Newton on active and passive quantities of matter

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 84:1-11 (2020)
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Newton published his deduction of universal gravity in Principia (first ed., 1687). To establish the universality (the particle-to-particle nature) of gravity, Newton must establish the additivity of mass. I call ‘additivity’ the property a body's quantity of matter has just in case, if gravitational force is proportional to that quantity, the force can be taken to be the sum of forces proportional to each particle's quantity of matter. Newton's argument for additivity is obscure. I analyze and assess manuscript versions of Newton's initial argument within his initial deduction, dating from early 1685. Newton's strategy depends on distinguishing two quantities of matter, which I call ‘active’ and ‘passive’, by how they are measured. These measurement procedures frame conditions on the additivity of each quantity so measured. While Newton has direct evidence for the additivity of passive quantity of matter, he does not for that of the active quantity. Instead, he tries to infer the latter from the former via conceptual analyses of the third law of motion grounded largely on analogies to magnetic attractions. The conditions needed to establish passive additivity frustrate Newton's attempted inference to active additivity.

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Adwait Parker
Tsinghua University


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