Action at a Distance in Newton and Newtonianism

One of the most remarkable aspects of Newton’s natural philosophy was that it was based upon the assumption that bodies act upon one another at a distance, and thereby rejected the dominant view that, as Thomas Aquinas said, “a body cannot act where it is not”. Moreover, Newton’s authority was so powerful that the belief in action at a distance became characteristic of Enlightenment Newtonianism. In this presentation I will discuss the historical and philosophical factors which made it possible for Newton to embrace actions at a distance. I will then indicate the vigour of this aspect of Newtonianism in the Enlightenment, using Kant as an example. Finally, I will offer some suggestions as to why and how Newtonian actions at a distance came to be rejected around the middle of the nineteenth century, when scientists returned to the Thomist view that bodies cannot act where they are not.

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