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Newton’s “Law-First” Epistemology and “Matter-First” Metaphysics

Hazelwood, Caleb (2023) Newton’s “Law-First” Epistemology and “Matter-First” Metaphysics. [Preprint]

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Abstract

Much has been written on Newton’s concept of matter, as well as Newton’s laws. Meanwhile, the metaphysical and epistemological relationships between these two principal features of Newtonian philosophy are relatively unexplored. Among the existing accounts of the relationship between bodies and laws, two are especially compelling: the “law-constitutive” approach from Katherine Brading and the “formal-cause” approach from Zvi Biener and Eric Schliesser. Both accounts argue that Newton’s bodies are (at least partially) metaphysically dependent on the laws. That is, according to Brading, Biener, and Schliesser, Newtonian laws are ontologically prior to the bodies they govern. In this article, I reply to Brading, Biener, and Schliesser. I develop negative arguments against their approaches by closely examining three features of Newton’s ontology—forms, particles, and active principles—and their relationship to the laws. I also offer an explanation as to why “law-first” approaches have (understandably) dominated recent Newtonian exegesis. Finally, I present a positive argument for what I believe to be a superior alternative: Newton’s law-first approach is purely pragmatic. It is a feature of his experimental philosophy that we should begin our inquiry into the metaphysical constituents of the universe with the laws that arise from them. This does not entail, however, that Newton views laws as constituting or forming physical bodies. Newton’s metaphysics should be interpreted as “matter-first,” with bodies giving rise to laws, whereas his epistemology should be interpreted as “law-first,” with knowledge of laws giving rise to knowledge of bodies.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Hazelwood, Calebcaleb.hazelwood@gmail.com0000-0002-7421-3581
Additional Information: Preprint. To be published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.
Keywords: Newton; Principia; Opticks; matter; laws; active principles
Subjects: General Issues > Scientific Metaphysics
General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Physics > Classical Physics
Specific Sciences > Physics > Condensed Matter
General Issues > History of Philosophy of Science
General Issues > Laws of Nature
General Issues > Philosophers of Science
Depositing User: Caleb Hazelwood
Date Deposited: 22 Aug 2023 12:39
Last Modified: 22 Aug 2023 12:39
Item ID: 22443
Subjects: General Issues > Scientific Metaphysics
General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Physics > Classical Physics
Specific Sciences > Physics > Condensed Matter
General Issues > History of Philosophy of Science
General Issues > Laws of Nature
General Issues > Philosophers of Science
Date: 2023
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/22443

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