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Margaret Atherton

Have you looked at what Berkeley says about time (and space) in his second letter to Johnson? It's interesting in and of itself as providing an elaboration of Berkeley's thinking on time, but it also seems to suggest to me that when Berkeley is thinking about space, he is thinking about Newton, and that when he is thinking about time, he is thinking about Locke, in particular Locke's view that the succession of ideas is the measure of time, whereas Berkeley wants to say that it constitutes time.


On Berkeley and Newton, Luc Peterschmitt's paper "Berkeley et les hypotheses mathematiques" (Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences, 2003) is very helpful. The (very nicely phrased) conclusion: "[Berkeley] s'agirait de defendre le newtonianisme contre ses propres fantomes metaphysiques."

Eric Schliesser

Luc is very good, but we disagree. Berkeley is creating something anew, and it is not quite Newtonian.


Luc understands the project of De Motu as purifying Newtonian mechanics of those metaphysical ghosts. I think this is right (as against earlier anti-Newtonian readings, such as Popper's). I thought that was in line with your position in "The Origin of Modern Naturalism": we're endorsing the Newtonian physics (as against Leibniz), but denying that it has the unsavory metaphysical implications the Leibnizians claim it does. We're doing this by walling off physics from metaphysics.

Of course, I do think it's important (and I take it this is part of your point here) that 'Newtonian' metaphysics comes in several flavors most of which were never openly endorsed by Newton himself.

Schliesser, Eric

Well, my view has been developed in Newton's Challenge to Philosophy (HOPOS 2010), where I return to Berkeley's engagement with Newton.
Of course, Berkeley (or Luc) can call Berkeley's position 'Newtonian,' but I think the spirit of the project is not just anti-Leibnizian, but also anti-Newton(ian), and that's because Berkeley wants to deny that Newtonian mathematical philosophy has authority to assign causes (but I believe Newton's science is causal through and through).


That's certainly a fair point. I imagine that's how Newton would see it. But I think the way Berkeley sees it is that his philosophy of science allows him to accept Newton's mechanics (as opposed to Leibniz's dynamics) without accepting Newtonian metaphysics.

I haven't read your HOPOS paper. I'll have to look that up when I'm revising my book manuscript since I discuss some of these issues there. (I don't get into Newton interpretation, though.)

Schliesser, Eric

I don't think it's quite right to say that Berkeley wants to accept Newton's mechanics, because (i) he treats it, among other things, a-causally [and treating forces as causes is part of Newton's mechanics]--so there is redescription of the mechanics, too; (ii) Berkeley's version of Newtonian mechanics is pretty useless in doing new research; (iii) he is concerned with a questions of authority and he does not allow the mathematical natural philosopher to interpret his own theory.

Margaret Atherton

But I think you are still saying something different from Kenny, Eric, because what you keep pointing out are reasons why NEWTON wouldn't accept Berkeley's view of what he is doing. That can be right and it can still be true that BERKELEY thinks he is saving Newtonism from unacceptable bits of metaphysics. Look at Berkeley's first letter to Johnson.

Schliesser, Eric

First, there were Newtonians who disagreed with Newton (and each other) but who present themselves (and were sometimes anointed by Newton) as his followers (Keil, MacLaurin, Gregory, Cotes, etc.), and Berkeley does not fit THAT profile.
Second, you and Kenny are quoting a letter that was written several decades after the Principles--I think it is very unreliable to read later material into the earlier materia.
Third, I have offered my interpretation of the Letters in the HOPOS (2010) article.
Fourth, I think you and Kenny actually are not reading the letter correctly; Berkeley claims that he agrees with Newton's *method* (or at least that THAT method is consistent with his principles) -- and let's stipulate het gets that right--, but he is not self-describing as a 'Newtonian.' He cleanses the results of that method not just Leibnizian metaphysics, but also (as he acknowledges) of its own Newtonian physics -- not just the Newtonian matter theory or the stuff on space/time and EVEN motion--, but as he explicitly acknowledges, Newton's own account of forces as efficient causes. Even the instrumentalist interpretations of Newton that were out there (Clarke, 's Gravesande) kept a LOT more.
Fifth, in context Berkeley, is answering an objection to his metaphysics/philosophy that argues from the authority of Newtonian natural philosophy (broadly conceived) to the falsity of Berkeley's philosophy. And all he is claiming that this argument does not go through (if one grants him a lot). [In the Second letter Berkeley reiterates his differences from Newton.]


I agree that Berkeley would not describe himself as a Newtonian full-stop, nor would he describe himself as a Newtonian about natural philosophy, nor (for that matter) would anyone else in the 18th century have been likely to describe Berkeley as a Newtonian (except perhaps some disgruntled Leibnizians). What I think Berkeley himself would say is that his philosophical theory allows one to accept Newton's mechanics (or be a Newtonian about mechanics, if you like) without being a Newtonian about metaphysics, natural philosophy, or, for that matter, calculus. I think this is already true in PHK, as indicated in section 110, though I think it's clearer in De Motu and Alciphron. (This is my view about most of the ideas central to my interpretation of Berkeley: they are already present in PHK but better developed and more clearly expressed in De Motu and Alciphron.) Berkeley's case for this claim involves a re-interpretation of Newton's mechanics which few, if any, Newtonians (certainly not Newton himself) could accept.

Of course, I recognize that there are excellent reasons for skepticism about reading a philosopher's later works back into his/her earlier ones. In the case of Berkeley I believe that this reasonable skepticism can to a large extent be overcome, but that's not a thesis that can be defended in blog comments of reasonable length!

Eric Schliesser

I agree, first, that there is genuine continuity between principles, De Motu and the letter to Johnson.
Second, the notion of 'acceptance' here is very very attenuated.
Third, it would be more accurate historically, to see Berkeley as accepting *Toland's* interpretation of Newton (one that was contested by all self-described Newtonians) while disagreeing with Toland's reinterpretation of the metaphysics.
Fourth, I think the secondary literature on Berkeley has done itself a big disservice to treat Berkeley as a kind of (revisionary) Newtonian without recognizing that this is neither a properly historical category nor really gets at at a proper conception of the debate over intellectual authority. [As I pointed out in my lecture at the APA, there has also been a too quick conflation of Locke's and Newton's views and so the dialectic is not handled properly.]

Margaret Atherton

I'm not sure what you are saying is historically accurate, Eric. Are you suggesting that Berkeley learned his interpretation of Newron from Toland? I wouldn't want to take on the entire secondary literature on Berkeley but I do find myself sympathetic to what Kenny said.

Schliesser, Eric

No, I am not suggesting that Berkeley learned his interpretation of Newton from Toland (although it is not impossible and it is even plausible), but that Berkeley's stance & strategy toward Newton is very close to Toland's (except that they disagree about metaphysics). Anyway, I have explained my interpretation in light of the Letter to Johnson, and I think I have not heard arguments for why that's wrong.

Margaret Atherton

That's in the 2010 paper. I'll try to track it down when I get a chance.

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