Boris Hessen and Newton's God

Society and Politics 13 (1):64-86 (2019)
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A significant thread in Boris Hessen‟s iconic essay, The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia (1931), is his critique of Newton‟s involving God in his physics. Contra Newton, Hessen believes that nature does not need God in order to function properly. Hessen gives two, quite distinct, „internal‟ explanations of Newton‟s failure to see this. The first explanation is that Newton‟s failure is caused by his believing that motion is a mode instead of an attribute or essence of matter. The second explanation is that Newton‟s failure is owed to his considering mechanical motion as the sole form of the motion of matter: Newton, in Hessen‟s view, did not realize that matter has many forms of motion which constantly transform into one another while conserving energy. In the present paper, I defend the thesis that none of these explanations can account for Newton‟s failure. Hessen‟s first explanation is problematic because even if Newton believed that motion is an attribute or essence of matter, he would still be obliged to involve God in physics. His second explanation fails too because he does not show exactly how the multiplicity and inter-transformation of forms of motion can account for nature‟s organizational structure.

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Ioannis Trisokkas
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


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