Newton’s Rejection of the Modification Theory of Colour

  • Friedrich Steinle
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 136)


When dealing with modification theories of colour one has to take account of three different theses,1 all of which were discussed during the second half of the seventeenth century:
  • (N): Colours are original and connate properties of light. By interaction with material media, with prisms for example, they are not generated, but only separated from one another. Before such interactions, they are contained in light in a confusedly intermingled manner.

  • (MT): Colours are not original properties of light. They are generated in particular interactions with material media by certain modifications which matter causes in light.

  • (P): Colours are generated by the admixture of darkness to light or, more generally, by the interaction of light and darkness, mediated by material media.


Modification Theory Material Medium Weak Reflection Geometrical Boundary Connate Property 
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  1. 1.
    For the clarification of these theses I am indebted to Nakajima (1984). I disagree, however, with certain of his conclusions.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a general view see Guerlac (1986) or Sabra’s classical study (1967).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See the suggestion made by the editors in Newton (1983), p. 244.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Newton (1983), p. 389.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    To conclude, as does Nakajima (1984, p. 271), that Newton at this time believed in some sort of modification theory, seems to me not to be justified.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Newton (1983), pp. 433f.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Newton (1983), p. 435.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Newton (1984), pp. 434-436.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Newton (1984), pp. 490-506.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Newton C I. 96f.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Opticks Prop. 7, p. 158.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Opticks Qu. 27, p. 361.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    For an analysis of this development see Shapiro (1980).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Opticks p. 113.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See, for example, his summarizing conclusion on p. 121 or his formulation of the general result in Prop. 7, p. 158.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Opticks p. 59.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Opticks p. 120.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Opticks p. 120.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Euler (1768), part 2, letter 133.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Friedrich Steinle

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