god and natural philosophy 279

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2000 Early Science and Medicine 5, 3
Indiana University
In reading Dr. Andrew Cunningham’s forceful reply to my article,
I have great difficulty in recognizing myself. It seems that I am a
kind of troglodyte, out of step and out of touch with the world of
progressive historians, who have re-arranged the world as I slept.
Moreover, I find little connection between what I said and what I
am alleged to have said. And, finally, let me say that Dr. Cunning-
ham has skillfully turned this discussion into a debate on the large
issues concerning the nature of history. So be it.
But Dr. Cunningham also feels aggrieved. He says that I have ig-
nored “his substantive work” in which he believes that he has made
much of his case. For example, I did not “assess the arguments or
the evidence” he adduced in his book, Before Science, “the only his-
torical book on the nature of natural philosophy yet produced,
and equally the only book which deals with the origins of any
version of natural philosophy.” Did he and his colleague Roger
French make their case for the Dominican and Franciscan versions
of natural philosophy? And “similarly, with respect to Isaac New-
ton and his book The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,
have I,” Cunningham asks, “produced a satisfactory account, built
on his own words and intentions, of why he should have named
his famous book in this way, and what he intended thereby?” “On
all these matters of empirical research on my part,” laments Dr.
Cunningham, “Grant says not a word.” Let me now say a word: No,
I do not think Dr. Cunningham has made his case for either the
Friars or Newton. But I plead guilty to the charges, with mitigating
circumstances. After all, I was writing an article, not a book, and
could not possibly consider all these matters and still present the
case I wished to make. I shall try to make amends here on those
two issues.
One major accusation against me is that I misinterpreted Dr.
Cunningham’s intent. He says that “‘natural philosophy was about
God and His creation’ can be interpreted in many ways, and Grant
explores some of them. But he does so while ignoring the sense in
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which I obviously mean it. For the published examples I have given
make perfectly clear the meaning I intend.” Since Dr. Cunning-
ham does not specify any examples, or give references to any, I am
ignorant of the examples he has in mind. But in my article, I gave
only one citation as the basis of my interpretation. I will now cite
a few more, so that readers can judge for themselves if I have ig-
nored the sense Dr. Cunningham “obviously” intended. I present
them in the order in which they occur in his article, “How the
Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously”.
In the first, he explains that
over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy
off from modern science. . . natural philosophy was about God and about
God’s universe. Indeed, this was the central pillar of its identity as a discipline,
both with respect to its subject-matter and to its goals, its purposes, and the
functions it served. This is what, more than anything else, distinguishes it
from our modern science.
In the second passage, Cunningham declares
If we were to start to take natural philosophy seriously, as the God-centred
study of nature that it was for the people who conducted it (rather than as
some study of nature which was struggling to be objective and to free itself
from the fetters of religion, or as some odd amalgam of ‘science’ and reli-
gion or of ‘science’ and theology) then certain consequences would follow
for us, and for the conduct of our historical research.
And, finally, toward the end of his article, Cunningham elaborates
further that
The point is that natural philosophy as such was a discipline and subject-area
whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.
Thus, no-one ever undertook the practice of natural philosophy without
having God in mind, and knowing that the study of God and God’s crea-
tion—in a way different from that pursued by theology—was the point of
the whole exercise. All natural philosophy was always like this; when people
stopped having this understanding of their goal in their considerations of
nature then they necessarily stopped doing natural philosophy, and started
engaging in a discipline or enquiry which was, in this most fundamental of
ways, different in its identity from natural philosophy.
Dr. Cunningham does not mince his words. He states his position
with vigor and seeming clarity. He tells us that “natural philoso-
phy was about God and about God’s universe”; that we should “start
Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural
Philosophy Seriously,” History of Science 29 (1991), 377-392.
Ibid., 381.
Ibid., 386.
Ibid., 388.
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god and natural philosophy 281
to take natural philosophy seriously, as the God-centred study of
nature that it was for the people who conducted it”; and again:
The point is that natural philosophy as such was a discipline and subject-area
whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.
Thus, no-one ever undertook the practice of natural philosophy without
having God in mind, and knowing that the study of God and God’s crea-
tion—in a way different from that pursued by theology—was the point of
the whole exercise.
Perhaps such remarks may apply to some authors in the seven-
teenth century, but they simply will not do for the late Middle
Ages, as I have shown in my article. Dr. Cunningham says that
natural philosophy was not theology, but was “the study of God’s
creation and God’s attributes.” It may have been the study of
God’s creation, which is not very illuminating, but it was certainly
not the study of His attributes during the Middle Ages, when God’s
attributes were exclusively under the jurisdiction of theology. And
while it may have been the study of God’s creation, God played
virtually no role in natural philosophy except in the ways I have
described in my article.
