The Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries was a period of great thought, ideas and questioning, which would precipitate later effects that reflectedthese enlightened concepts in government, the arts, religion, education, and the economy. Those that embodied the Enlightenment principles in their writings, the “philosophes”, as they called themselves, set out to enlighten the world, by combating ignorance, superstition, tyranny, and conventional institutions and accepted doctrines of society. They did this by proposing such radical and challengingideas by way of their so-called “republic of letters”, ideas that were derived and inspired by the previous Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17 centuries, which upheld the school of empiricism, experiment and analytical study of nature as the means by which to derive truth.
However, by no means did all the philosophes agree on their ideals of the Enlightenment. Besides the variationsfound in the ideas of the philosophes from country to country, political system to political system, approaches to the problems of 17th and 18th Western European society varied widely according to a philosophe’s background, upbringing, religious influences, socioeconomic position and privilege, as well as their own principles and ideals. Thus, Enlightenment thinkers, while having commonalities,brought a wide variety of ideas into European society to be debated over and eventually manifested in the gradual, or sometimes, as in the French Revolution, drastic changes that would take place in the following period.
Isaac Newton, although primarily a physicist, mathemetician, and astronomer, created an essential link between the empiricism of Francis Bacon to the analytical reasoning and use oflogic that the philosophes and thinkers of the Englightenment would derive and promulgate their ideas from. Specifically, Newton agreed with Bacon that the gathering of experimental data from the natural world, or empiricism, was the starting point for scientific inquiry. However, he developed his ideas so as to fuse them with rationalism b demonstrating the theoretical usage of mathematics inmechanical philosophy, laid out in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Isaac Newton thus showed how it was possible, experiementally, to work with invisible bodies and theoretical possibilities.
For example, one of Newton’s rules in Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy was that “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient toexplain their appearances” (Natural Principles of Natural Philosophy, in Brophy, 297). By this Newton means that when reasoning about the causes of natural phenomena, no other causes must be promulgated to explain the phenomena than is suffient, for in nature there are no “superfluous”, or unnecessary causes. For example, if one gets sick, making the conjecture that witchcraft must have been doneaginst this sick person to cause the sickness is a superfluous cause, not necessary to explain the sickness which can be rationally explained by the simple cause of the disease being passed to this person. How the disease was passed to this person may not be known, and thus more research and study may have to be done to determine the how of it, but in any case the witchcraft explanation would be asuperfluous cause according to Sir Isaac Newton and thus not acceptable in the usage of these mathematical principles of philosophy to rationally explain natural phenomena.
Besides demonstrating the theoretical utility of mathematics in the mechanical and rational philosophy as employed by the philosophes, thus paving the way for their “republic of ideas”, Isaac Newton and his followers also...