Newton’s ‘Opticks’ and the Incomplete Revolution

  • C. Hakfoort
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 123)


Newton’s Principia is generally considered to be the focus or synthesis of major developments in 16th and 17th century science. Interpretations of the nature and outcome of the Scientific Revolution therefore heavily rely on the historians’ view of the Principia. In this paper the question is raised how the picture of the Scientific Revolution changes when one tries to make sense of Newton’s second masterpiece, the Opticks.


Physical Science Causal Model Scientific Revolution Physical Optic Mathematical Construct 
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  1. 1.
    I. Newton, Opticks or a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light (London, 1704; 21717, 31721, 41730; reprint, based on the fourth English edition: New York, 1952), the quotation is from the title page of the first English edition. A Latin edition was published as Optice (London, 1706).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Newton, Optice (1706), 315 (qu. 21); Opticks (1952), 370 (qu. 29): “Are not the Rays of Light very small bodies emitted from shining Substances?”.Google Scholar
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    T.S. Kuhn, “Mathematical versus experimental traditions in the development of physical science,” in: id., The essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (Chicago etc., 1977), 31–65.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., 52.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., 35–41, 52–54.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 41–48.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 48–51; the third was Edmé Mariotte.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., 60–63.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    C. Hakfoort, Optica in de eeuw van Euler. Opvattingen over de natuur van het licht, 1700–1795 (Amsterdam, 1986), 168–181. See also id., “Torn between three lovers: on the historiography of 18th-century optics” (abstract), in: XVIIth International Congress of History of Science, University of California, Berkeley, 31 July - 8 August 1985, Acts, vol. I, section Pc.Google Scholar
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    Kuhn, “Mathematical,” 43–44, 53–55.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    I.B. Cohen, The Newtonian Revolution. With Illustrations of the Transformation of Scientific Ideas (Cambridge etc., 1980), 4–154, esp. 62–68. See also my essay-review of this bookGoogle Scholar
  12. 11a.
    C. Hakfoort, “De Newtonse revolutie en de wetenschapsfilosofie,” Kennis en methode 6(1982) 368–379. Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    I. Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (transi. A Motte, ed. F. Cajori, based on the third Latin edition (1726)Google Scholar
  14. 12a.
    Berkeley etc., 1934, 81974), 547 (book III, general scholium). The general scholium was added in the second edition of the Principia (1713). Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Cohen, Newtonian Revolution, 133–141. He draws on earlier work by J.A. Lohne, D.T. Whiteside, Z. Bechler and others. See also A.E. Shapiro, “Experiment and Mathematics in Newton’s Theory of Color,” Physics Today 37(1984), no. 9 (September), 34–42. Shapiro focuses on what may be called the third incompleteness of the Opticks. This is the virtual absence of a mathematical theory of colours (as projected and attempted in the Lectiones opticae but later abandoned), i.e. a descriptive mathematical theory in terms of rays (not corpuscles), based on the sine law of refraction and a dispersion law.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Ibid., 136. The Lectiones opticae are preserved in two manuscript versions. These have been recently edited and translatedGoogle Scholar
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    I. Newton, ed. A.E. Shapiro, The Optical Papers, vol. I, The Optical Lectures 1670–1672(Cambridge etc., 1984).Google Scholar
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    Newton, Opticks (1952), 75–82 (book I, part I, prop. VI), quotation: 79.Google Scholar
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    Newton, Mathematical Principles, 226–228 (book I, section XIV, prop. XCIV-XCV).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 229–231.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Newton, Opticks (1952), 79. The historical commentator may raise the point whether Newton’s “any Motion or moving thing whatsoever,” which formulation obviously is meant to include all kinds of medium or wave theories of light, is as tolerant as it seems. It is difficult, not to say impossible, to conceive how an attractive force on a light wave (or, more accurately, on the part of the light medium through which a light wave progresses) is able to influence the direction and speed of the wave. The point was actually raised by Euler in a letter to Lambert, 25 April 1961 (K. Bopp, ed., “Leonhard Eulers und Johann Heinrich Lamberts Briefwechsel,” Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Physikalisch-mathematische Klasse, 1924, no. 2, 1–45, esp. 22).Google Scholar
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    E.g. Newton, Opticks (1952), 269 (book II, part III, prop. IX).Google Scholar
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    Newton, Mathematical Principles, 229–230. Google Scholar
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    Newton, Opticks (1952), 371–372 (qu. 29).Google Scholar
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    C. Huygens, Traité de la lumiere. Où sont expliquées les causes de ce qui luy arrive dans la reflexion, & dans la refraction. Et particulierement dans l’etrange refraction du cristal d’Islande (Leyden, 1690; reprint: Brussels, 1967), preface, and 1–3.Google Scholar
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    Newton, Mathematical Principles, 398–400 (book III, Rules of reasoning in philosophy, III). Rule III was added in the second edition of the Principia in 1713;Google Scholar
  27. 23a.
    see A. Koyré, “Newton’s ‘Regulae philosophandi’”, in: id., Newtonian Studies (Chicago, 1965), 261–272, esp. 266–268.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. Hakfoort
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TwenteThe Netherlands

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