98....For my own part, whenever I attempt to frame a simple idea of time, abstracted from the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformly and is participated by all beings, I am lost and embrangled in inextricable difficulties.--Berkeley A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)
Locke [1632–1704] undertook and successfully carried through what Newton had not dared to do, or perhaps would have found impossible. It can be said that he created metaphysics, almost as Newton had created physics.--Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1751) Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, trans. Richard N. Schwab
When Berkeley published the Principles (1710), Newton had already published the first edition of the Principia, but not yet the General Scholium. So the proper metaphysical interpretation of the Principia was still up in the air. (In addition to the General Scholium, Cotes’s editorial preface to the second edition of Principia was also not published yet.) Newton was keeping his metaphysical views close to his chest. Toland (who in his Letters to Serena combined instrumentalism with Spinozism) and Clarke (who in in his Demonstration defended a species of rationalism) had offered competing visions. In his correspondence with Stillingfleet, Locke had intimated that his views had become akin to Newton’s (especially on gravity), but as Mary Domski, Lisa Downing, and Howard Stein have taught us, we should be cautious about conflating the view of Locke and Newton (despite their close friendship).
In sections 110-111, Berkeley is explicit, that in fact that sections 97-8 are targeted against Newton: "111. As for Time, as it is there taken in an absolute or abstracted sense, for the duration or perseverance of the existence of things, I have nothing more to add concerning it after what has been already said on that subject. Sect. 97 and 98. For the rest, this celebrated author holds there is an absolute Space." (In 110 he had claimed the celebrated author is the author of "a certain celebrated Treatise of Mechanics. In the entrance of which justly admired treatise, Time, Space, and Motion are distinguished into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and vulgar; which distinction, as it is at large explained by the author, does suppose these quantities to have an existence without the mind." A clear reference to scholium of the definitions of Newton's Principia.)
Even so, the quoted passage from section 98 at the top of the post does not describe Newton's position. For, first, there is no evidence that Newton thinks there is a simple idea of duration in the way that Locke does (Essay 2.15.9). It is not obvious that for Newton a finite mind can actually behold infinite duration, which, I have argued, is only introduced for theological reasons in the Principia. It secures for Newton God’s eternal existence in time (even though time is a necessary consequence of God’s existence).
Second, and more important, Berkeley is treating the simple idea of time as an abstraction. This is not an implausible reading of Locke's position (2.15.8). But there is no reason to believe that Newton thinks time-keeping or absolute time involves an abstraction (in either Locke’s or Newton’s sense). For, while Newton does take abstraction seriously in his physics -- he is explicit that “places and motions” are abstractions --, he does not claim this about time.
Third, Newton and Locke have different views of what abstraction is. Locke's account of abstraction, to simplify, relies on the way words can be signs of general ideas "and ideas become general, by separating from them the circumstances of time and place, and any other ideas that may determine them to this or that particular existence." (3.3.6) By contrast, in the Principia, Newton uses the traditional conception of abstraction by which we abstract from sensible qualities by removing or stripping features in order to focus only on those features of experience that are capable of being treated by quantities (recall my treatment of Buffon).
So, if Berkeley really has Newton in mind he is conflating Newton's position with features of Locke's in an incompetent fashion. It is not impossible, of course, that Berkeley is confused. But, while Berkeley can be sloppy about such matters, I see no reason to believe that he would conflate Locke and Newton as such. Rather, it is more likely that he is treating Newton on duration as an exemplary (and celebrated) instance of the problems that are generated by the doctrine of abstraction which he does explicitly associate with Locke (the metaphysician) in the Introduction, section 11. In fact, it strikes me that there are two main aims in Berkeley’s argument (in section 98): first, to attack the Lockean doctrine of abstraction and, second, to drive a wedge between Newtonian mathematical natural philosophy and the Lockean interpretation of it. On the first aim: this is, in fact, one of the main aims of the Principles as such. So, it is possible that Berkeley here treats a refutation of Lockeanized Newton as a strike against Locke’s metaphysics.
The second aim may have been inspired by the Toland's rhetorical strategy in the fourth and fifth Letters to Serena. Once the Lockean interpretation has been discredited, Berkeley can offer his own re-interpretation of Newtonian mathematical philosophy along instrumentalist (or pragmatist) lines—that’s ultimately the project of De Motu and by then (1921) it’s clear that Berkeley is disagreeing with Newton’s own metaphysics. (This is pre-figured in the Principles.)
The historiographic significance is this: in the French Enlightenment, coupling Newton and Locke had become trope. (I have quoted d'Alembert above, but one can also cite Voltaire.) I had thought that this systematic coupling originates in Voltaire's teacher, the Dutch Newtonian 's Gravesande. But it is worth noting that Berkeley may have been the first to create a Lockean Newton in order to show that the Lockean metaphysical program leads to absurdity. In so doing he produced an intellectual dynamic that we have come to associate with "Empiricism'' such that Hume and Adam Smith (recall) had to offer their own view on the complex relationship among ordinary experience, abstraction, and scientific practice.*