In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Isaac Newton

  • Introduction
  • Newton and the Scientific Revolution
  • General Overviews and Background
  • Bibliographies
  • Catalogues
  • Biographies
  • Editions: Science and Mathematics
  • Editions: Alchemy, Philosophy, and Theology
  • Published Correspondence
  • Manuscripts
  • Collections of Papers
  • Journal Special Issues
  • Mathematics
  • Optics
  • Physics and the Principia
  • Astronomy and Cosmology
  • Scientific Method
  • Administration
  • Alchemy and Matter Theory
  • Philosophy and Metaphysics
  • Theology and Prophecy
  • Science and Religion
  • History
  • Classicism and the Prisca Tradition
  • Controversies
  • Newtonianism
  • Newton in the Public Sphere

Renaissance and Reformation Isaac Newton
Stephen D. Snobelen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0462


Isaac Newton (b. 1642–d. 1727) played a pivotal role in the early modern Scientific Revolution through his contributions in three fields: mathematics, optics, and physics. Additionally, Newton contributed to the scientific method, designed and built the first working reflecting telescope, engaged in extensive correspondence with other natural philosophers, and served as president of the Royal Society of London for more than a quarter century. His accomplishments also include his leadership at the Royal Mint in London (first as warden in 1696 and then as master from 1699 until his death). He was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. Newton’s life can be divided into three phases according to geographical region. From 1642 to 1661 he lived in Lincolnshire, where he was born (Woolsthorpe) and attended grammar school (the King’s School, Grantham). He came to Trinity College in 1661 to begin his undergraduate training and became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. In 1696, he moved to London to take his position at the Mint. He was given a state funeral and buried at Westminster Abbey. Newton’s development of calculus introduced a potent mathematical tool with a wide range of applications (Gottfried Leibniz independently shared this innovation); his prism experiments showed that sunlight is heterogenous; his three laws of motion continue to serve physics and engineering; and his inverse-square law of universal gravitation helped make planetary science and the Space Age possible. Newton’s status as a polymath is underscored by his practice of alchemy (chymistry), and his forays into chronology and his study of doctrine, prophecy, and church history. The steadily increasing collection of transcribed manuscripts produced by the Newton Project has given scholars unprecedented access to his thought and has made research into the interrelations between his intellectual endeavors possible. In addition to being important to science and scientists, Newton is studied by historians, historians of science, philosophers, philosophers of science, theologians, sociologists, and literary scholars. This article on Newton and Newtonianism reflects this range of study and brings together classic studies along with cutting-edge research. Note: articles alluded to in summaries of collections of papers are mostly not repeated elsewhere under the specific subject headings.

Newton and the Scientific Revolution

For many Newton’s work in mathematics, optics, and physics constitutes the capstone of the Scientific Revolution, also opening the door to modern science and scientific method. Historians of science sometimes go so far as to speak of “the Age of Newton.” As such, Newton features prominently in historical treatments of early modern science: in dedicated sections, scattered throughout or both. Works that have canonized the concept of the Scientific Revolution are Alexandre Koyré, Études galiléenes (1939); Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800 (1949; rev. ed. 1957); and A. Rupert Hall, The Scientific Revolution, 1500–1800 (1954; rev. ed., 1983). Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; rev. ed. 1970) provides some conceptual frameworks and famously treats revolutions as “paradigm shifts.” Several more recent studies of science in the Early Modern period have challenged the concept of the Scientific Revolution, which has become a contested historiographical category. Is the concept too Eurocentric? Does it implicitly diminish the accomplishments of Medieval Science? It is too focused on elites and ideas and not enough on society and technology? These concerns are valid and the qualifications that come from them have been worked into much of the subsequent historiography on the Scientific Revolution. Yet the Newtonian achievement survives these qualifications. It is possible to recognize both continuity and discontinuity in the history of science. Newton is arguably one of the best examples of this, but in a contextually rooted rather than Whiggish or triumphalist sense. After all, he famously said that he was “standing the shoulders of giants” (the Ancients), even though from our perspective he is also pointing the way to modern science. In truth, Newton has Janus-like faces; he is one of the last great representatives of the Renaissance tradition.