Dr. Cunningham finds fault with my methods of determining
the role that religion played in natural philosophy. Although I
carefully analyzed 310 questions and found the role of religion
negligible, Cunningham ignores my analysis, neither accepting
nor refuting it. Instead, he attacks my methodology. I am criticized
for doing what he would not do, namely base my arguments on
what medieval natural philosophers actually said, or did not say,
about religion and faith in their commentaries and questions on
Aristotle’s texts. Hence I declare that “When they write about God
and faith, then that segment of their writings is about God and the
faith. But when there is no mention of God and faith, or allusions
to them, then it is not about God and faith.” I thought that this
was a far better method than Cunningham’s, which was to ignore
the texts completely and generalize on the basis of intuition or
imagination. I sought to determine the real nature of medieval
texts in natural philosophy. But Cunningham says “this is not an
adequate way of assessing the matter, for it interprets the ‘about’
question only in the narrowest sense.” Although he allows that one
sense of the text is “content”, “another is its wider meaning,” and
so on, it is quite obvious from his reactions to my results that
The passage that appears in my Festschrift article is cited below.
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Cunningham is not interested in content. Indeed, he says of my
approach that “counting of mentions of particular word frequen-
cies is a very crude instrument”—but offers nothing better than a
vague “wider meaning,” which he never explains in terms of spe-
cific medieval discussions of natural philosophy. Cunningham’s
approach may be characterized as “context over text,” perhaps
even “context without text.” Perhaps this explains why, in both his
relevant article and in his book (Before Science), he does not enter
into a discussion of natural philosophy, but talks around it.
Dr. Cunningham is also disturbed by the fact that I said “we can-
not know what was in the minds of medieval or early modern natu-
ral philosophers as they wrote their treatises” and that such mat-
ters are better left to psychohistorians. From this, he infers that I
am a naïve, narrow historian. But there is a clearly suppressed
premise here. We cannot know what they are thinking unless they
give us some clear indication of their thoughts, or we have infor-
mation from some other source. In the scholastic literature of
natural philosophy, this rarely occurs. Nevertheless, Cunningham
accuses me of contradicting myself by the judgment I rendered on
Jordanus de Nemore’s treatise On the Theory of Weights, which I
categorize as a scientific treatise. In rendering this judgment, Cun-
ningham feels that “it is not legitimate for us to label the state-
ments or the treatise as ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ while at the same
time claiming that we are saying nothing about what was in Jorda-
nus’s mind. If we are (as Grant is doing) judging Jordanus’s work
to be scientific, then we are claiming that he was practising
science.” I made no such claim. I only concluded that Jordanus’s
treatise deserved to be categorized as scientific solely on the basis
of its subject matter, external structure, and formalism. I com-
pared it to a work of Einstein’s, that all agree is a treatise in sci-
ence, and judged that it was so structurally similar that it too de-
served to be considered a scientific treatise. It was I who labeled it
scientific, not Jordanus. And I have no idea what was in Jordanus’s
mind when he wrote his treatise, or what he thought he was
But I am confident that most scholars would regard the Jorda-
nian treatises on the science of weights as legitimate science. In
1952, Ernest Moody and Marshall Clagett edited eight of these re-
markable treatises under the title The Medieval Science of Weights
(Scientia de ponderibus). Those who believe it is anachronistic, or
whiggish, to speak of science in the Middle Ages, and who deny
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god and natural philosophy 283
that we can speak of anything like a science with regard to physics,
would do well to read the introductions by Moody and Clagett in
this little known study. Moody and Clagett explain that
Ernst Mach, in his Science of Mechanics, distinguishes four basic principles
proper to statics: (1) the general lever principle; (2) the inclined plane prin-
ciple; (3) the principle of composition of forces; and (4) the principle of
virtual displacements. The statics of Archimedes, which steered clear of all
entanglements with dynamics, attained only the first of these principles; the
other three, involving dynamical considerations, characterize modern stat-
ics. In the treatises ascribed to Jordanus de Nemore, however, these last
three principles appear, and provide a dynamical foundation for the proof
of the lever principle.
Treatises in the medieval science of weights (scientia de ponderibus)
played a role in developments in statics in sixteenth century Italy
where they were known to authors like Guidobaldi del Monte,
Jerome Cardano, Niccolo Tartaglia, Benedetti, and Galileo. There
is simply no warrant for denying scientific status to these treatises,
which would constitute a legitimate part of any proper history of
mathematical physics. Indeed, Euclid’s Optics; Archimedes’s On
the Equilibrium of Planes; Ptolemy’s Almagest; and Jordanus’s trea-
tises on statics reveal that the rigorous mathematical form of the
exact sciences was laid down in antiquity and the Middle Ages
(also see the section on Newton, below). If these treatises do not
meet Dr. Cunningham’s criteria for science, then he ought to tell
us what does. Moreover, since the treatises just mentioned are not
properly classifiable as natural philosophy, and Dr. Cunningham
denies that they can be categorized as science, then what are they?
Thus I claim that we cannot know what was in the mind of a me-
dieval natural philosopher unless we are given some definite clues.
But if I do claim to know what was in the mind of an author, I will
give concrete evidence for my claim. I would not simply assert it,
as Cunningham does, when he declares that
natural philosophy was not just ‘about God’ and His creation at those mo-
ments when natural philosophers were explicitly talking or writing about
God in their natural philosophical works or activities. It was, by contrast,
‘about God’ and His creation the whole time.
Ernest A. Moody and Marshall Clagett, eds. and transl. The Medieval Science
of Weights (Scientia de ponderibus), Treatises Ascribed to Euclid, Archimedes, Thabit ibn
Qurra, Jordanus de Nemore and Blasius of Parma (Madison, 1952), 15.
Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name, 388. I cited this passage in
the first paragraph of my John D. North Festschrift article.
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open forum 284
There is no justification for Cunningham’s claim that natural phi-
losophers were really thinking exclusively about God, even when
they make no mention of religion or the faith, and where the
content of their discussions is purely secular! There are innumer-
able other thoughts that might have entered their minds and
caught their attention. But even if they were always thinking about
God, we must then ponder why they chose to ignore Him in 70%
of the 310 questions I examined, and speak so sparingly of Him in
the remaining 30%.
It is important to take a closer look at the way God is often cited
in treatises on natural philosophy. Since all believed that God was
the creator of the world from nothing and the ultimate cause of
all natural effects, stating this in a treatise on natural philosophy
was unilluminating and rather formulaic. One did not have to
argue for it or offer evidence. Some natural philosophers asserted
these formulaic statements somewhere in their treatises, while oth-
ers did not. But they had no more effect on the substantive con-
tent of the natural philosophy in those treatises than did the words
“In the Name of God the Compassionate and Merciful,”
or simi-
lar sentiments, customarily included by Muslim scholars at the
beginning of a treatise, or at the beginning and end of individual
books within a treatise.
Adopting the “context over text” approach, which is clearly Dr.
Cunningham’s preferred tool of historical interpretation, we
should place assertions by Christian natural philosophers that God
is the creator of the world from nothing, and is the ultimate cause
of all effects, within the context of the whole treatise. We would
then readily observe that the impact of such assertions on the sub-
stantive content of the entire treatise is virtually nil.
In the third quotation cited above, Cunningham seems to con-
tradict himself. “Thus, no-one ever undertook the practice of natu-
ral philosophy,” he declares, “without having God in mind, and
knowing that the study of God and God’s creation—in a way dif-
ferent from that pursued by theology—was the point of the whole
exercise.” Here he says that natural philosophy studied God in
ways that are different than the ways pursued in theology. But
earlier, in the same article, he says that it is pointless to discuss the
See p. 258 of my John D. North Festschrift article.
For an example, see A. I. Sabra, The “Optics” of Ibn al-Haytham, 2 vols. (Lon-
don, 1989), 1: 3.
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god and natural philosophy 285
mutual relations of religion, or theology, and natural philosophy
because they depend for their validity on religion and natural philosophy
having been seen as separate from each other in the past as religion and
science are seen as being today.
Here Cunningham obviously means to say that we are mistaken to
view religion and natural philosophy as having been separate in
the past, as they are in the present. Which opinion does he hold?
Was the study of God in the past pursued differently in natural
philosophy and theology; or were theology and natural philosophy
Cunningham has a simple approach: In the Middle Ages, reli-
gion, or theology, and natural philosophy were not viewed as sepa-
rate, in contrast to the modern world where religion and science
(the latter viewed as the replacement of, and successor to, natural
philosophy) are seen as distinct. But as I have argued in my article
and in many places, theology and natural philosophy were distinct
disciplines and, contrary to Cunningham’s claim, were indeed
“seen as separate” throughout the Middle Ages. But the separation
between them had already occurred a few centuries earlier, in Is-
lam. We see it in the struggle between the philosophers (falasifa),
who followed Aristotle, and their rivals, the mutakallimun. The
mutakallimun and the philosophers made much use of Greek
philosophy. The mutakallimun, however, were primarily con-
cerned with the Kalam, which, according to A. I. Sabra, is “an in-
quiry into God, and into the world as God’s creation, and into man
as the special creature placed by God in the world under obliga-
tion to his creator.”
Thus Kalam is a theology that used Greek
philosophical ideas to explicate and defend the Islamic faith. By
contrast, Islamic natural philosophers followed rational Greek
thought, especially the thought of Aristotle. They placed greatest
reliance on reasoned argument while downplaying revelation. The
philosophers sought to develop natural philosophy in an Islamic
environment—and did so, “often in the face of suspicion and
opposition from certain quarters in Islamic society”
—just as
Christian natural philosophers developed Aristotelian natural phi-
losophy in a Christian environment.
Cunningham, “How the Principia Got its Name,” 382.
A.. I. Sabra, “Science and Philosophy in Medieval Islamic Theology,” in
Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 9 (1994), 5.
Ibid., 3.
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Before I move on to the two issues slighted in my article, I
should like to reply briefly to the historical continuity/discontinu-
ity problem, which Cunningham disparages. “Continuity versus dis-
continuity,” he regards as “an old battle which may not be worth
fighting any longer;” it is “a misplaced concept.” Not when histo-
rians reject the concept. It then becomes essential to fight the
battle. For if history, including the history of science, is not re-
garded as continuous, then history will be little more than a se-
quence of incommensurable, unrelated, quantized, temporal pack-
ets. Instead of regarding a ship driven by wind-power two thousand
years ago as a precursor of modern nuclear powered ships, we
would foolishly conclude that they lack an historical connection;
instead of regarding the invention of the alphabet nearly four
thousand years ago as the move that ultimately made possible the
messages sent round the world in an instant by email on the
internet, we would offer arguments to show that they are really
unrelated. History is akin to the relationship between the human
embryo and the full-blown adult. The latter comes from the
former by a complex, lengthy process, though one would never
deduce that from their appearances. We can always find reasons
to distinguish things, but the historian knows that appearances are
frequently deceiving. New things and innovations occur all the
time, but they are connected to what went before. They do not
spring into being like Athena, from the head of Zeus. We ignore
these innumerable connections, and become fashionably icono-
clastic, at our peril.
