Alchemical confusion redux.

Yesterday, in my frustration with Mr Campbell’s drivel I missed another reference to Newton towards the end of his post to which Laura has drawn my attention in the comments.  Our Google expert delivers the following gem:

If I have limited time I want to read about Principia, not a failed effort later in Newton’s career. The fact that John Maynard Keynes believed in alchemy does not validate it, it instead shows us what was wrong with Keynes-ian economic beliefs. He believed in eugenics too, that didn’t make it valid.

In theses few lines Mr Campbell truly displays his total ignorance of subject he is pontificating about.  We start off with the classic, ‘Newton’s alchemy was a product of his dotage after he had produced his scientific work, the Principia’. Campbell doesn’t express it quite like that but it’s obvious what he believes. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I stated in the previous post Newton began his intensive study of alchemy in 1666 and continued it till 1696. He wrote the Principia in somewhat of a frenzy between 1684 and 1687, that is in two thirds of the way through his alchemy studies. Worse than this from Campbell’s standpoint Newton’s alchemical studies actually played a significant role in the conception of the Principia!

Newton conceived and wrote the Principia during a period in the history of science when the mechanical philosophy was totally dominant. This stated quite clearly that if object A moved as a result of object B then there must exist a mechanical contact between the two objects. Newton’s theory of gravity functioning through action at a distance was completely inacceptable. Newton was originally a supporter of the mechanical philosophy and as such would have been incapable of accepting his own later theory of gravity. What gave him the ability to go against the trend and embrace action at a distance? You guessed it, his study of alchemy. It has been clearly shown, mostly by Betty Jo Dobbs, that Newton’s acceptance of action at a distance and thus of a mental position from which he could formulate his theory of gravity was his study of the spirit forces in alchemy. Beyond this, Newton’s third law of motion is known to have been based on an alchemical principle.

In fact Newton’s introduction of the force of gravity acting at a distance led to the strongest criticism of and opposition to the Principia by the Cartesian and Leibnizian supporters of the mechanical philosophy. They accused him of reintroducing the occult (meaning hidden) forces into natural philosophy that they had banished. On these grounds whilst admiring the mathematical ingenuity of the Principia they rejected its central thesis.

Just as worrying as Mr Campbell’s total misrepresentation of Newton and his alchemy is his presentation of John Maynard Keynes. Now I’m not in anyway an expert on Keynes, in fact I know more about his father John Neville Keynes who was one of my nineteenth century logicians when I was serving my apprenticeship as a historian of mathematical logic. However I don’t really think that Keynes believed in alchemy. Worse than this, in the comments to his post, in response to just such doubt expressed by a reader, Campbell basically admits that he has no justification for this claim beyond his own personal animosity to Keynes’ economic theories and his support of eugenics as well as the fact that the fact that Keynes donated his personal collection of Newton’s alchemical writings to Cambridge University.

I shall ignore both the economics and the eugenics as non sequitur in a discussion on the history of alchemy. Viewing Keynes’ donation of the Newton papers as somehow damning is to say the least bizarre. This and other remarks scattered around Campbell’s incoherent piece lead me to the conclusion that Campbell is the worst sort of historical presentist.  He seems to be of the opinion that only those aspects of a historical researchers work that are still relevant by today’s standard are worth conserving or investigating, all the rest can be assigned to the dustbin of history. By totally misrepresenting alchemy and labelling it just pseudo-science Campbell thinks we dispense with it once and for all. The whole point of the fascinating and stimulating work of Principe et al is that they have clearly demonstrated that the real historical alchemy, as opposed to Campbell’s mythological version, made very significant contributions to the shaping of modern science.

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9 Comments

Filed under History of Alchemy, Newton

9 responses to “Alchemical confusion redux.

  1. Michael Weiss

    I think it’s pretty obvious from reading Keynes’ address “Newton, the Man” (delivered at the Royal Society’s tercentenary celebration of Newton’s birth) that Keynes did not believe in alchemy. The address contains the famous lines:
    Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonian and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.
    Right before this quote, Keynes talked about the conventional image of Newton as a purely rational creature, and how “por[ing] over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge” would disabuse anyone of this picture. Presumably this contained many of those alchemical papers Keynes later donated.

