This book promises to tell “the untold story of the principal historical path from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein” (xii). It is an ambitious promise. In explaining the influence of Reid’s philosophy on how Scottish scientists addressed phenomena such as light, heat, electricity, etc., Wilson addresses the exquisitely “Scottish” flavor of the contributions of Joseph Black, John Anderson, John Robinson, Dugald Stewart, Joseph Boscovitch, and several others. While the alleged goal is projected toward late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discoveries, the discussion never loses sight of its historical context, by stressing the importance of theological consideration in scientific arguments (e.g. Robinson’s critique of Laplacian mechanics as an “atheistic perversion” of Newtonian gravity), and by tracing the influence of past philosophers on Scottish eighteenth-century science.
Wilson begins with a survey of major seventeenth-century philosophers, from Descartes to Leibniz, who influenced later developments. But some of his remarks are problematic. For example, he asserts that in Descartes’ discussion of empty space, “the implication was that even God could not conceive of void space” (11–12). Considering Descartes’ attitude toward divine omnipotence, and his position that God created “necessary truths” (e.g. in his correspondence with Mersenne), at the very least this claim needs to be argued for, rather than simply stated.
Likewise, Wilson’s attempt to trace each scientist’s attitude to a major figure from the past is not always successful. For example, in chapter 4 Wilson argues, persuasively, that Reidian epistemology influenced Robinson’s attitudes toward certain hypotheses. But then he claims that Black “represented the realism of Newton’s Query 31,” as opposed to Robinson’s “Reidian skepticism” (157). This claim is puzzling. Wilson nicely explains how Query 31 of Newton’s Opticks, with its defense of the notion of real attractive and repulsive forces and its sections on scientific reasoning, influenced Black. Wilson also shows that Robinson was somewhat critical of Newton. But the disagreements discussed do not concern issues of realism versus skepticism. Wilson himself shows that Robinson agreed with some of Black’s realist positions. In fact, Wilson writes that Robinson approved of Newton’s notion of attraction, which is argued for extensively in Newton’s Query 31.
One of the most important debates discussed by Wilson concerns the nature of heat and light. After Newton, scientists were supposed to avoid “wild hypotheses,” for fear of being derided as Descartes was for his theory of vortices. Merely describing experienced regularities, however, rather than finding explanatory causes, seemed insufficient. Wilson emphasizes Reid’s influence in restoring the epistemic status of inductive experimental knowledge in a post-Humean world, and shows the ambivalence of post-Reidian scientists toward hypotheses. A good example is his chapter 4 discussion of Robinson’s attitude toward heat. After rejecting the two main alternatives (heat as vibratory motion of the particles of bodies, and heat as a fluid whose particles are in continual vibratory motion) because both are inconsistent with experimental evidence, Robinson recommends considering heat as a “cause” in the “constant conjunction” sense, because its nature and mechanism are not known. However, Wilson quotes passages from notebooks in which Robinson endorses a form of the fluid theory of heat. Robinson also approved of Stahl’s phlogiston theory, and agreed with Black’s “negative weight” solution to the problem that bodies gain weight when [End Page 501] phlogiston leaves them (a solution that Black abandoned after learning of Lavoisier’s, Priestley’s, and Scheele’s work). While a realist about phlogiston, however, Robinson criticized Black’s identification of phlogiston with Newtonian aether: Robinson’s criticism is described as a “Reid-like” argument against the abuse of analogies in natural philosophy. As can be seen from this and other discussions, Reid’s warnings against the abuse of conjectures and analogies were not always consistently applied.
Despite offering an informative overview of the contributions of Scottish natural philosophers, the information in the book is somewhat poorly organized. For example, it is difficult to track the intellectual...