Dr. Cunningham is disturbed by the fact that I ignored his dis-
cussion about “the Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy”
and also ignored his discussion of Newton’s Mathematical Principles
of Natural Philosophy. As for the Friars, I do not think they invented
natural philosophy, or even a particular natural philosophy. No
scholars in the Middle Ages thought so, because they were con-
vinced that Aristotle’s natural books constituted the essence and
core of natural philosophy. Why did they think they were doing
natural philosophy when they wrote questiones and commentaries
on Aristotle’s natural books? Obviously, because they thought Ar-
istotle was doing natural philosophy. And what do French and
Cunningham think Averroes was doing when, in the twelfth cen-
tury, prior to the Friars, he wrote his extensive commentaries on
Aristotle’s natural books? Do they wish to argue that none of this
was natural philosophy? How could anyone, or any group, in the
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god and natural philosophy 287
thirteenth century, invent what had already been invented, and
been around for at least 1500 years? It follows therefore that by
using Aristotle’s natural philosophy to defeat the Cathars, the Fri-
ars could not have created natural philosophy, as French and
Cunningham say (see p.141). They were simply using Aristotle’s
substantively unaltered natural philosophy in defense of the faith.
But even in this, the Friars did not invent a new approach, since
they were anticipated by the Islamic mutakallimun (see above),
among whom the Mu’tazilites, in the ninth century, deliberately
used Greek logic and natural philosophy—that is, reason—to con-
front non-Muslims and heretics in the service of theology and re-
The appropriation of Aristotelian natural philosophy by the
Friars to combat heresy had no detectable influence on the con-
tent or methodology of natural philosophy. The fact that the Friars
viewed the world as created and Aristotle did not had little impact
on the doing of Aristotelian natural philosophy; nor was Aristotle’s
physis, or natural philosophy, Christianized, as French and Cun-
ningham claim (Before Science, p. 140). In short, the way the Friars
did natural philosophy failed to influence the way that discipline
was taught and written about in the arts faculties of the late Middle
In support of their argument for a Friars’ natural philosophy,
French and Cunningham make much of such great thirteenth-
century figures as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Ba-
con, and John Pecham. But they ignore the specific treatises,
which Albertus, Aquinas, and Bacon wrote on Aristotle’s natural
books. In my article in the North Festschrift (pp. 250-257), I care-
fully examined their treatises on natural philosophy and found
that they had virtually nothing about God and the faith in those
works. And, despite the alleged importance of the works on per-
spective by Bacon and Pecham in the Friars’ natural philosophy, I
found that religion and faith were virtually excluded from those
works. Moreover, I also quoted passages from Albertus Magnus to
the effect that theological issues were to be treated in theological
treatises and not in treatises dealing with Aristotle’s natural phi-
losophy. A similar sentiment was uttered by Thomas Aquinas when
he proclaimed: “I don’t see what one’s interpretation of the text
See W. Montgomery Watt, Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazali (Edin-
burgh, 1963), 28-29; and Joseph Schacht with C. E. Bosworth, eds., The Legacy of
Islam, 2
ed., (Oxford, 1974), 354.
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open forum 288
of Aristotle has to do with the teaching of the faith.”
One can
readily understand why Dr. Cunningham chose to ignore those
pages of my article.
We should keep in mind an important, inherent, structural fea-
ture of natural philosophy, namely the difficulty of injecting the-
ology into explanations of natural phenomena. Whenever a theo-
logical explanation is given in natural philosophy, it converts what
should have been a natural explanation to a supernatural expla-
nation and, consequently, defeats the very purpose of a treatise on
natural philosophy, which is to explain phenomena by natural
causes. If this were done to any considerable extent, the treatise
in question would no longer be a work in natural philosophy, but
would have been converted to one on supernatural philosophy, or
theology, or perhaps a treatise on natural theology. Conversely,
the more natural philosophy you introduce into theology, the less
concerned with the supernatural does it become, as clearly oc-
curred in late medieval theology. Everyone seems to have implic-
itly recognized this in the Middle Ages. That is why various Popes
criticized the theologians for ignoring the study of the Bible in
favor of philosophical problems and why John Major, in the six-
teenth century, could declare, in his commentary on the Sentences
of Peter Lombard, that “for some two centuries now, theologians
have not feared to work into their writings, questions which are
purely physical, metaphysical, and sometimes purely mathemati-
The boundaries between theology and natural philosophy
were, however, rarely blurred beyond recognition. What I have
said here bears on what I shall say about Newton, to whom I now
turn in order to consider Dr. Cunningham’s analysis of the title of
his great work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In
his study, Dr. Cunningham sought to determine how Newton’s
choice of that title affects our understanding of natural philoso-
phy and its relation, if any, to modern science.