    • laura

      Keynes definitely didn’t believe in alchemy. I’m pretty sure Campbell means Keynes’ theories (e.g. the multiplier) remind him of alchemy. That they remind him of alchemy “invalidates” them, whereas I guess the Principia itself invalidates the possibility that Newton took alchemy seriously.

      • Yea, I don’t think there’s really a cogent argument being made. Its just political ranting, and yet more proof that peoples IQ drop 50 points once politics comes up. Its just kind of impressive how far this particular author was willing to reach to drag in a political rant. Its a hell of a walk to get from Issac Newton to the fact that you don’t like the contemporary economic policies of your country.

        But in anycase, I was vaguely aware of the “Last Magician” quote, but I hadn’t realized that Keynes was so much on the forefront of bringing attention to Newton’s alchemical studies, or in gathering his religious and alchemical writings. I always think its kind of neat when a historical figure I associate strongly with one event or field of study shows up in a very different area.

      • laura

        Keynes, Schumpeter… economists used to be really fun. Now we are horribly boring… :)

  2. Michael Weiss

    By the way, while the Principia was written between 1684 and 1687, a great deal of the work was done well before that, wasn’t it?

    As regards Newton and action-at-a-distance, what about the famous letter to Bentley, the whole hypotheses non fingo quote? Also, the Queries to the Opticks sure make it sound like Newton believed a mechanical explanation for gravity would eventually be found.

  3. I note that the positive as well as the negative appraisal of alchemy is an instance of historical presentism. In the 19th and 20th Century an elaborate romance grew up around alchemy as a spiritual discipline. Now Jung, et.al. may not tell us a great deal about alchemy, any more than the nice folks who dance around Stonehenge every year tell us much about Druidism; but the narratives that obscure the further past do tell us a lot about the more recent past. When I read Principe’s book, it struck me that his work casts a powerful, if indirect light on recent cultural history.

    Required disclaimer: Principle is quite clear that traditional alchemy did have a spiritual side as, indeed, almost everything did in Middle Ages and Renaissance—some of the early masons, after all, were indeed masons as well as conductors of rituals. Of course anybody who’s ever hung around a biology lab knows that a certain amount of prayer and incantation accompanies their operations as well. It is perhaps also telling that scientists I note that the positive as well as the negative appraisal of alchemy is an instance of historical presentism. In the 19th and 20th Century an elaborate romance grew up around alchemy as a spiritual discipline. Now Jung, et.al may not tell us a great deal about alchemy, any more than the nice folks who dance around Stonehenge every year tell us much about Druidism; but the narratives that obscure the further past do tell us a lot about the more recent past. When I read Principe’s book, it struck me that his work casts a powerful, if indirect light on recent cultural history.

    Required disclaimer: Principle is quite clear that traditional alchemy did have a spiritual side as, indeed, almost everything did in Middle Ages and Renaissance—some of the early masons, after all, were indeed masons as well as conductors of rituals. Of course anybody who’s ever hung around a biology lab knows that a certain amount of prayer and incantation accompanies their operations as well. It is perhaps also telling that scientists make up a large fraction of the consumers of fantasy fiction and games involving wizards and dragons.

    • Sorry for the double post. It’s not that I think that what I wrote is worth reading twice.

    • I’m trying to work out what sort of a spiritual side alchemy in the medieval period and 16th century actually had. I’ve read various modern researchers, and alchemical works (albeit mostly in translation) and it is definitely a work in progress. (I find working out recipes easier to do)
      But the most general spiritual side is simply that the idea grew up that you couldnt succeed unless you were a good godly man, the answer of how to complete the stone would come as a revelation, a gift from God.

      Which simply doesn’t fit into the modern idea of spiritualism.
      And of course many alchemists were clearly interested in the material benefits, not paying any attention to religious matters. What makes things so confusing for members of the public is the persistence of various strands of alchemy at the same time, and that people tend to make absolute statements without paying attention to this variety.

      • As with astrology there is a very wide spectrum of activities, beliefs, systems etc that fall under the concept alchemy and people tend to behave as if they were all homogeneous which they aren’t.

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