In a philosophy 101 lecture I listened to recently, the lecturer said that if a philosopher is successful and is able to solve a philosophical question for good, the topic of that question branches out of philosophy and becomes a separate field of study.

He gave as an example mechanics: Newton was a philosopher who was successful, and in the process created the science of mechanics.

If that is the case, what was the purely philosophical problem that Newton was trying to solve (as opposed to the physical/mathematical problem of how to quantify the laws of motion)?

  • I would guess it is "What is the cause for the harmony and reliability of forces in our universe"? Often taken to be God, may it be a subject (almost every position until then) or not (Spinoza, where God is nothing more than substance). – Philip Klöcking Mar 22 '16 at 12:17

A science is a well-defined systematic way of organizing and extending a body of knowledge. What makes it a science is its reliability, not its subject.

Philosophy explores subjects that are outside the realm of science, which is to say, that do not have a well-established, reliable, systematic way of approaching them. Your lecturer is stating that when a philosopher successfully creates a reliable, systematic way of creating a body of knowledge around a particular discipline, that discipline passes out of the realm of philosophy and into the realm of science.

While the consideration of the laws of motion seems, from our perspective, to be the very paradigm of a science, it only looks that way post-Newton (and his contemporaries). It wasn't a mathematical problem previously until Newton (and Leibniz) discovered the mathematical relationship. He approached the subject as a philosopher, and left it as a scientist.

(PLEASE NOTE: This answer is substantively the same as Ameet's, just with a different emphasis)

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The problems of motion and gravity were philosophical problems before the scientific revolution. People followed Aristotle's teachings.


Look at how Aristotle described motion and gravity. There's no mathematics involved... no empiricism really. It's all argued from first principles, starting with all sorts of assumptions. More philosophical than scientific.

Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Newton... they all had a hand in overthrowing Aristotelian natural philosophy. So Newton along with others turned physics (and science) into a mathematical and empirical matter.

With Newton, we get his laws of motion, and his law of gravity. Mathematical and empirical.

Look at the various aspects of the scientific method described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_revolution#Scientific_method

It all goes against Aristotle.

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  • The OP's lecturer seems to be implying that newton approached things as a philosopher and somehow became a scientist that way? I'm a little confused – StarWeaver Mar 22 '16 at 8:41
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    @starweaver It only looks like a science in retrospect. Someone had to invent that approach. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 22 '16 at 13:29
  • @AmeetSharma thank you for your answer. It does clarify things. – Alexander S King Mar 24 '16 at 1:24

Aristotles Physics conceptualised space, time, causality, force, change and motion in great generality.

Newtons great contribution was to reconcieve it in such a way that physics became a science, ie systematic progress could be made.

It might be useful to illustrate this by one simple example: force. For Aristotle this was that which has the capacity to cause change and actually causes change, in contact with that which has the capacity to be changed and actually changes.

This is said in such great generality that no specific relationship can be said; we can say one thing however straight-away, when a force is not in contact with some object or it is in contact but for some unspecified reason it's capacity to cause change is stopped from actually causing change then that object undergoes no change - that is it is at rest.

This is almost Newton's first law of motion, but not quite.

Newton specified the cause of not actualising the capacity - an opposing force; and modified this by saying the object is at rest or in uniform motion.

It's only after Einstein, that it was understood that uniform motion and rest is the same concept - which goes back to Aristotles definition.

To make conceptual progress with gravity, Newton allowed a force to act without contact; compare with Lockes:

it's impossible to concieve, that Body should operate on what it does not touch

it's only again after Clifford's reconceptualusation of space itself being the bearer of force through curvature - as a thing in itself, and then Einsteins GR that it was understood that it's the local shape of space itself in contact with an object that is gravity; in Aristotles terms the place of an object has a certain power to cause motion - and this power is understood to be its curvature; and this place is always - obviously - in 'contact' with that which it contains.

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I do not remember that Newton solved any problem from philosophy.

Instead, Newton developed groundbreaking thoughts about gravitation. He gave mechanics a solid base by developing calculus. He was one of the first to establish the domain of mathematical physics.

Concerning the problem of time and space Newton asserted the existence of absolute space and absolute time. But that claim did not solve any philosophical problem, because it was simply wrong.

Newton's seminal work is entitled "Philosophiae naturalis Principa Mathematica". Possibly the term "philosophiae naturalis" induced the lecturer, to whom you refer, to his statement that Newton was successful as a philosopher.

I consider Newton no more and no less a successful philosopher than his precursor Galilei and his follower Einstein. All three were physicists. Of course they knew the thoughts of their precursors or fellow philosophers like Aristotle, Leibniz, or Mach.

Aside. Can you find out how the lecturer motivates his judgement?

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