It’s silly questions time again: “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?

Back in May the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones asked, “Is Leonardo da Vinci a great artist or a great scientist?” making, as I pointed out at the time, a serious category mistake. Something must be in the drinking water at the Guardian because now Stuart Clark on the Guardians Science Blogs is asking “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?” making, you guessed it, a serious category mistake. As my Internet friend Tom Levenson, who is himself something of a Newton expert, pointed out on twitter Gotta stop with “Scientist and/or sorcerer” nonsense. Newton never saw himself in those terms… In fact Tom’s tweet says it all but for those not in the know, who might want to learn more, I will elaborate.

For all those at the back who haven’t been paying attention Newton cannot have been a scientist because the term was first coined by William Whewell in 1833 and did not come into common usage until around 1870. There are those who will immediately say that Newton thought like a modern scientist so it doesn’t matter if the term is anachronistic he was one, so there. The problem with this claim is that it’s based on a very limited knowledge of Newton, his life, his work and the way he thought. Put very simply Newton did not think like a modern scientist, which brings us to the second prong of Stuart Clark’s dichotomy.

Clark calls Newton a sorcerer because he was a practicing alchemist, which displays an immense ignorance of the world of seventeenth century thought on his part. A sorcerer is a practitioner of magic in fact a practitioner of black magic and that is a very, very different thing from an alchemist. What follows is a brief outline as to why Clark’s appellation is so inappropriate (with apologies to all serious historians of alchemy, astrology and natural magic for a totally inadequate explanation of these disciplines in the early modern period).

In the early modern period there are three so-called occult (occult just means hidden or concealed) sciences: astrology, natural magic and alchemy all of which found their legitimacy in the micro-cosmos macro-cosmos philosophy. This cosmology says as above so below or the world we live in is a reflection of the heavens. Astrology investigates the connections between the heavens and the earth and tries to define the heavenly or celestial influences. Both natural magic and alchemy are methods that try or at least hope to directly influence or manipulate those influences. Practitioners of all three disciplines distance themselves clearly from demonic or black magic that tries to manipulate nature through demonic powers. A sorcerer is a user of demonic magic.

Newton rejected both astrology and natural magic and is also on record as not believing in witches or ghost so I think we can safely say he also rejected demonic magic, so he definitely wasn’t a sorcerer. He was however a convinced alchemist. This was not a mild side-line or passing fantasy as some commentators on Clark’s post would like to believe, the study of alchemy was his main occupation six months of the year for about thirty years. Also this was not after he ceased doing scientific work as many sources would have you believe but parallel to his main period of scientific activity between 1666 and 1696 when he gave up academia to move to London and the Royal Mint. It is important to understand that for Newton and his fellow alchemists, which included Robert Boyle and John Locke, alchemy was an epistemic discipline that is a branch of knowledge like optics or mechanics.

So Newton was neither a scientist nor a sorcerer so what was he? We have already seen he was a committed alchemist, what else?

Newton was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge so it is safe to call him a mathematician. To find out what he was we can look at his two principle publications The Optics and Principia. The Optics is basically a book on geometrical optics, which was then still a sub-discipline of mathematics, in fact Newton in his roll as professor lectured on optics, so this can safely be subsumed under his roll as mathematician. The Principia is actually titled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or in English The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, all of which tells us that Newton was a natural philosopher. So we have mathematician and natural philosopher. However the title of his main work tells us that he was a representative of a fairly new breed of academic the mathematical natural philosopher. Newton wasn’t the first of this genus, which had slowly evolved since sometime in the High Middle Ages, Galileo, Kepler, Borelli and Huygens being other examples from the seventeenth century.

Maybe we could restate Clarks question as “Was Newton a mathematical natural philosopher or an alchemist?” but should we do so we would be again doing Newton an injustice. We are back to the reason that Newton did not think like a modern scientist. For Newton his theological studies (that I haven’t dealt with here) and his alchemical studies were an integral part of his natural philosophical investigations, in fact they were at the very heart of those investigations so to present these two aspects of his work as a dichotomy would be totally false.

In his blog post Clark quotes a footnote from Richard Westfall one of the deans of Newton studies:

“My modes of thought are so far removed from those of alchemy that I am constantly uneasy in writing on the subject … [Nevertheless] my personal preferences cannot make more than a million words he wrote in the study of alchemy disappear.”

