|The British Journal for the History of Science (2007), 40:1:105-111 Cambridge University Press|
Copyright © 2007 British Society for the History of Science
The two Newtons and beyond
J. E. Force and S. Hutton (eds.), Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies. International Archives of the History of Ideas 188. Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer, 2004. Pp. xvii+246. ISBN 1-4020-1969-6. £67.00 (hardback).
Rob Iliffe, Milo Keynes and Rebekah Higgitt (eds.), Early Biographies of Isaac Newton 1660–1885. Vol. 1: Eighteenth-Century Biography of Isaac Newton: The Unpublished Manuscripts and Early Texts. Vol. 2: Nineteenth-Century Biography of Isaac Newton: Private Debate and Public Controversy. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2006. Pp. lxxii+387 and xliii+420. ISBN 1-85-196778-8. £195.00 (hardback).
Milo Keynes, The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. viii+120. ISBN 1-84383-133-3. £40.00 (hardback).
John Henry (ed.), Newtonianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. 7 vols. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004. ISBN 1-84371-113-3. £595.00 (hardback).
Mordechai Feingold, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture. New York and Oxford: The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xv+218. ISBN 0-19-517735-5. £25.00 (hardback).
Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687–1851. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. 201. ISBN 0-674-01497-9. £22.95 (hardback).
The focus of Newtonian scholarship has shifted over the last couple of decades. Compare any relevant collection of studies from the third quarter of the twentieth century with a recent one such as Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies (2004), edited by James Force and Sarah Hutton, and the changes leap to the eye. Newtonian studies have been traditionally concerned with Newton's writings and achievements in the fields of mechanics, optics and mathematics, and with his influence on the subsequent development of these disciplines – a line of enquiry that was nourished by the systematic study of unpublished materials in the post-war period and has reached a high degree of technical sophistication. In this perspective, the priority attributed to Newton's natural philosophy and mathematics reflects the assumption that Newtonian ‘science’ should be granted an unquestioned pre-eminence over the rest of his much varied production, as the latter contributed ‘little or nothing to our twentieth-century world’. The landmarks of post-war Newtonian scholarship thus aimed at the identification, analysis and interpretation of Newton's ‘scientific’ manuscripts, carefully separated from the rest of his densely written and sometimes enigmatic paperwork. Establishing such a demarcation certainly made sense within a historiographical practice directed primarily at the reconstruction of Newton's contribution to the making of modern science, and was sustained by the perception of an essential continuity between Newton's alleged main concerns and the practices of twentieth-century physics and mathematics.