Why did physicists still followed Newton's framework all the way until the early 20th century, Pre-Einstein

Kant wrote a book criticizing Newtonian mechanics (metaphysics) did many physicists simply not read Kant, or disregarded his takedown of Newton?

  • 4
    What exactly was debunked? Many engineering fields are still based on Newtonian mechanics.
    – Cell
    Oct 6, 2018 at 21:58
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    @Cell Absolute space, a Newtonian idea that led to e.g. the theory of the Aether to be maintained, was refuted by Kant in his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Sciences from 1784.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 6, 2018 at 22:34
  • 1
    At first, it'd be better if you would be more specific. What book do you mean and maybe you should quote some main points. At second, modern science partially debunks Kant. Finite speed of light, for example.
    – rus9384
    Oct 6, 2018 at 22:35
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    Newton is still correct for the most part. At least to any order of magnitude you and I work to on a daily basis..
    – Richard
    Oct 6, 2018 at 23:36
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    @Cell: Engineers work with sufficiently precise numbers, i.e. sufficiently precise for what they want and need. This is something models that are factually incorrect can still provide. Almost all formulas successfully used in engineering are more or less "wrong", i.e. imprecise. Just ask any physicist about an engineer's maths and they will confirm that. Also, absolute space is factually wrong and the only Newtonian "framework" Kant refuted to my knowledge. He was actually quite fond of Newton.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 7, 2018 at 6:29

1 Answer 1


A compelling answer is given in Rynasiewicz, R. (1996). Absolute Versus Relational Space-Time: An Outmoded Debate? The Journal of Philosophy, 93(6), 279-306. doi:10.2307/2941076

Isaac Newton provided the locus classicus for substantivalism in the scholium to the opening definitions of the Principia, where he laid out and defended the distinction between absolute space and time and their relative counterparts. The major natural philosophers on the Continent, most notably Christian Huygens and G. W. Leibniz, as well as such fringe figures for the new science as Bishop Berkeley, voiced vehement objections, but failed to offer any real alternative in the way of a dynamics founded on relationist principles. Nor did any other classical relationist, including Ernst Mach, succeed in this regard. (pp. 279-280)

Hence, although there were very good metaphysical reasons to refute absolute space, the mathematical tools of the time offered no means for a working alternative in relative frames so that the formulas could account for dynamic systems as Newton with his absolute space could. The same applies to Kant, who obviously was not the first (and not the last) one to refute this particular aspect of Newtonian physics.

In other words: Even though the philosophical insight was old in Kant's time already, Newtonian physics were the only ones offering formulas with predictive value for all aspects of mechanics known at the time. Obviously, even with a wrong premise, the conclusions still worked in non-relativistic environments (because of low velocity and/or low curvature of space), i.e. on earth and even within our solar system (mostly). It is only today that we are actually able to measure precisely enough to show relativistic effects in "common" cases.

Hence, Newton's mechanics were (and still are!) used in applications where the margin of error due to their not reflecting reality is so small that it does not matter for the practical considerations in question.

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