How Many Colours?

  • Kirsten WalshEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 388)


Isaac Newton’s first optical paper (published in the Philosophical Transactions in February1672) was controversial: Newton argued for a new theory of light and colour when no one else thought the old one was inadequate, and he argued that his new theory was certainly true! A debate followed, in which Newton defended his claims against the objections of optical heavy weights, Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens, and Ignace-Gaston Pardies. One major sticking point between Newton and his critics concerned the number and division of colours. Newton argued that the number of different original colours was indefinite, but his critics objected to this inflated ontology. Each critic argued, for different reasons, that there were only two original colours. I examine Newton’s responses to these objections. I argue that they are revelatory of Newton’s unique methodology: a mathematico-experimental approach that eschewed ‘hypotheses’ in favour of ‘theories’. Nowadays, Newton’s first optical paper represents a landmark in the science of optics. Its exploitation of the correspondence between refraction and spectral colour provided a new approach to the study of light. And its views on the properties and nature of light, set a new agenda for the field.


  1. Anstey, P., & Hunter, M. (2008). Robert Boyle’s “Designe about Natural History”. Early Science and Medicine, 13, 83–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bacon, F. (2004). The Oxford Francis Bacon, Volume 11, G. Rees & M. Wakely (Ed.) Oxford:Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bechler, Z. (1974). Newton’s 1672 optical controversies: A study in the grammar of scientific dissent. In Y. Elkana (Ed.), The interaction between science and philosophy (pp. 115–142). Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  4. Ducheyne, S. (2013). The status of theory and hypotheses. In P. Anstey (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of British philosophy in the seventeenth century (pp. 169–191). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Dumitru, C. (2013). Crucial instances and crucial experiments in Bacon, Boyle, and Hooke. Society and Politics, 7, 45–61.Google Scholar
  6. Gouk, P. (1988). The Harmonic Roots of Newtonian Science. In J. Fauvel (Ed.), Let Newton Be! A New Perspective on his Life and Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Guicciardini, N. (2013). The role of musical analogies in Newton’s optical and cosmological work. Journal of the History of Ideas, 74, 45–67.Google Scholar
  8. Hamou, P. (2014). Vision, color, and method in Newton’s opticks. In Z. Biener & E. Schliesser (Eds.), Newton and empiricism (pp. 66–93). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hamou, P. (Forthcoming). Experimentum Crucis: Newton’s Empiricism at the Crossroads. In A.-L. Rey & S. Brodenamn (Ed.), Eighteenth-century empiricism and the Sciences. Spring.Google Scholar
  10. Hooke, R. (1966/1665). Micrographia: Or, some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses, with observations and inquiries thereupon. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  11. Jalobeanu, D. (2014). Constructing natural historical facts: Baconian natural history in Newton’s first paper on light and colours. In Z. Biener & E. Schliesser (Eds.), Newton and empiricism (pp. 39–65). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lindberg, D. C. (1981). Theories of vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Newton, I. (1952). Opticks: Or a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections & colours of light. Dover Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  14. Newton, I. (1959–1977). The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 7 Volumes. H. W. Turnbull, J. F. Scott, A. R. Hall, & L. Tilling (Eds.) Cambridge: Published for the Royal Society at the University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Newton, I. (1984). The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton: Volume I The Optical Lectures 1670–1672. A. E. Shapiro (Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Newton, I. (2004). Isaac Newton: Philosophical writings. A. Janiak (Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Oxford English Dictionary. (2015, December). spectrum, n. Oxford University Press, Web page: Accessed 14 Feb 2016.
  18. Pesic, P. (2006). Isaac Newton and the mystery of the major sixth: A transcription of his manuscript ‘Of Musick’ with commentary. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 31, 291–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Sabra, A. I. (1967). Theories of light from descartes to Newton. London: Oldbourne Book Co Ltd.Google Scholar
  20. Schaffer, S. (1986). Glassworks: Newton’s prisms and the use of experiment. In D. Gooding, T. Pinch, & S. Schaffer (Eds.), The uses of experiment: Studies in the natural sciences (pp. 67–104). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Stein, H. (2004). The enterprise of understanding and the enterprise of knowledge. Synthese, 140, 135–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Walsh, K. (2014). Newton’s Epistemic Triad. PhD thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin.Google Scholar
  23. Walsh, K. (2015). Crucial Instances in the Principia. In Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: Accessed 15 Sept 2015.
  24. Whiteside, D. T. (1966). Newton’s Marvellous Year: 1666 and All That. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 21, 32–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Zemplén, G. A. (2004). Newton’s rejection of the modificationist tradition. In R. Seising, M. Folkerts, & U. Hashagen (Eds.), Form, Zahl, Ordnung (pp. 481–502). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Department, University of NottinghamNottinghamUK

Personalised recommendations