By the seventeenth century, the disciplinary boundaries between
theology and natural philosophy no longer existed. One could
indeed discourse about God in natural philosophy. But how would
discoursing about God advance natural philosophy? It would not
and could not. When Sir Isaac Newton, a devout individual who
See my North article, pp. 252 and 257 and n.53.
For these claims, see Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the
Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1996), 152, and 212 n.22.
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god and natural philosophy 289
was immersed in religious thought, wrote his monumental treatise
in mathematical physics, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Phi-
losophy, first published in 1687, he found occasion to mention God
only once in the entire work, in book three. And yet Cunningham
declares that Newton’s “natural philosophy was obsessed with
What a strange obsession, where the obsessed displays vir-
tually no symptoms of his obsession!
Apparently regretting even this action, Newton deleted mention
of God from that passage in subsequent editions.
As if in replace-
ment of that passage, Newton added his famous General Scholium
to the end of the second edition (1713). In a work of 530 pages,
Newton saw fit to discourse upon God only in the last four pages,
where he praises the deity as the Universal Ruler and Supreme
God, and enunciates some of God’s attributes. Coming to the end
of his encomium on the deity, Newton declares: “And thus much
concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of
things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”
In the Mid-
dle Ages, when theology and natural philosophy were separate
disciplines, it was the responsibility of theology, not natural phi-
losophy, to discourse about God. But the Protestant Reformation
and much else had destroyed the jurisdictional boundaries be-
tween theology and natural philosophy. When Newton wrote, it
was regarded as wholly appropriate for a natural philosopher to
discourse about God. And yet Newton found few places where he
could do so substantively and effectively. Other than singing the
praises of the deity, Newton found very little to say about God.
Indeed, even the General Scholium was introduced only because of
criticisms leveled against Newton’s use of attractions and
repulsions, which made his system seem mechanical, much like
that of Descartes.
Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name,” 381.
On this, see I. Bernard Cohen, Introduction to Newton’s ‘Principia’ (Cam-
bridge, 1971), 155.
The translation is from Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural
Philosophy and His System of the World, translated into English by Andrew Motte in
1729. The translations revised, and supplied with an historical and explanatory
appendix, by Florian Cajori (Berkeley, 1947), 543-547 for the Scholium and 546
for the lines quoted above.
See Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge,
1980), 744, where Westfall explains that Newton wrote the General Scholium, be-
cause “Newton and Newtonians were highly aware of the mounting tide of criti-
cism of his natural philosophy and its concepts of attractions and replusions. . . .”
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open forum 290
In the General Scholium, Newton emphasizes that only God could
have produced the cosmos. “Blind metaphysical necessity, which
is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no
variety of things.”
But after the conclusion of his worshipful trib-
ute to God, Newton, in the final two paragraphs of his great work,
admits that he has not yet found the cause of gravity. It is enough
for us, he says, “that gravity does really exist, and act according to
the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to ac-
count for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.”
Why did Newton not attribute the cause of gravity to God? It would
almost have followed from the immediately preceding three-page
discourse on God’s power and attributes, as his brilliant biogra-
pher, Richard S. Westfall, recognized.
But Newton did not do so.
Why not? Probably because he was well aware that such an expla-
nation would have been to no avail. It would have explained noth-
ing. If you believe, as Newton did, that God has created our world
and all of its operations, then you cannot invoke God to function
as an explanation for the cause of any particular effect. You must
assume that God provided a natural cause for that effect, and it is
the task of the natural philosopher to discover it. Theologians and
natural philosophers, many of whom were both theologian and
natural philosopher, recognized this essential feature of natural
philosophy. It explains why, from the Middle Ages onward, natu-
ral philosophy remained relatively free of theological encroach-
ments. And it also makes it quite plausible to believe that natural
philosophy is the real precursor of modern science. Its methods
were rational and systematic by the very nature of the discipline.
Theology and faith could not enter it in any significant manner
because to do so would transform natural philosophy into super-
natural philosophy, natural theology, or theology.
Before leaving this section. Let me consider further Newton’s
statement in his General Scholium that I cited in the preceding
paragraph, namely his assertion that “Blind metaphysical necessity,
which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce
no variety of things.” Only God can produce a cosmos, not “blind
metaphysical necessity.” Along similar lines, Albert Einstein de-
clared that scientists can only marvel at
General Scholium, p. 546 (Cajori translation).
General Scholium, p. 547 (Cajori translation).
Westfall, Never at Rest, 748.
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god and natural philosophy 291
the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superior-
ity that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human
beings is utterly insignificant. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life
and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of
selfish desire.
