Saturday, April 24, 2010

Burtt online

I have often recommended E. A. Burtt’s classic The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science for those who want to understand the significance of the mechanistic revolution of the early modern period. Reader James Drake kindly informs me that the book is available online here.


  1. Also get it at the Internet Archive (as of a year or two ago, anyway), in vintage curlicue font. ;)

  2. Dr. Feser,

    Thank you for bringing this work to our attention. I have read the Introduction and already I have learned a lot.

    I do have a comment based on what I've read. Descartes is a philosophical villain from the Thomist point of view. The word "Cartesian" is often used by Thomists as a shorthand for a broad range of philosophies rife with confusion. Mostly these are philosophies that are either skeptical about our ability to know the external world or philosophies that reject final causality in nature.

    Now Burtt argues that Newton was critically important for the rise of the modern world view. He says that Newton "was presenting a metaphysical groundwork for the mathematical march of mind which in him had achieved its most notable victories. Imbedded directly and prominently in the Principia, Newton's most widely studied work, these metaphysical notions were carried wherever his scientific influence penetrated, and borrowed a possibly unjustified certainty from the clear demonstrability of the gravitational theorems to which they are appended as Scholia."

    Newton's presentation of his theories "may have helped not a little to insinuate a set of uncritically accepted ideas about the world into the common intellectual background of the modern man."

    And finally, "In these circumstances it is easy to understand how modern philosophy might have been led into certain puzzles which were due to the unchallenged presence of these new categories and presuppositions."

    Burtt suggests, on pp. 21-2, that a great deal of the work of the most famous modern philosophers after Newton was done essentially as a response to his work. But despite his underlying so much of modern philosophy, I rarely hear Newton's name mentioned so unfavorably as Descartes'. I think it would be more historically accurate if criticisms of modern philosophy took greater account of Newton than they usually do; that is, if it was more often stated that Newton's ideas were flat wrong in some instances. Perhaps I've just not been exposed to these criticisms; perhaps my perception that Descartes tends gets all the blame (which must be unjustified, given what Burtt says about Newton) is skewed.

  3. Hello Anonymous,

    Interesting point, thanks. Part of the reason, I think, is that Descartes' physics -- which in his own day got serious attention -- was just wrong and thus has been totally forgotten except by historians of science and philosophy. Newton's physics, by contrast, turned out to be right (or close enough to being right). Another part of the reason is that Descartes was a much more systematic philosopher than Newton, and (unlike Newton) authored several important works that could be read as straight philosophy completely apart from his physics. So, though they were both philosophers as well as scientists, Descartes was bound to be remembered as simply "a philosopher" and Newton as "a scientist," so that when the blame for the errors of modern philosophy gets apportioned, Descartes understandably (if unfairly) has tended to get most of it.

  4. Dr Feser,

    First, let me thank you: I have benefitted greatly from your writings, for which I am in your debt. Second, I should just like to let you and your readers know that is a treasure-house of fine books, which, besides Burtt’s masterpiece, includes Cronin’s The Science of Ethics, Volumes One and Two.