“Newton’s Scholium on Time, Space, Place and Motion”

Jeffrey McDonough
ni!ersity of "alifornia, #r!ine
Department of Philosophy, $$%&'() $
#r!ine, "* +$,+-&.///
“Newton’s Scholium on Time, Space, Place and Motion”
There is no 4uestion that Newton’s famous 5uc6et e7periment radically altered the
landscape in which philosophical de5ates o!er the nature of space were carried out2 8hat
e7actly Newton intended to show with his e7periment is, howe!er, still a point of
considera5le contro!ersy2 #n this essay, # will argue that Newton’s intentions were more
modest, 5ut also more sensi5le, than has 5een commonly supposed2
The essay itself falls into three parts2 The first 5riefly s6etches the original
e7periment, as well as, its traditional interpretation in light of 9rnst Mach’s discussion in
The Science of Mechanics2 The second, highlights the "artesian 5ac6ground to the
5uc6et e7periment and argues that, once it is properly !iewed as an attac6 on Descartes’s
distinction 5etween common and philosophical motion, the mista6e attri5uted to Newton
5y Mach simply falls away2 The third section considers the possi5ility that Mach’s
o50ection might nonetheless reassert itself in connection with Newton’s almost e4ually
famous two glo5es thought e7periment2

1. The Bucket Experiment and Mach’s Interpretation
#n the third to last paragraph of his scholium on time, space, place and motion, Newton
suggests that, at least in some circumstances, a5solute motions may 5e distinguished from
relati!e motions 5y their o5ser!a5le effects2 #n illustrating his claim, he introduces his
famous 5uc6et e7periment as follows:
#f a 5uc6et is hanging from a !ery long cord and is continually turned around until
the cord 5ecomes twisted tight, and if the 5uc6et is thereupon filled with water
and is at rest along with the water and then, 5y some sudden force, is made to turn
around in the opposite direction and, as the cord unwinds, perse!eres for a while
in this motion; then the surface of the water will at first 5e le!el, 0ust as it was
5efore the !essel 5egan to mo!e2 )ut after the !essel, 5y the force gradually
impressed upon the water, has caused the water also to 5egin re!ol!ing
percepti5ly, the water will gradually recede from the middle and rise up the sides
of the !essel, assuming a conca!e shape <as e7perience has shown me=, and, with
an e!er faster motion, will rise further and further until, when it completes its
re!olutions in the same times as the !essel, it is relati!ely at rest in the !essel
<Newton >3-$,? 3+++, .3$&.3@=2
Newton draws attention to four stages of the e7periment2 The first occurs at the start
when the 5uc6et has 5een filled with water, 5ut the cord has not yet 5een permitted to
unwind2 *t this initial stage there is no relati!e motion 5etween the water and the 5uc6et,
and the surface of the water is flat2 The second stage occurs when the cord first 5egins to
unwind2 There is now a relati!e motion 5etween the water and the 5uc6et e!en though
the surface of the water is still flat2 *t the third stage there is li6ewise a relati!e motion
5etween the water and the 5uc6et, 5ut the water has only 0ust 5egun creeping up the sides
deforming the surface2 The fourth, and last stage considered 5y Newton, occurs when the
5uc6et and the water ha!e the same angular !elocity2 *t this point, the surface of the
water remains conca!e e!en though there is no longer any relati!e motion 5etween the
water and the 5uc6et2
*t the end of the 5uc6et e7periment, Newton appears concerned only to draw a
negati!e conclusion, namely, “that endea!or >of the water to recede from the center? does
not depend on the change of position of the water with respect to surrounding 5odies, and
thus true circular motion cannot 5e determined 5y means of such changes of position”
<Newton >3-$,? 3+++, .3@=2 Newton’s commentators, howe!er, ha!e traditionally read
the 5uc6et e7periment <as well as the two glo5es e7periment occurring two paragraphs
later= as contri5uting to a larger argument for the e7istence of a5solute space2 Thus
according to 9rnst Mach’s influential reading, Newton is first supposed to ha!e inferred
that the forces manifested in the water’s surface do not correlate with the relati!e motion
5etween the water and the 5uc6et, and second that they must therefore 5e correlated with
the water’s motion relati!e to a5solute space2 #t is the non sequitur of the second step
that Mach famously criticiAes in his Science of Mechanics:
Newton’s e7periment with the rotating !essel of water simply informs us, that the
relati!e rotation of the water with respect to the sides of the !essel produces no
