Christian Wolff and Newton

The philosophy of Christian Wolff and the theories of Isaac Newton are often perceived as clearly distinct and even incompatible. Wolff is generally considered a follower of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose dispute with Newton over the invention of the differential calculus culminated in his condemnation by the Royal Society for plagiarism, at Newton’s instigation. Wolff also supported Leibniz in his controversy with the Newtonian philosopher Samuel Clarke. Wolff’s and Newton’s basic philosophical principles differed significantly, in many respects. Yet Christian Wolff’s relationship to Newton’s ideas was more complex than the common opposition between ‘Wolffian’ (or ‘Leibnizian-Wolffian’) and ‘Newtonian’ philosophy may suggest. Wolff regarded himself as an eclectic philosopher, who adhered to no particular school or ‘sect’, but selected the best opinions among all that were available. He was critical of ‘Newtonianism’ as a philosophical school that assumed Newton’s exclusive intellectual authority on all matters, yet he praised and agreed with Newton on many particular questions and referred to him regularly throughout his works. In this paper I shall examine the nature Wolff’s critical engagement with Newton and Newtonianism.

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