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  • The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture
  • Martin Tamny
Mordechai Feingold . The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 218 pp. index. illus. $45 (cl), $22.50 (pbk). ISBN: 0–19–517735–5 (cl), 0–19–517734–7 (pbk).

The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same title at The New York Public Library, from 8 October 2004 through 5 February 2005. The exhibition was organized by The New York Public Library in cooperation with Cambridge University Library. Professor Mordechai Feingold, Professor of History at the California Institute of Technology, coordinated the exhibition and wrote the book that accompanied it.

Professor Feingold presents the reader with a history of Newtonianism. We are introduced to Newton's own early struggles with the concept of gravity and with the very nature of his studies: was he doing mathematics, science, or philosophy? Newton had early rejected Descartes's vortex account of the cause of the motion of the planets. Descartes had argued that forces were transmitted through [End Page 230] contact and that this required that matter be continuous and that hence there could be no vacuums. As early as 1665 Newton attempted to find a physical explanation of the cause of gravity but never found a suitable answer. As Feingold quotes Newton from the Principia, "I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy" (55). Thus Newton offers no explanation of gravity but shows through his mathematics that it "acts" in accordance to the mathematical laws he offers us in the Principia. This was a difficult position to accept, and many of his contemporaries believed that this was an unacceptable way to do science. Robert Hooke, in particular, saw experimentation as the heart of science and disapproved of Newton's focus on theory and mathematics.

Professor Feingold leads us through the history of the dissemination of Newton's science first through England and the members of the Royal Society, both British and Continental. The scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers of Germany, Holland, France, and Italy read the editions of the Principia and the Opticks and made known their views. While his work was generally accepted and built upon in the rest of Europe, Newtonianism was rejected by the Church in Italy as being in opposition to Church teachings. Nonetheless, it did spread in Italy as well, but behind closed doors by "silent diffusion." One of Feingold's many examples is the Neapolitan philosopher Giuseppe Valletta, who lectured about the Principia and made his copy of it available to his friends. Despite the importance of Descartes to the French, Newton still carried the day. Voltaire made a hero of Newton. His Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton, published in 1737, was a success that rendered Newton intelligible and his work accessible, to the nonspecialist. In Germany Leibniz praised Newton's Principia, but was unhappy with Newton's position regarding gravity. It was philosophically untenable to merely dismiss the problem of its cause. Leibniz and Newton were also to become bitter enemies over the issue of the development of the calculus. Still, Newton's science continued to gain acceptance throughout Europe.

Professor Feingold has included a chapter on the role of women in the dissemination of Newtonianism. Mme. du Châtelet, who translated the Principia into French and collaborated with Voltaire in writing the Elémens, is the most outstanding of those discussed. Many others are presented.

Finally, it must be said that Prof. Feingold's The Newtonian Moment is a very handsome book with many wonderful illustrations. It will please both Newton scholars and general readers. Professor Feingold deserves our thanks for what is clearly a work of love.

Martin Tamny
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York


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pp. 230-231
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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