noticea5le centrifugal forces, 5ut that such forces are produced 5y its relati!e
rotation with respect to the mass of the earth and the other celestial 5odies2 No
one is competent to say how the e7periment would turn out if the sides of the
!essel increased in thic6ness and mass till they were ultimately se!eral leagues
thin62 The one e7periment only lies 5efore us, and our 5usiness is, to 5ring it into
accord with other facts 6nown to us, and not with the ar5itrary fictions of our
imagination <Mach, >3+%B? 3+B+, $B.=2
Mach’s reading of the 5uc6et e7periment 5ecame accepted doctrine with later day
philosophers of science who shared his positi!ist intuitions2 Thus in his influential Space
and Time, 'ans Ceichen5ach writes:
Newton concludes that the centrifugal force cannot 5e e7plained 5y a relati!e
motion, since a relati!e motion e7ists 5etween the pail and the water at the
5eginning as well as at the end 2 2 2 Mach replies that Newton o!erloo6ed the fact
that the surrounding masses of the earth and fi7ed stars ha!e to 5e ta6en into
consideration2 The water rotates not only relati!e to the pail 5ut also relati!e to
these large masses, which may 5e considered as a cause of centrifugal force
<Ceichen5ach 3+/-, $3@&3.=2
9rnest Nagel sounds the same note in his widely read The Structure of Science:
Newton’s argument was se!erely criticiAed 5y 9rnst Mach, who showed that it
in!ol!ed a serious non sequitur2 Newton noted 4uite correctly that the !ariations
in the shape of the surface of the water are not connected with the rotation of the
water relati!e to the sides of the 5uc6et2 )ut he concluded that the deformations
of the surface must therefore 5e attri5uted to a rotation relati!e to absolute space2
'owe!er, this conclusion does not follow from the e7perimental data and
Newton’s other assumptions, for there are in fact two alternati!e ways of
interpreting those data: the change in the shape of the water’s surface is a
conse4uence either of a rotation relati!e to a5solute space or of a rotation relati!e
to some system of bodies different from the bucket <Nagel 3+,3, $%+=2
The Machian criticism of Newton, of course, 5ore its own fruit in connection with
9instein’s de!elopment of the theory of general relati!ity2 #ts credentials as fair criticism
of Newton, howe!er, ha!e more recently come under fire <Daymon 3+-B, 9arman 3+B+,
,3&,,, CynasiewicA 3++/a and 3++/5=2 #n the ne7t section we will consider how the
"artesian 5ac6ground to the 5uc6et e7periment clears Newton of the charge le!eled 5y
his machian interpreters2

2. The Bucket Experiment in Context
#n his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes distinguishes 5etween common and
philosophical motion2 The former he e7plains:
2 2 2 is nothing other than the action 5y which some 5ody tra!els from one
>relati!e? place to another2 *nd, therefore 2 2 2 the same thing can 5e said to
simultaneously change, and not change, its place; so it can also 5e said to mo!e
and not to mo!e2 Thus a man, seated in a ship which is sailing out of port, thin6s
that he is mo!ing if he turns his attention to the shores, which he considers to 5e
at rest2 )ut he does not thin6 so if he turns his attention to the parts of the ship, in
relation to which he constantly maintains the same situation <Descartes >3,..?
3+B., Pr ## $.=2
(ur wor6aday concept of motion is thus, according to Descartes, a relati!e one2 8hether
or not a 5ody is said to mo!e 5y the !ulgar depends upon the selection of an ar5itrary set
of coordinating 5odies2 #t is therefore perfectly possi5le for a 5ody to mo!e <relati!e to
one set of 5odies= and nonetheless to 5e at rest <relati!e to another set of 5odies=2
This common conception of motion is contrasted in Principles ##, $/ with a true
or philosophical conception of motion2 There, Descartes e7plains:
#f, howe!er, we consider what should 5e understood 5y mo!ement, according to
the truth of the matter rather than in accordance with common usage <in order to
attri5ute a determinate nature to it=: we can say that it is the transference of one
part of matter or of one 5ody, from the !icinity of those 5odies immediately
contiguous to it and considered as at rest, into the !icinity of >some? others
<Descartes >3,..? 3+B., Pr ## $/=2
*lthough somewhat o5scure in the details, Descartes’s definition suggests that true
motion must 5e understood as a 5ody’s motion relati!e to its contiguous and immediately
surrounding neigh5ors2 nli6e common motion, true motion is thus uni4uely determined
E on Descartes’s definition a 5ody is either truly mo!ing or it is not2
