Newton’s Conception of Time in Modern Physics and Philosophy

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


It is today a commonplace remark that Newton’s conceptions of absolute space and time were coloured by philosophical and theological ideas, partly through the influence of such thinkers as Henry More and Isaac Barrow. The emphasis that is often laid on the importance of influences of this kind however tends to obscure the fact that nevertheless there is a clear sense in which the Newtonian concepts are — at least in part — determined by empirical evidence; Newton himself provided important arguments to demonstrate this latter point. As I want to emphasize in the present paper, it even is the case that Newton’s concepts of uniform time and absolute simultaneity are uniquely determined by empirical evidence (this in contradistinction to his concept of absolute space). I furthermore want to point out that variations of Newton’s arguments appealing to empirical data can also be applied in the context of modern physical theories. It can be shown in a straightforward way that within the theory of relativity these arguments directly yield the standard simultaneity relation. This leads us to the conclusion that, from the standpoint of a “modern Newtonian,” the standard simultaneity relations in classical mechanics and in the theory of relativity possess the same status.


Causal Explanation Modern Physic Absolute Time Material Body Absolute Space 
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  1. 1.
    Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World (F. Cajori, ed.), Greenwood Press, New York, 1969; pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World (F. Cajori, ed.), Greenwood Press, New York, 1969 note 1; p. 10.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    H. Reichenbach, The Philosophy of Space and Time, Dover Publications, New York, 1957; section 6. See also: D. Dieks, “Gravitation as a Universal Force,” Synthese (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Reichenbach, op. cit. note 3; section 27.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For more on this point, see: D. Dieks, “The ‘Reality’ of the Lorentz Contraction,” Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 15 (1984) 330–342; esp. sect. 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    See also: D. Dieks, “Special Relativity and the Flow of Time,” Philosophy of Science (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A. Grünbaum, Philosophical Problems of Space and Time, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, 1973; chapter 10.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dennis Dieks
    • 1
  1. 1.University of UtrechtThe Netherlands

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