He then goes on to quote novelist Rebecca Stott:

“Westfall admitted to wishing that he could make those million words disappear.”

This is a complete misrepresentation. It was one of Westfall’s doctoral students Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs who wrote the definitive account of Newton’s alchemical studies The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or the Hunting of the Green Lyon and also the definitive account of how his alchemy fitted into his approach to knowledge The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Both books are highly recommended for anybody who wishes to know more about Isaac the Alchemist.

For an excellent short account of the misrepresentation of Newton’s alchemical activities I recommend this post from last year by Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt at he blog Teleskopos: Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise?

Addendum: As Ian Hopkinson correctly pointed out on Twitter Newton is of course a Fig Roll.

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15 Comments

Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton, Renaissance Science

15 responses to “It’s silly questions time again: “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?

  1. Pingback: It’s silly questions time again: “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Tony Angel

    I first met Stuart Clark some 20 years ago. He was then very much an astronomer and a good speaker. His first book was on Redshifts and it was – apart from some typos – very good, so much so that I wished he would produce a second edition. I also enjoyed his Sun Kings which was a good observational astronomy book from the sense of explaining the historical means of dong the observations and how the data was used. I wish though he had stayed within the academic world and expanded on the work for which he had a natural bent , rather than going into popular science writing where they are expected to churn out topics in areas that are outside of their field.

    Some 50 or so years ago I remember being told by my history teacher not to just historical people and events by today’s standards, that you have try and understand the age and look through the eyes of the historical persons.

    So yes, it is silly question time again.

  3. Once again, you leave out the damning evidence of Newton’s “philosophical” belief structure. This is what Leibniz devastatingly exposed– that Newton’s (and Locke’s) “god” is a mere clock winder, in effect as impotent and no different in essence than Nietzsche’s “god is dead” dogma. This is indeed tantamount to a very childish belief in magic. Whether it be black or white is a red herring. Newton believed among so much other fantasies that the Bible was a magical text predicting the end of the world in 2060. It really doesn’t matter if such types of beliefs were from the time of the Delphic oracle or today. They evince the same magical belief system.

    • Tony Angel

      Thingumbob, I have read not a few books on and by Newton.You must have read different ones. Like most people in England, he did believe in God.

    • Thingumbob, you are of course right, Leibniz was much more rational, what’s that theory again? Oh! I know Monadology. There is no vacuum, space is filled with living, perceiving monads created by God the Urmonad . Souls are monads as well and of course animals like humans also have souls. A very scientific explanation of the cosmos not like the mathematical rubbish Newton was trying to fob off.

  4. The comments about Westfall are quite correct. His biography did, of course, deal with Newton’s alchemy in the way that historians of science were and are trained to deal with such things, and Westfall undoubtedly encouraged the work of Dobbs and others. However, in a facinating essay in a collection called ‘Introspection in Biography’, Westfall explained how he came to realise how difficult he had found it, and the extent to which, whatever he had written and however he understood it intellectually, he failed to really understand or even emotionally accept Newton the alchemist.

  5. Pingback: Was Newton a scientist? | Revolutions

  6. Peter R.

    Just a clarification. Dobbs was not Westfall’s student. Her PhD was from the University of North Carolina. Westfall certainly accepted Newton’s interest in alchemy as real, and went so far as to suggest (but not argue definitively or dogmatically) that Newton’s theory of gravitational attraction could have been derived from his alchemical work and consideration of attractive/repulsive forces between atoms.

  7. Besides, in the humanities there seems to be a custom to not bluntly ask silly questions as above, but to merely imply them. The headings would then read something like “Newton as a scientist” or “Newton as a sorcerer.”

    P.S.: The habit’s so widespread, Tucholsky once reported of a bad dream being in an examination and having to write an essay on “Goethe as such” implying that he could have easily written instead on Goethe as scientist, or novelist, or artist, or …

  8. Thony C.: This post is a good critique of the headline of Stuart Clark’s article (“Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?”), but it is off-target if is meant to criticise the article itself.

    Compare your conclusion about Newton with Clark’s own conclusion:

    Yours: “For Newton his theological studies (that I haven’t dealt with here) and his alchemical studies were an integral part of his natural philosophical investigations, in fact they were at the very heart of those investigations so to present these two aspects of his work as a dichotomy would be totally false.”