Cunningham would have us believe that when Newton makes such
remarks, they reveal that he, and all other natural philosophers,
indicate unambiguously that their natural philosophy is about God
and that “no-one ever undertook the practice of natural philoso-
phy without having God in mind,” which, after all, “was the point
of the whole exercise” (p. 388). But Cunningham argues that “the
exact opposite is true about modern science,” (p. 382) because
“modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as
God’s creation,” and this “is so basic to our understanding of
modern science that it only needs to be mentioned if someone
transgresses this understanding” (pp. 382-383). But Einstein’s dec-
laration, cited a few lines earlier, says that our harmonious natural
laws reveal a superior intelligence, God, who is the guiding princi-
ple of a scientist’s life and work, and therefore of Einstein’s life
and work. Are we not, then, entitled to infer—contrary to Cun-
ningham’s claim that religious beliefs for scientists “are supposed
to be irrelevant to their science”—that God played as much of a
role in Einstein’s modern scientific achievements, as He did in
Newton’s achievements in natural philosophy? Einstein does not
have to mention God in his actual work, no more than did
Jordanus de Nemore, or Newton himself in the actual scientific
parts of the Principia. For all these individuals, God may lie in the
background as Creator, or perhaps simply as inspiration, but He
does not enter into the content of their works, or affect it, because
that would have proved futile. But, I suspect, this is an unwelcome
and inconvenient inference for Dr. Cunningham, because it
breaks down his rigid separation of natural philosophy and mod-
ern science, and destroys the opposite, absolutist symmetry he
wishes to create: God wholly in for natural philosophy; God wholly
out for modern science.
But now we must inquire about Newton’s objective in his great
work. In judging what Newton was really doing in his Mathematical
Principles of Natural Philosophy, we must not be misled by the title.
Newton might have used one of two medieval and early modern
synonyms for natural philosophy, say “natural science” (scientia
Cited in my article in the North Festschrift, p. 245.
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open forum 292
naturalis), or “physics” (physica), to produce, respectively, the titles
“Mathematical Principles of Natural Science” and “Mathematical
Principles of Physics.” Would such moves have transformed New-
ton ipso facto from a natural philosopher to a “natural scientist” or
a “physicist”? Of course not. Moreover, was Newton applying
mathematical principles to natural philosophy and therefore con-
sciously mathematizing natural philosophy; or was he doing some-
thing else?
In the Middle Ages, it was a commonly accepted notion that
natural philosophy and mathematics were distinct subjects and
that when mathematics was applied to elements of natural philoso-
phy, a different kind of theoretical knowledge emerged, called a
“middle science” (media scientia), which is the equivalent of an
exact science. The exact sciences of astronomy, optics, and statics
were middle sciences. The term “middle science” was not custom-
arily used to categorize a science; and the term “scientist,” as
Cunningham observes, was, apparently, not invented or coined
until 1833.
What Newton was really doing, however, should not
be obscured by the choice of any of these terms. A glance at the
530 pages of the Principia instantly reveals that Newton is doing
physics, mathematical physics. One does not have to resort to
mental gymnastics about the real meaning of the expression “natu-
ral philosophy.” And surely we ought not to believe that because
the term “science” did not come into common use until the nine-
teenth century, any activity we would want to call science could not
have occurred prior to that date.
But we need not rely on speculative debates about what Newton
was really doing. He enlightens us himself, though not as much as
we would like. In a letter to Halley on 20 June 1686, Newton in-
forms Halley that he will suppress the third book, in which he
applied mathematics and dynamics to celestial bodies, including
comets. He was fearful that book three would involve him in con-
troversy. For as he explains: “Philosophy is such an impertinently
litigious Lady that a man had as good be engaged in Law suits as
have to do with her. I found it so formerly & now I no sooner
come near her again but she gives me warning.” And then in a
revealing passage, Newton explains that
See Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name,” 390, n. 10. The intro-
duction of the term “scientist” is discussed by Sidney Ross, “Scientist: the story of
a word,” Annals of Science, 18 (1962), 65-85.
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god and natural philosophy 293
The first two books without the third will not so well bear the title of
Philosophiae naturalis Principia Mathematica & therefore I had altered it to
this De motu corporum libri duo: but upon second thoughts I retain the
former title. Twill help the sale of the book which I ought not to diminish
now tis yours.
In this remarkable letter, Newton acknowledges that the title,
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, was not really appropri-
ate for the first two books without the third, and so was prepared
to call it Two Books on the Motion of Bodies. Newton was well aware
that the first two books were simply too mathematical to qualify as
natural philosophy, and hence could not be titled: Two Books on
Natural Philosophy. But Newton was willing to retain the title be-
cause the book would sell better! Thus it was not because he
thought he was doing natural philosophy that Newton retained the
title, as Cunningham would have it, but because book sales would
undoubtedly be better than if the book were titled Two Books on
the Motion of Bodies.
But Halley was unhappy about Newton’s decision and ultimately
convinced Newton to retain the third book. What was Halley con-
cerned about? He was fearful that without Book III, only math-
ematically competent individuals would be able to read Newton’s
book, but “those that will call themselves philosophers without
Mathematicks, which are by far the greater number,”
would be
unable to do so. Newton’s third book is also heavily mathematical
and hardly qualifies as natural philosophy, although it more nearly
does, as Newton rightly saw, than the first two books. The third
book concerns celestial mechanics and cosmology and would cer-
tainly, as Halley foresaw, have had more appeal to interested read-
ers than the first two forbiddingly mathematical books. But it is far
too mathematical and dynamical to qualify as traditional natural
philosophy. Thus the argument that Newton was not doing natu-
ral philosophy in the Principia gains credence from Newton him-
self. It is obvious from the letter that Newton thought the first two
books did not qualify as natural philosophy and gave them the title
De motu corporum libri duo. He then explains to Halley that “upon
second thoughts I retain the former title. Twill help the sale of the
Cited from I. Bernard Cohen, Introduction to Newton’s ‘Principia’, 133. Cohen
cites the passage from H. W. Turnbull, ed., The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 2:
1676-87 (Cambridge, 1960), 437. The full relevant passage is also cited by
Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name,” 378.