The fi!e paragraphs of Newton’s scholium, 5rac6eted on the one end 5y the ninth
paragraph which starts “Moreo!er, a5solute, and relati!e rest and motion are
distinguished from each other 5y their properties, causes, and effects,” and on the other
end 5y the paragraph containing the 5uc6et e7periment, are most cogently read as a
sustained criti4ue of the "artesian distinction 5etween common and true motion2 The
first three of these fi!e paragraphs all suggest in one way or another that the "artesian
distinction must 5e re0ected 5ecause it fails to guarantee an intuiti!ely essential property
of true motion2 So, for e7ample, in the tenth paragraph of the scholium, Newton writes:
Therefore, when 5odies containing others mo!e, whate!er is relati!ely at rest
within them also mo!es2 *nd thus true and a5solute motion cannot 5e determined
5y means of change of position from the !icinity of 5odies that are regarded as
5eing at rest2 For the e7terior 5odies ought to 5e regarded not only as 5eing at rest
5ut also as 5eing truly at rest2 2 2 2 For containing 5odies are to those inside them
as the outer part of the whole to the inner part or as the shell to the 6ernel2 *nd
when the shell mo!es, the 6ernel also, without 5eing changed in the position from
the !icinity of the shell, mo!es as a part of the whole <Newton >3-$,? 3+++, .33=2
Newton’s o50ection is that any reasona5le definition of true motion must respect the fact
if a 5ody * is at rest relati!e to a 5ody ), then if * truly mo!es, ) must truly mo!e as
well2 To deny this would 5e to open the door to such a5surd conse4uences as the
possi5ility that an en!elope might truly mo!e in going from "alifornia to New Gor6
without the letter inside e!er truly mo!ing at all2 *s Newton points out, howe!er,
Descartes’s definition seems to lea!e 0ust this sort of possi5ility open2 For it would seem,
according to Descartes’s definition, that if 5ody ) surrounds 5ody *, * may remain truly
at rest E 5ecause it does not mo!e relati!e to its surrounding 5ody & e!en as ) truly mo!es
while carrying * inside of it2
#n the twelfth paragraph of the Scholium, Newton raises a second 6ind of
o50ection to Descartes’s distinction 5etween common and true motion2 'e suggests that
in addition to respecting our intuitions concerning the properties of true motions, an
ade4uate definition of a5solute motion should recogniAe that the generation and alteration
of true motions must 5e correlated with the forces ta6en to act on 5odies2 'e writes:
The causes which distinguish true motions from relati!e motions are the forces
impressed upon 5odies to generate motion2 True motion is neither generated nor
changed e7cept 5y forces impressed upon the mo!ing 5ody itself, 5ut relati!e
motion can 5e generated and changed without the impression of forces upon this
5ody2 For the impression of forces solely on other 5odies with which a gi!en
5ody has a relation is enough, when the other 5odies yield, to produce a change in
that relation which constitutes the relati!e rest or motion of this 5ody2 *gain, true
motion is always changed 5y forces impressed upon a mo!ing 5ody, 5ut relati!e
motion is not necessarily changed 5y such forces2 For if the same forces are
impressed upon a mo!ing 5ody and also upon other 5odies with which it has a
relation, in such a way that the relati!e position is maintained, the relation that
constitutes the relati!e motion will also 5e maintained2 Therefore, e!ery relati!e
motion can 5e changed while the true motion is preser!ed, and can 5e preser!ed
while the true one is changed, and thus true motion certainly does not consist in
relations of this sort <Newton >3-$,? 3+++, .3$=2
The 4uoted passage suggests a second intuiti!e constraint on any definition of true
motion, namely, that true motions can only 5e generated or altered 5y the application of
force <cf2 Newton >3,,BH? 3+,$, +3&+$, +,, 3%@=2 Such a constraint would ha!e, of
course, seemed entirely wrongheaded to generations of natural philosophers prior to
Ialileo, and e!en to many after2 Most proponents of the medie!al impetus theory, for
e7ample, implicitly re0ected it, assuming that a constant true motion re4uires a constant
Descartes himself, howe!er, argues for a principle of inertia that seems to
em5race 0ust the constraint in 4uestion2 #n articulating this parameter, Newton’s intention
therefore seems to 5e to point out that it is !iolated 5y Descartes’s own definition of true
motion2 For if, again, we suppose that 5ody ) surrounds 5ody *, then we <or Iod= might
generate a true motion in * merely 5y applying a force to )2 Such a reading of Newton’s