    Clark’s: “So was Sir Isaac a scientist or a sorcerer? In truth, he was a bit of both. And that was why he could succeed where others had failed.”

    Like you, Clark’s main point is that either label — “scientist” or “sorcerer” — is misleading when applied to Newton, because Newton’s alchemy and prophecy was intimately related to the mathematical and experimental studies we find in the Opticks and the Principia. In his post Clark even goes further than you, saying that Newton’s alchemy may have made an important conceptual contribution to his theory of gravity.

    Your remarks about the categories of “alchemist” and “mathematical natural philosopher” are useful background information. But the fact that Clark says sensible things about Newton without clarifying the disciplinary categories that he (Clark) is using suggests to me that using the right disciplinary categories is not always crucial for doing good history.

    On a related note, you are yourself quite happy to talk about Newton’s “scientific work” and about his “scientific activity.” If that is an acceptable short-hand — and we all know what you mean when you use those phrases in paragraph 5 of this post — then why is it not an acceptable shorthand to say that Newton “did science” and hence that he was “a scientist”?

    • The word science as an English translation of scientia, meaning knowledge, already existed at the end of the 16th century and its use for the 17th century is not anachronistic. The word scientist did not exist until the 19th century.

      • Thanks for your reply. Some responses:

        – as I read paragraph 5, you do not use “scientific” in paragraph 5 to mean “knowledge.” Instead you use it in the popular sense of “resembling present-day science in its methods and in its basic theoretical assumptions.” Consider this sentence: “[Newton's preoccupation with alchemy] was not after he ceased doing scientific work as many sources would have you believe but parallel to his main period of scientific activity between 1666 and 1696.” To me the wording here implies that (as you are using the terms) “science” excludes “alchemy”, as it would if you were using “science” in the popular sense just described and as it would not if you were using “science” to mean “knowledge.” My point here is, as in my first comment, that this popular sense of “science” is useful and legitimate.

        – it is useful to know that the word “scientist” did not exist until the 19th century. But one sense of “scientist” is simply “one who practices science.” And surely it is legitimate to use “scientist” in this sense if, as you assert, it is legitimate to use the term “science.”

        – what do you think of the other part of my first comment, where I suggest that your post is off-target as a criticism of Clark’s original post? And what do you think of my suggestion that disciplinary categories — like “alchemy” and “scientia” — can sometimes be treated as background information rather than as crucial prerequisites for doing good history?

  9. – as I read paragraph 5, you do not use “scientific” in paragraph 5 to mean “knowledge.” Instead you use it in the popular sense of “resembling present-day science in its methods and in its basic theoretical assumptions.” Consider this sentence: “[Newton's preoccupation with alchemy] was not after he ceased doing scientific work as many sources would have you believe but parallel to his main period of scientific activity between 1666 and 1696.” To me the wording here implies that (as you are using the terms) “science” excludes “alchemy”, as it would if you were using “science” in the popular sense just described and as it would not if you were using “science” to mean “knowledge.” My point here is, as in my first comment, that this popular sense of “science” is useful and legitimate.

    In one sense you are correct that is indeed how I was using the word science in this paragraph and to make my meaning clear I should probably have written something like “when he ceased doing what people today regard as his scientific work”.

    I do however point out that for Newton alchemy is an epistemic discipline exactly like his optics or his mechanics and that one shouldn’t use the word scientist, with its modern connotations, for Newton exactly because both his theology and alchemy are integral parts of his methodology.

    For Newton his theological studies (that I haven’t dealt with here) and his alchemical studies were an integral part of his natural philosophical investigations, in fact they were at the very heart of those investigations…

    So, no Clark does not go further than I. Also I give the academic source for this claim, for those who wish to know more, Clark does not.

    it is useful to know that the word “scientist” did not exist until the 19th century. But one sense of “scientist” is simply “one who practices science.” And surely it is legitimate to use “scientist” in this sense if, as you assert, it is legitimate to use the term “science.”

    What it means “to practice science” changes with time so no.

    Good history means using terminology correctly and accurately. Clark’s article is very bad history alone for the fact that he confounds the terms alchemist and sorcerer, which in the early modern period, i.e. that under discussion in his article, mean two very different, in fact, contrary things.

  10. Pingback: William Newman demonstrates alchemical transmutation – with a few notes on whiggishness « Heterodoxology

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