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


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.”

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Bacon, F. (1863). New Organon (J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, & D. D. Heath, Trans.). In The works (Vol. VIII). Boston: Taggard and Thompson.

  2. Burtt E. A. (1927) The metaphysical foundations of modern science. K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, London

    Google Scholar 

  3. Cassirer E. (1951) The philosophy of the enlightenment (P. P. James & C. A. K. Fritz, Trans.). Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  4. Feingold M. (2001) Mathematicians and naturalists: Sir Isaac Newton and the royal society. In: Bernard Cohen I., Buchwald J. Z. (eds) Isaac Newton’s natural philosophy. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  5. Feingold M. (2004) The Newtonian moment: Isaac Newton and the making of modern culture. New York Public Library, New York

    Google Scholar 

  6. Goldish M. (1999) Newton’s Of the Church: Its contents and implications. In: Force J. E., Popkin R. (eds) Newton and religion: Context, nature, and influence. Kluwer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  7. Gorham G. (2011) Newton on God’s relation to space and time: The cartesian framework. Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 93(3): 281–320

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Grene, M. (1999 [1985]). Descartes. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press.

  9. Harrison P. (2004) Was Newton a voluntarist?. In: Force J. E., Hutton S. (eds) Newton and Newtonianism. Kluwer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  10. Henry, J. (2004). Metaphysics and the origins of modern science: Descartes and the importance of laws of nature. Early Science and Medicine, 73–114.

  11. Henry J. (2009) Voluntarist theology at the origins of modern science: A response to Peter Harrison. History of Science 47: 79–113

    Google Scholar 

  12. Henry J. (2011) Gravity and De gravitatione: The development of Newton’s ideas on action at a distance. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42(1): 11–27

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hooker, R. (1888). The works of that learned and judicious divine Mr. Richard Hooker with an account of his life and Death by Isaac Walton. (Arranged by the Rev. John Keble MA. 7th edition revised by the Very Rev. R.W. Church and the Rev. F. Paget). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 3 vols. Vol. 1. Chapter: The first book. concerning laws and their several kinds in general. Accessed December 16, 2011.

  14. Hume, D. (1739). A treatise concerning human understanding. Accessed September 26, 2010.

  15. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Accessed on October 24, 2008.

  16. Jalobeanu D. (2007) Space, bodies and geometry: Some sources of Newton’s metaphysics. Zeitsprünge, Forschungen zur Frühen Neuzeit 11: 81–113

    Google Scholar 

  17. Janiak, A. (ms). Newton’s concept of space and the history of philosophy.

  18. Kuhn T. (1977) The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  19. Lange M. (2009) Laws and lawmakers. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  20. Lee R. A. Jr. (2006) The cartesian resources for Descartes’ concept of Causa Sui. In: Garber D., Nadler S. M. (eds) Oxford studies in early modern philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 91–118

    Google Scholar 

  21. Leibniz, G. W., & Clarke, S. (2000). In R. Ariew (Ed.), Correspondence. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

  22. MacLaurin, C. (1748). Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophy, London.

  23. Mancosu P. (1999) Philosophy of mathematics and mathematical practice in the seventeenth century. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  24. McGuire J. E. (1978) Existence, actuality and necessity: Newton on space and time. Annals of Science 35: 463–508

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. McGuire J. E. (2007) A dialogue with Descartes: Newton’s ontology of true and immutable natures. Journal of the History of Philosophy 45(1): 103–125

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. McGuire, J. E. (2011). Ideas and texts. Newton and the intellectual history of science. Sartoniana, 24, 37–48.

  27. Mercer C. (2001) Leibniz’s metaphysics: Its origins and development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  28. Newton, I. (1978). In A. R. Hall & M. B. Hall (Eds.), Unpublished scientific papers of Isaac Newton: A selection from the Portsmouth Collection in the University Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  29. Newton I. (2004) Philosophical writings edited by Andrew Janiak. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  30. Oackley F. (1961) Christian theology and the Newtonian science: The rise of the concept of the laws of nature. Church History 30: 433–457

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Schliesser, E. (2008). Hume’s Newtonianism and anti-Newtonianism. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), forthcoming URL

  32. Schliesser E. (2010a) Without God: gravity as a relational quality in Newton’s treatise. In: Jalobeanu D., Anstey P. (eds) Vanishing body and the laws of motion: Descartes and beyond. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  33. Schliesser E. (2010b) Book review of Epicureanism at the origins of modernity, by Catherine Wilson. Mind 119(474): 535–539

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Schliesser E. (2011) Newton’s substance monism, distant action, and the nature of Newton’s empiricism: Discussion of H. Kochiras. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42(1): 160–166

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Schliesser, E. (Forthcoming, a). Spinoza and the philosophy of science: Mathematics, motion, and being. In M. D. Rocca (Ed.), Oxford handbook of Spinoza. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  36. Schliesser, E. (Forthcoming, b). On reading Newton as an Epicurean: Kant, Spinozism and the changes to the Principia. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

  37. Slowik, E. (2008). Newton’s metaphysics of space: A “Tertium Quid” betwixt substantivalism and relationalism, or “Merely a God of the (Relational Mechanical) Gaps?”

  38. Slowik E. (2009) Newton’s metaphysics of space: A “Tertium Quid” betwixt substantivalism and relationalism, or “Merely a God of the (Relational Mechanical) Gaps?. ” Perspectives on Science, 17(4,): 429–456

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Slowik, E. (2012). Newton’s neo-platonic ontology of space. Foundations of Science. doi:10.1007/s10699-011-9278-z.

  40. Steenbergen, G. (ms). The role of measurement in Newton’s De Gravitatione.

  41. Stein H. (1967) Newtonian spacetime. Texas Quarterly 10: 174–200

    Google Scholar 

  42. Stein H. (2002) Newton’s metaphysics. In: Cohen I. B., Smith G. E. (eds) Cambridge companion to Isaac Newton. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  43. Whitehead A. N. (1933) Adventures of ideas. Simon & Schuster, New York

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eric Schliesser.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Schliesser, E. Newtonian Emanation, Spinozism, Measurement and the Baconian Origins of the Laws of Nature. Found Sci 18, 449–466 (2013).

Download citation


  • Newton
  • Emanation
  • Measurement
  • Existence
  • Bacon
  • Spinozism