Causal Language and the Structure of Force in Newton’s System of the World

Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 3 (2):210-235 (2013)
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Although Newton carefully eschews questions about gravity’s causal basis in the published Principia, the original version of his masterwork’s third book contains some intriguing causal language. “These forces,” he writes, “arise from the universal nature of matter.” Such remarks seem to assert knowledge of gravity’s cause, even that matter is capable of robust and distant action. Some commentators defend that interpretation of the text—a text whose proper interpretation is important since Newton’s reasons for suppressing it strongly suggest that he continued to endorse its ideas. This article argues that the surface appearance of Newton’s causal language is deceptive. What does New- ton intend with his causal language if not a full causal hypothesis? His remarks actually indicate a way of considering the force mathematically, something he contrasts to the structure of the force as it really is in nature. In explaining that, he identifies a significant disjunction between the physical force itself and mathematical ways of considering it, and the text’s significance lies in its view of the force’s structure and in the questions raised about the relationship between mathematical representations and the physical world.

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University of Bologna


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