn both depended on Einstein’s “philosophizing”. That was obviously the sort of things she wanted to hear.

So I ask you, dear reader, do you know of any great examples of how Newton’s or Einstein’s (or anybody else’s–I also told her about Maxwell) philosophizing led, quite directly, to tangible results? If so, I (and probably many readers) would love to hear them!



Filed under My half-baked ideas, wuthrich

5 responses to “What was Newton’s philosophizing good for?

  1. Eric Schliesser

    The sad truth is very little of newton leads directly to tangible results, although he did improve telescopes. (Huygens led to clocks.)
    Isn’t there a fairly direct route from Maxwell to radio?

    • Eric, thanks. That’s sad indeed. I was hoping to be able to say that his thinking about space and time enable combustion engines or the internet or manned space travel or something of the sort…

  2. @Eric, More Hertz to radio I’d think.

    Re: concrete examples of the uses of philosophizing. 1st, it’s probably more accurate to say that everything Newton did was philosophizing (i.e. he was a natural philosopher) rather than cut up, say, the Principia into ‘philosophical’ vs ‘scientific’ bits.

    Maybe it makes more sense for Einstein. You could point to all the principles underlying relativity as philosophical (not empirical) positions: c is constant and coordinate independence for c.1905, add Mach’s principle c.1915. A ‘tangible’ consequence of this was a radical rethinking of the nature of reality, which if pop-sci book sales are any indication seems to matter to people.

    Since so much flows from SR, you could maybe make the case that understanding relativistic corrections in atomic structure has a philosophical roots. So, nuclear physics and the basis for a lot of observational astronomy.

    Or, John Bell–>non-locality–>focus on entanglement–>quantum information / computing.
    (maybe? I’m not an expert.)

    If you’re interested in philosopher’s work, rather than scientists’ philosophizing, my favourite examples are from feminist analysis (see ex Scheibinger’s Has Feminism Changed Science?, or Martin’s “The egg and the sperm”).


    • Aaron,

      Thanks for you comments.

      Of course, in terms of C17 categories, Newton’s work was mostly in what was then called “natural philosophy” and would thus be “philosophizing” in actor’s terms. But I had in mind a somewhat vague contemporary distinction between what we would call the more philosophical, the more scientific, and the more mathematical aspects of his work.

      And the media liaison who talked to me the other day was explicitly excluding things like the nature of space and time as insufficiently tangible. Instead, she was asking for examples such as how Einstein’s philosophizing about simultaneity and free fall led to GPS systems and stuff like that. In that Maxwell, even though he didn’t develop radios or, as far as I know, anything using the knowledge of electrodynamics that he made available. But this very knowledge still enabled a lot of modern inventions the absence of which would made it impossible for me to comment on a blog.

  3. Eric Schliesser

    Two coments.
    First, in general the technological uptake of the scientific revolution was rather slow. There were technological innovations, of course, but many of those were not consequence of ‘high theory.’ This is not to say that one can’t point to a lot of examples, where cutting edge researches applied there knowledge to practical matters: Johannes Hudde, a 17th century mathematician and influential politician, helped design firehoses and pumps as well as locks in Amsterdam. In addition to designing and building clocks, Huygens had worked on a combustion engine. Bernoulli and Euler helped think about ship design, etc.
    Second, Newton’s Principia broke through a lot of genres, and (to this day) people had a hard time assimilating it to existing categories or understanding what it was trying to do. Interestingly, Voltaire called the General Scholium (which was added to 2nd edition and, in my opinion, changes the character of the book quite a bit), a seperate metaphysical treatise.

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