The Janus Faces of Genius: the Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought
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Betty Jo Tetter Dobbs. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xiii + 359 pp. $37.50.

In the epilogue to The Janus Faces of Genius, Betty Jo Dobbs recounts the ways in which her book developed since it was first conceived (in 1974) as a continuation of the project she began in The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or “The [End Page 273] Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge, 1975). Originally, Dobbs set out to extend her study of Newton’s early alchemical manuscripts in the Keynes Collection at King’s College, Cambridge, by focusing on materials at other libraries-in order, as she says, “to obtain some sense of closure on the subject” of Newton’s alchemical interests (p. 250). But as the present study indicates, she found herself drawn inexorably (as others of us have been) to consider the ways in which alchemy informs the relationships among Newton’s matter theory, his search for a causal explanation of gravity, his Arian theology, and his writings on vegetative forces, electricity, comets, and what became (over the course of five decades) an increasingly subtle aether. Ultimately, she offers what she styles a “religious interpretation” (p. 251) of Newton’s alchemy, arguing for the “ultimate unity of Newton’s thought” (p. 253), grounded in a “doctrine of the unity of Truth” (p. 255) that is “guaranteed by the unity of God” and the supplementary operations of “reason and revelation” (p. 6). Building on the work of Richard Westfall, among others, Dobbs puts perhaps the final nail in the coffin of positivist readings of Newton. She offers a compelling interpretation of various aspects of his thought to demonstrate convincingly that his theocentric interpretation of nature was profoundly antimechanistic. To a greater extent than in her earlier study, Dobbs reconstructs a Newton who antedates and resists our familiar disciplinary structures of knowledge—those comfortable divisions between science, theology, and philosophy which remain enshrined in our conceptions of the disciplines as “natural” rather than as culturally constructed. In this respect, The Janus Faces of Genius marks the limits of what we now recognize as the history of science: if the book looks backward toward a careful, even painstaking historical reconstruction of Newton’s thought, it also looks forward to what many scholars and critics would call a postdisciplinary study of science, one whose contours have been described (in very different contexts) by Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, N. Katherine Hayles, and others.

The strengths of The Janus Faces of Genius are many. Dobbs reprints as appendices five manuscripts from different stages of Newton’s career that form the bulk of her texts for analysis: “Of natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation” (Dibner MSS 1031 B in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian); “Hermes” (Keynes MS 28, King’s College, Cambridge); “Out of La Lumiere sortant des Tenebres” (Yahuda MS Var. 1, Newton MS 30 in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and Babson MS 414 B in the Babson College Archives); “Experiments & observations Dec. 1692 & Jan. 1692/3” (Portsmouth Collection MS Add. 3973.8, University Library, Cambridge); and “Praxis” (Babson MS 420). Her decision to concentrate on these manuscripts is inspired: she effectively reduces the mass of Newton’s writings on alchemy, gravity, and theology to a manageable number of works that highlight crucial junctures in his thought.

By careful analyses of these works, Dobbs produces a plausible historical narrative that traces Newton’s ideas from his concern with the vegetative force in alchemy in the 1670s to his efforts in the revised Queries to the third edition of the Opticks (1717) to redefine the aether as a potential causal explanation of gravity. After an introductory chapter describing the parameters of her study, chapters 2 and 3 offer a providentialist account of alchemy and Newton’s efforts to link his inquiries in history, theology, and science; chapters 4 through 7 then trace the development of his thinking over some fifty years. Crucial to this chronology is Dobbs’s redating of De gravitatione to 1684/5, the period immediately before the...