‘A Thousand Fictions’: Cultism and Delusional Metaphysics in the Newton-Leibniz Disputes

Robert Iliffe

Columbia University

Wednesday, September 22, 2021 6:00 pm EDT

Online Event

Event Description:
The rich philosophical and mathematical disputes that took place between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz at the start of the eighteenth century have received more historical attention than any other exchange in the history of philosophy. Nevertheless, in this talk, Robert Iliffe discusses a prominent but neglected aspect of their disagreement, namely the mutual claim that their opponents’ conceptual foundations were fictional, and were the product both of diseased thinking and of illegitimately organized intellectual structures. Newton assailed Leibniz’s allegedly debased metaphysics in various prominent places, and mobilized allies such as Roger Cotes and John Keill to do the same. Nevertheless, by far the most sophisticated critique of illicit philosophical assumptions was launched against Newton by Leibniz in his correspondence with Samuel Clarke. In the Fifth letter to Clarke, Leibniz identified core Newtonian positions as infantile, vulgar, and profoundly irreligious, asserting that they were dangerous fictions that were less plausible and much less edifying than the rational romances of writers in the previous century. Although Leibniz saved his most potent intellectual weapons for his final letter to Clarke, Robert Iliffe suggests that his attack on the fictional status of Newton’s work was no mere codicil to his general critique of Newton’s philosophy, but instead lay at the heart of it. This famous debate, while of course somewhat sui generis, is indicative of more general and dynamic features of intellectual debate.
Event Speaker:
Robert Iliffe, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford
Event Information:
This event is free and open to the public; Registration required. Please contact scienceandsociety@columbia.edu with any questions. 
This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.
Sponsoring Organizations:

  • The University Seminars at Columbia University
  • Columbia University in the City of New York
  • NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study
  • The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • The New York Academy of Medicine
  • The New York Academy of Sciences

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