Cohen, ibid.
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book which I ought not to diminish now tis yours.” Thus we may
rightly infer, from his own explicit statement, that although New-
ton went along with the title Philosophiae naturalis Principia
Mathematica, he did so only to aid his friend Halley to sell more
books. He plainly did not regard the title as appropriate for the
three-book treatise, since the first two books did not qualify as
natural philosophy. Dr. Cunnningham cites the same passage in
his article that I have cited and even briefly discusses it (pp. 378-
379), but he overlooked, or chose to ignore, the enormous import
of Newton’s remarks with regard to the title of his great work. In
this instance, Dr. Cunningham would have been well advised to
follow his instincts and emphasize context over text, instead of
mistakenly upholding the literal text of the title and ignoring
Newton’s clear and unambiguous qualifications and reservations
about that title. But rather than interpret Newton’s remarks as
“context over text,” one might with equal plausibility view it as a
battle of two texts, one clearly taking precedence over the other—
Newton’s statement to Halley subverting the title Newton ulti-
mately chose for his great work.
When Newton temporarily eliminated the title that included
natural philosophy, the only name he proposed is Two Books on the
Motion of Bodies. He did not suggest Two Books on Science, perhaps
because that would have sounded too much Like Galileo’s Two
New Sciences, or Two Books on Physics, or Two Books on Mathematical
Physics, or Two Books on Physical Science, or Two Books on Natural
Science, and so on. Why not? Because they may not have occurred
to him, probably because such titles were not customarily used to
describe what he was doing. Hence he saw his choices either as
natural philosophy, a generic title that was in common use and
would be recognized by everyone as applicable to the physical
world, or he would have to devise a specifically descriptive title like
Two Books on the Motion of Bodies, which, although it was an accurate
depiction of the content of the books, would be difficult to sell.
Despite the title of his treatise, Newton knew that he was doing
something different from natural philosophy in the first two
books. And speaking of titles, what was Galileo doing in a treatise
he called Two New Sciences (Due nuove scienze)? From whence did he
get the term science? Does this make the Two New Sciences a scien-
tific treatise? Should we infer that, by virtue of the titles of their
respective treatises, Galileo was a “scientist” and Newton a “natu-
ral philosopher”? And if Galileo is to be regarded as a scientist,
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god and natural philosophy 295
ought we to classify him as a “modern” scientist, or a “pre-modern”
However Newton may have titled his great work, we must get be-
hind the terms he used and see what he was actually doing. We
should not be confused or misled by names and titles. They are
important, but they must not be taken so rigidly as to obscure the
real significance of what is being done. Whether Newton was do-
ing things that are truly representable by the terms science or phys-
ics is analogous to that of Aristotle and the term logic. No one re-
ally contests the claim that Aristotle is the founder, and even in-
ventor, of formal syllogistic logic. But Aristotle did not use the
name “logic.” He called what he was doing “analytics.” It was five
centuries later that Alexander of Aphrodisias applied the term
logic to what Aristotle did.
Does this mean that by using the term
“analytics” instead of logic, Aristotle was not really doing logic, but
something called “analytics”? Of course not. And just as Aristotle’s
analytics and logic are identical, so also is the content of Newton’s
Principia the same as physics, perhaps even modern physics—de-
spite being called natural philosophy. Similarly, Aristotle did not
use the term biology, which was not invented until the nineteenth
century, but does anyone doubt that Aristotle was doing biology
when he wrote On the Parts of Animals, The Generation of Animals,
and the History of Animals?
The terms that are used to describe activities must be treated
with great caution, because they sometimes mask and obscure
what lies beneath. On this matter, perhaps it is well to be guided
by the wise words of Juliet (Romeo and Juliet [2.1]), who rightly
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Cunningham, unfortunately, falls into the name trap. Indeed, he
mistakenly believes that natural philosophy is an amorphous disci-
pline by comparison with modern science. To show this, he de-
clares that “From a modern point of view. . . there is indeed some-
thing remarkable about a discipline (natural philosophy) which
included both physics and the soul—and everything in between.
Such an extension is not shared by any modern division of knowl-
See W. D.Ross, Aristotle, Fifth edition revised (London: Methuen & Co.,
1949), p.20.
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May I suggest that Dr. Cunningham try the modern word
science. Under that term we find psychology, astronomy, optics,
biology with all its subdivisions, mineralogy, entomology, neurol-
ogy, medicine, including psychiatry,—the modern analog to Aris-
totle’s De anima and its treatment of the soul—ophthalmology,
physics with all its subdivisions, geology, oceanography, meteorol-
ogy, perhaps chiropractic, and many others, some with rather
dubious credentials. If natural philosophy encompasses everything
from the soul to physics, modern science embraces everything that
lies between the human mind and the outermost reaches of our
universe. The range of disciplines to which the term science ap-
plies greatly exceeds the number encompassed by natural philoso-
phy. Science is plainly more amorphous than natural philosophy.