intentions is supported 5y a related passage from his unpu5lished essay De gravitatione,
where he writes:
#t follows from the "artesian doctrine that motion can 5e generated where no
force is impressed2 #f, for the sa6e of argument, Iod were to ma6e it happen that
the rotation of our !orte7 were suddenly to stop, without impressing on the 9arth
a force which would stop it at the same time, Descartes would say that, 5ecause of
its translation from the !icinity of the contiguous fluid, the 9arth would not mo!e
in the philosophical sense, 0ust as 5efore he said it 5e at rest in the same
philosophical sense <Newton >3,,BH? 3+,$, +/=2
*ccording to Newton, Descartes’s definition thus fails to distinguish true from merely
relati!e motion, not only 5ecause it ignores an essential property of true motion, 5ut also
5ecause it does not succeed in capturing the intuiti!e correlation 5etween true motion and
its causes2
The 5uc6et e7periment, found in the twelfth paragraph, continues the line of
argument initiated in the ninth paragraph 5y suggesting that the "artesian distinction
5etween common and true motion fails to correspond intelligi5ly with the o5ser!a5le
effects of circular motion2 #n the 5ac6ground here are Descartes’s second law of nature,
as well as, his theory of cosmological !ortices2 Descartes’s second law states, “that all
mo!ement is, of itself, along straight lines; and conse4uently, 5odies which are mo!ing in
a circle always tend to mo!e away from the center of the circle they are descri5ing”
<Descartes >3,..? 3+B., Pr ## @+=2 The theory of cosmological !ortices in turn ser!es to
e7plain a wide !ariety of astronomical phenomena within the "artesian system E
including the sun’s illumination and the planets’ or5its E 5y appeal to the centerfugal
endea!or descri5ed in the second law and supposedly induced 5y the circular motion of
celestial matter2
8ith this 5ac6ground, the 5uc6et e7periment can 5e seen as a stri6ingly precise
attac6 upon the "artesian distinction 5etween true and common motion2 *ssuming that
the effect descri5ed 5y Descartes as a centerfugal endea!or correlates with the
deformation of the water’s surface, Newton is a5le to argue that the "artesian definition
of true motion ma6es a hash of the o5ser!a5le effects of circular motion2 For according
to that definition, the water is truly at rest during the first and fourth stages, and truly
mo!ing during the second and third stages2 )ut in that case there is no sensi5le
correlation 5etween the true motion of the water and the deformation of its surface, for, as
we ha!e already noted, the water’s surface ta6es on a para5oloid shape only in the third
and fourth stages2
'ere, as elsewhere, it is possi5le that Descartes might 5e a5le to mount some sort
of response to Newton’s criticism2 8ith regards to natural philosophy, after all, Descartes
was nothing if not ingenious2 Nonetheless, what should 5e clear from the preceding is
that the Machian o50ection to the 5uc6et e7periment misses its mar6 as a criticism of
Newton2 For as an attac6 on Descartes’s definition of true motion, the possi5ility that the
deformations of the water’s surface might 5e correlated with motions relati!e to some
other set of massi!e 5odies is 5eside the point2 For Newton’s criticism of that definition
re4uires him only to show that that the water’s motion relati!e to its contiguous and
immediately surrounding 5odies E i2e2 to the 5uc6et itself & fails to correlate with the
effects manifested in the water’s surface2 #n criticiAing Descartes’s distinction 5etween
true and common motion, he needn’t show that they could not 5e correlated with the
water’s motion relati!e to any other set of 5odies, say, for e7ample, the stars2
3. The Two Balls experiment
9!en granting that Newton is not guilty of the logical 5lunder attri5uted to him 5y Mach
and his followers in connection with the 5uc6et e7periment, one might nonetheless
wonder at this point whether there is any point in setting this particular record straight2
*fter all, the 5uc6et e7periment is followed, two paragraphs later, 5y a !ery similar and
almost e4ually famous thought e7periment:
For e7ample, if two 5alls, at a gi!en distance from each other with a cord
connecting them, were re!ol!ing a5out a common center of gra!ity, the endea!or
of the 5alls to recede from the a7is of motion could 5e 6nown from the tension of
the cord, and thus the 4uantity of circular motion could 5e computed2 Then, if
any e4ual forces were simultaneously impressed upon the alternati!e faces of the
5alls to increase or decrease their circular motion, the increase or decrease of the
