General Scholium

General Scholium

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The General Scholium is an essay written by Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...

, appended to his work of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, known as the Principia. General Scholium was first published with the second (1713) edition of the Principia and reappeared with some additions and modifications on the third (1726) edition. It is best known for the "Hypotheses non fingo
Hypotheses non fingo
Hypotheses non fingo is a famous phrase used by Isaac Newton in an essay General Scholium which was appended to the second edition of the Principia....

" ("I do not frame hypotheses") expression, which Newton used as a response to some of the criticism received after the release of the first edition (1687).
In the essay Newton not only counters the natural philosophy
Natural philosophy
Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature , is a term applied to the study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science...

 of René Descartes
René Descartes
René Descartes ; was a French philosopher and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day...

 and Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German philosopher and mathematician. He wrote in different languages, primarily in Latin , French and German ....

, but also addresses scientific methodology, theological
Theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

 and metaphysical
Metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 issues.

Rejecting Cartesian Vortices


In the first paragraph of the General Scholium, Newton attacks René Descartes
René Descartes
René Descartes ; was a French philosopher and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day...

' model of the solar system
Solar System
The Solar System consists of the Sun and the astronomical objects gravitationally bound in orbit around it, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun...

. Descartes and his supporters were followers of mechanical philosophy, a form of natural philosophy
Natural philosophy
Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature , is a term applied to the study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science...

 popular in the 17th century which maintained that nature and natural beings act similar to machines. In his book The World
The World (Descartes)
The World, originally titled Le Monde and also called Treatise on the Light, is a book by René Descartes . Written between 1629 and 1633, it contains a relatively complete version of his philosophy, from method, to metaphysics, to physics and biology.Descartes was a follower of the mechanical...

, Descartes suggests that the creation of the solar system and the circular motion of the planet
Planet
A planet is a celestial body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, is not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion, and has cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals.The term planet is ancient, with ties to history, science,...

s around the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 can be explained with the phenomena of "swirling vortices". Descartes also claimed that the world is made out of tiny "corpuscles" of matter, and that no vacuum could exist.

Descartes' model did not cohere with the ideas introduced in the first edition of the Principia (1687). Newton simply rejected Descartes' "corpuscles and vortices" theory and suggested that gravitational force
Newton's law of universal gravitation
Newton's law of universal gravitation states that every point mass in the universe attracts every other point mass with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them...

 acts upon celestial bodies regardless of the vast empty interstellar space in between. Newton was publicly criticized by Cartesians on this non-mechanistic theory. As a response to this criticism, Newton argued that Descartes' Vortices cannot explain the unique movement of comet
Comet
A comet is an icy small Solar System body that, when close enough to the Sun, displays a visible coma and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are both due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind upon the nucleus of the comet...

s. He sums up the paragraph with the words:

Scientific method argument


Newton did not offer any reasons or causes for his law of gravity, and was therefore publicly criticized for introducing "occult
Occult
The word occult comes from the Latin word occultus , referring to "knowledge of the hidden". In the medical sense it is used to refer to a structure or process that is hidden, e.g...

 agencies" into science. Newton objected Descartes' and Leibniz's Scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 of deriving conclusions by applying reason to a priori definitions rather than to empirical evidence
Empirical research
Empirical research is a way of gaining knowledge by means of direct and indirect observation or experience. Empirical evidence can be analyzed quantitatively or qualitatively...

, and famously stated "hypotheses non fingo
Hypotheses non fingo
Hypotheses non fingo is a famous phrase used by Isaac Newton in an essay General Scholium which was appended to the second edition of the Principia....

", Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 for "I do not frame hypotheses":
The General Scholium then goes on to present Newton's own approach to scientific methodology. Contrary to the deductive approach of Descartes and Leibniz, Newton holds an inductive approach to scientific inquiry. Phenomena should first be observed, and then general rules should be searched for, and not vice versa. It is this approach, states Newton, that has led to the discovery of "the laws of motion
Newton's laws of motion
Newton's laws of motion are three physical laws that form the basis for classical mechanics. They describe the relationship between the forces acting on a body and its motion due to those forces...

 and gravitation":

Theological views


Most of the General Scholium deals with Newton's religious views
Isaac Newton's religious views
Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, theologian and alchemist. He also wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies....

. However, it is also considered the least understood part of the essay. Newton saw God as an intelligent, powerful, omnipresent Being which governs all. It has been claimed that the text implies that Newton was an anti-Trinitarianist heretic
Heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

. With no comments explicitly addressing the subject of the Holy Trinity, several parts of the text seem to raise anti-Trinitarianist positions indirectly, most notably:

"The Spirit"


The General Scholium ends with a mystifying paragraph about a "certain most subtle Spirit, which prevades and lies hid in all gross bodies." It has been largely interpreted as Newton's view and prospect of electricity
Electricity
Electricity is a general term encompassing a variety of phenomena resulting from the presence and flow of electric charge. These include many easily recognizable phenomena, such as lightning, static electricity, and the flow of electrical current in an electrical wire...

, a phenomenon of which little was known about at the time. Newton describes some attributes of this Spirit and concludes:

External links

  • The Newton Project Canada: The General Scholium online version and interpretation
  • "Newton Reconsidered": Interview with prof. Stephen D. Snobelen
    Stephen Snobelen
    Dr. Stephen Snobelen, originally from British Columbia, is a professor of the history of science and technology at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia...

    about Newton and the General Scholium