Foundations of Science

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 449–466 | Cite as

Newtonian Emanation, Spinozism, Measurement and the Baconian Origins of the Laws of Nature

  • Eric SchliesserEmail author


The first two sections of this paper investigate what Newton could have meant in a now famous passage from “De Graviatione” (hereafter “DeGrav”) that “space is as it were an emanative effect of God.” First it offers a careful examination of the four key passages within DeGrav that bear on this. The paper shows that the internal logic of Newton’s argument permits several interpretations. In doing so, the paper calls attention to a Spinozistic strain in Newton’s thought. Second it sketches four interpretive options: (i) one approach is generic neo-Platonic; (ii) another approach is associated with the Cambridge Platonist, Henry More; a variant on this (ii*) emphasizes that Newton mixes Platonist and Epicurean themes; (iii) a necessitarian approach; (iv) an approach connected with Bacon’s efforts to reformulate a useful notion of form and laws of nature. Hitherto only the second and third options have received scholarly attention in scholarship on DeGrav. The paper offers new arguments to treat Newtonian emanation as a species of Baconian formal causation as articulated, especially, in the first few aphorisms of part two of Bacon’s New Organon. If we treat Newtonian emanation as a species of formal causation then the necessitarian reading can be combined with most of the Platonist elements that others have discerned in DeGrav, especially Newton’s commitment to doctrines of different degrees of reality as well as the manner in which the first existing being ‘transfers’ its qualities to space (as a kind of causa-sui). This can clarify the conceptual relationship between space and its formal cause in Newton as well as Newton’s commitment to the spatial extended-ness of all existing beings. While the first two sections of this paper engage with existing scholarly controversies, in the final section the paper argues that the recent focus on emanation has obscured the importance of Newton’s very interesting claims about existence and measurement in “DeGrav”. The paper argues that according to Newton God and other entities have the same kind of quantities of existence; Newton is concerned with how measurement clarifies the way of being of entities. Newton is not claiming that measurement reveals all aspects of an entity. But if we measure something then it exists as a magnitude in space and as a magnitude in time. This is why in DeGrav Newton’s conception of existence really helps to “lay truer foundations of the mechanical sciences.”


Newton Emanation Measurement Existence Bacon Spinozism 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy and Moral SciencesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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