motion could 5e 6nown from the increased or decreased tension of the cord, and
thus, finally, it could 5e disco!ered which faces of the 5alls the forces would ha!e
to 5e impressed upon for a ma7imum increase in the motion, that is, which were
the posterior faces, or the ones that are in the rear in a circular motion <Newton
>3-$,? 3+++, .3.=2
Ii!en the similarities 5etween Newton’s 5uc6et e7periment and his two glo5es thought
e7periment, it might seem that filling out the "artesian conte7t of the 5uc6et e7periment
merely sa!es Newton from the frying pan while lea!ing him in the fire2
Such an o50ection, howe!er, would o!erloo6 two important points regarding
Newton’s thought e7periment2 The first, again, is what e7actly the e7periment is
intended to esta5lish2 Significantly, Newton 5egins the paragraph containing the two
glo5es e7periment 5y e7plaining that although it is !ery difficult in practice to
differentiate true from apparent motions, it is nonetheless not altogether hopeless2 The
grounds for Newton’s cautious optimism are clear enough: 'e 5elie!e that given the
theory of the Principia, it is possi5le to, among other things, distinguish true rotations
from mere relati!e rotations2 #ndeed, in closing the scholium, Newton promises that “in
what follows, a fuller e7planation will 5e gi!en of how to determine true motions from
their causes, effects, and apparent differences, and, con!ersely, of how to determine from
motions, whether true or apparent, their causes and effects,” e7plaining that “this was the
purpose for which # composed the following treatise2” Ta6en in conte7t, the two glo5es
e7periment can easily 5e seen for what it is, namely, an illustration of how the distinction
crafted and defended in the first fourteen paragraphs of the scholium is to 5e applied in
the main te7t of the Principia2 To such an illustration one might reasona5ly o50ect that it
does not fit the theory proffered, or that in fitting the theory it shows its defects2 8hat
does not seem to 5e a trenchant criticism is the claim that one might 5e a5le to pro!ide an
alternati!e description of the e7periment, under an as yet unformulated competing theory,
5eginning with different fundamental concepts and a7ioms2
The second important difference is that, in spite of their salient similarities, the set
up of the two e7periments is radically different2 For the two glo5es thought e7periment
ta6es place at a le!el of idealiAation far remo!ed from the 5uc6et e7periment2 8here the
latter attempted to indirectly support the dynamics of the Principia, the former draws out
the implicit conse4uences of the theory going far 5eyond anything that Newton might
claim to ha!e witnessed himself2 *s such the two 5alls thought e7periment is part of a
hoary tradition of e7amining the logical conse4uences of empirical theories under
impossi5ly idealiAed conditions2 To such theoretical e7trapolations one might raise any
num5er of o50ections E as indeed Mach does2 Such o50ections, howe!er, will necessarily
5e different in 6ind from the simple non sequitur of which Newton has 5een accused,
and, as Mach saw, would apply with e4ual success or failure to !ast swaths of scientific
Descartes, C2 <>3,..? 3+B.=, Principles of Philosophy2 Trans2 J2 C2 Miller and C2 P2
Miller2 Dordrecht: D2 Ceidel2
9arman, J2 <3+B+=, World Enough and Space-Time !bsolute and "elational Theories of
Space and Time2 "am5ridge, Mass2: M#T Press2
Daymon, C2 <3+-B=, “Newton’s )uc6et 97periment”, #ournal of the $istory of
Philosophy 3,, @++&.3@2
Mach, 92 <>3+%B? 3+B+=, The Science of Mechanics, si7th edition with re!isions through
the ninth edition2 Trans2 Thomas J2 Mc"ormac62 DaSalle, #llinois: (pen "ourt
Nagel, 92 <3+,3=, The Structure of Science2 New Gor6: 'arcourt, )race and 8orld2
Newton, #2 <>3,,BH? 3+,$=, “De gra!itatione2” #n %npublished Scientific Papers of &saac
'e(ton, ed2 *2 C2 'all and M2 )2 'all2 "am5ridge: "am5ridge ni!ersity Press2
&&&&&2 <>3-$,? 3+++=, The Principia Mathematical Principles of 'atural Philosophy, ed
and trans2 #2 )2 "ohen and *nne 8hitman2 )er6eley: ni!ersity of "alifornia Press2
Ceichen5ach, '2 <3+/-= Space and Time2 New Gor6: Do!er2
CynasiewicA, C2 <3++/a=, “)y Their Properties, "auses and 9ffects: Newton’s Scholium
on Time, Space, Place and Motion E #2 The Te7t”, Studies in the $istory of Philosophy
of Science $,:3, 3@@&3/@2
&&&&&2 <3++/5=, “)y Their Properties, "auses and 9ffects: Newton’s Scholium on Time,
Space, Place and Motion E ##2 The "onte7t”, Studies in the $istory of Philosophy of
Science $,:$, $+/&@$32

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