But if Newton was doing natural philosophy it was in a special
way. If Dr. Cunningham had pursued the use of the term natural
philosophy beyond Newton and into the nineteenth century, he
might have found some startling usages that subvert his thesis. For
example, in 1845-1846, Dickinson College issued a catalogue
which explained that
Natural philosophy may be considered as the science which examines the
general and permanent properties of bodies; the laws which govern them,
and the reciprocal action which these bodies are capable of exerting upon
each other, at greater or less distances, without changing their matter.
And under the rubric of natural philosophy we find quite an array
of sciences. At Dickinson College and elsewhere in the mid-nine-
teenth century, natural philosophy included mechanics, hydrostat-
ics, hydrodynamics, hydraulics, pneumatics, acoustics, optics, as-
tronomy, electricity, galvanism, magnetism, and chromatics.
if we turn to John William Frederick Herschel’s Preliminary Dis-
course on the Study of Natural Philosophy, first published in 1830, we
can add crystallography and chemistry.
In the early 1860s,
William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) (1824-1907) and Peter Guthrie
Tait published a work under the title Treatise on Natural Philosophy,
Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name,” 381-382.
Quoted from Stanley Guralnick, Science and the Ante-Bellum American College
(Philadelphia, 1975), Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 109, p. 60.
Also cited in Grant, Foundations, 193.
Guralnick, ibid., 61.
John William Frederick Herschel, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natu-
ral Philosophy. A Facsimile of the 1830 edition with a new Introduction by Michael
Partridge. (= The Sources of Science 17) (New York, 1966), 7.
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god and natural philosophy 297
which consisted of two volumes on kinematics and dynamics.
Jed Buchwald explains, in this Treatise on Natural Philosophy,
“Thomson and Tait presented in full the kinematics of point par-
ticles and the dynamics of motion under force; they placed heavy
emphasis upon the dynamics of material media; and they made
detailed use both of Lagrangean mechanics and the conservation
of energy.” Buchwald concludes that “The Treatise on Natural Phi-
losophy introduced a new generation of British and American physi-
cal scientists to the details and concepts of mechanics.” Along with
Maxwell’s later Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, Buchwald re-
gards it as the most influential physical text of the second half of
the nineteenth century. How would Andrew Cunningham explain
the fact that Thomson and Tait were doing modern physics, and
therefore modern science, under the rubric of natural philosophy?
The obvious explanation is that throughout the nineteenth cen-
tury, modern physical science was at least occasionally, and per-
haps even frequently, called by the name of “natural philosophy,”
or subsumed under it. Indeed, it is not implausible to suppose that
Thomson and Tait called their book Treatise on Natural Philosophy
because Isaac Newton had called his work The Mathematical Princi-
ples of Natural Philosophy. But it is a certainty that none of them—
Newton, Thomson, or Tait—was doing traditional natural philoso-
It is obvious from what I have just reported that by the nine-
teenth century, natural philosophy had become synonymous with
science, despite Cunningham’s claim that “science” succeeds natu-
ral philosophy, the two being radically different disciplines. The
distinction that natural philosophy is about God and His creation
and that modern science excludes God becomes untenable when
the two terms natural philosophy and science are often used synony-
mously, until natural philosophy fades away and only the term
science remains. In the nineteenth century the term natural phi-
losophy seems to have become the general, or umbrella, term for
all of the particular sciences. The new sciences that proliferated
in the nineteenth century lend credence to the view that natural
philosophy is the Mother of all Sciences. Moreover, the totality of
all the particular sciences was referred to by the general all-encom-
passing term science, which is understood to be equivalent to the
See Jed Buchwald, “Thomson, Sir William,” in Dictionary of Scientific Biogra-
phy, 13: 386 (1976).
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term natural philosophy. The process that resulted in this state of
affairs may have begun in the seventeenth century with Newton
and his predecessors. If so, perhaps we should interpret Newton’s
famous title as the first instance, or an early instance, where the
term natural philosophy is used, but where a science has emerged,
the science of mechanics, or dynamics, or perhaps some other
appropriate term such as physics. On this approach—and if we
take the long view—we might argue that the middle, or exact, sci-
ences of the Middle Ages, which were neither natural philosophy
nor mathematics, were gradually absorbed into the domain of
natural philosophy and, when science became synonymous with
natural philosophy, were absorbed into science.
The stark differences that Cunningham sees between natural
philosophy and modern science vanish in the nineteenth century,
and probably much earlier. Sharply differentiating between the
terms natural philosophy and science is a mistake. The names we at-
tach to things may make them appear other than they really are.
Old names and terms may linger on even when the activity or
thing has altered substantially. We will all do well to remember
that “a rose by any name is still a rose,” to paraphrase Juliet. What-
ever the title of his treatise, Isaac Newton was doing mechanics, or
dynamics, or, if you wish, mathematical physics. In so doing, he
brought to climactic fruition centuries of effort and achievement
that had masqueraded under the guise of the middle sciences.
Although what Newton did in the Principia still had no widely ac-
cepted name, the reality of his remarkable accomplishment reveals
that upon the completion of his task, natural philosophy had given
birth to a daughter, who would eventually be called mechanics, or
dynamics, and would ultimately form part of the grander genus of
mathematical physics and thus join her much older sisters, optics
and statics, who, under different names, had been around since
Greek antiquity.
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