  • Cohen, H. Floris. How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

    Against the backdrop of the Greek, Chinese, Islamic, and Medieval European civilizations, this over 800-page volume details what Cohen identifies as the six revolutionary transformations in science that took place in the 17th century. The sixth is “the Newtonian synthesis.” Cohen’s earlier book, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), provides extensive coverage of Newton and the historiography of Newton up to the beginning of the 1990s.

  • Hall, A. Rupert. The Revolution in Science, 1500–1750. 3d ed. London: Longman, 1983.

    Originally published in 1954. A classic of the idealist school of the history of science. In this revised edition Hall has reduced the scope of the Scientific Revolution by fifty years. Two of the fourteen chapters are specifically devoted to Newton, with the second of these being the final chapter of the book: “The Legacy of Newton.”

  • Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. 3d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-07904-6

    Originally published in 1997. A pithy yet professional account, this undergraduate introduction to the Scientific Revolution brings in historiography, culture, society, magic, and religion to add nuance to Whiggish portrayals of this period. Newton and Newtonianism appear throughout.

  • Henry, John. A Short History of Scientific Thought. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-35646-7

    Although this is a survey of the history of scientific ideas from the ancient world to the present, the Early Modern period takes up a significant proportion of the book. Of the twenty-four chapters, three are devoted to Newton and Newtonianism. The extent to which Henry (like many historians of science) sees Newtonianism as a demarcation point is revealed in the chapters “Beyond Newton: Energy and Thermodynamics” (pp. 261–269) and “Newton Deposed: Einstein and Relativity Theory” (pp. 270–283).

  • Knight, David. Voyaging in Strange Seas: The Great Revolution in Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

    Traces the “deep roots of modern science” in the second chapter and then covers the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Devotes a chapter to religion and natural theology and covers the occult arts of alchemy, astrology, and magic. Newton makes many appearances.

  • Osler, Margaret J. Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

    Challenges the concept of the Scientific Revolution, which is not even hinted at in the book’s title. Instead, Osler adopts a continuist stance and begins her coverage with the ancient Greeks, Islamic science, and Medieval Europe. Her eighth and final chapter is titled “Rethinking the Universe: Newton on Gravity and God” (pp. 147–164).

  • Osler, Margaret J., ed. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    After an introduction by the editor, the book is divided into four parts: “The Canon in Question”; “Canonical Disciplines Re-formed”; “Canonical Figures Reconsidered”; and “The Canon Constructed.” Each of the chapters in Parts 1, 3, and 4 deal with Newton in whole or in part. In the two chapters of Part 1, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs uses Newton as a case study “to undermine” (her words) the concept of the Scientific Revolution, while Richard Westfall reasserts the concept, also using Newton.

  • Rossi, Paolo. The Birth of Modern Science. Translated by Cynthia de Nardi Ipsen. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    This English translation of a history of science in the Early Modern period by a respected Italian historian of science offers an alternative view to the many Anglo-centric accounts of science in the period. Includes chapters on instruments and academies. Concludes with a chapter on Newton. Originally published as La nascita della scienza moderna in Europa (Rome: Laterna, 1997).

  • Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226750224.001.0001

    Drawing on his experiences teaching in the Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh and known for his “social constructivist” approach, Shapin begins with a memorable line signaling his revisionist stance: “There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (p. 1). The three main chapters ask three questions: What Was Known? How Was It Known? and What Was the Knowledge For? Newton is treated in two short sections and in shorter references elsewhere.

  • Wootton, David Wootton. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

    Taking a radically discontinuist stance, Wootton argues that science was “invented” in the Early Modern period partly as a result of the idea that new things could be discovered (such as the New World and early telescopic observations). Wootton’s work is in some ways a reassertion of more traditional ideas of the Scientific Revolution, albeit using sophisticated tools from contemporary historiography. Opposes social constructivist approaches and downplays the role of religion. The book includes scattered references to Newton but no sections devoted to him.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.