Newton’s Philosophy of Time

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Schliesser, Eric
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In this paper I explain what Newton means with the phrase “absolute, true, and mathematical time” (Principia, Scholium to the definitions) in order to discuss some of the philosophic issues that it gives rise to. I do so by contextualizing Newton’s thought in light of a number of scientific, technological, and metaphysical issues that arose in seventeenth century natural philosophy. In the first section, I discuss some of the relevant context from the history of Galilean mathematical, natural philosophy, especially in the work of Huygens. I briefly discuss how time-measurement was mathematized by way of the pendulum and explain the significance of the equation of time. In the second section, I offer a close reading of what Newton says about time in the Scholium to the Definitions. In particular, I argue that Newton allows us to conceptually distinguish between “true” and “absolute” time. I argue that from the vantage point of Newton’s dynamics, Newton needs absolute, mathematical time in order to identify and assign accelerations to moving bodies in a consistent fashion within the solar system, but that what he calls “true” time is an unnecessary addition. In the third section, in the context of a brief account of Descartes’ views time, I discuss the material that Newton added to the second (1713) edition of the Principia in the General Scholium and I draw on some -- but by no means all the available -- manuscript evidence to illuminate it. These show that Newton’s claims about the identity of “absolute” and “true” time have theological origins.