The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought

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In this major reevaluation of Isaac Newton's intellectual life, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs shows how his pioneering work in mathematics, physics, and cosmology was intimately intertwined with his study of alchemy. Directing attention to the religious ambience of the alchemical enterprise of early modern Europe, Dobbs argues that Newton understood alchemy--and the divine activity in micromatter to which it spoke--to be a much needed corrective to the overly mechanized system of Descartes. Yet that religious basis was not limited to alchemy, but suffused the rest of his work. Newton, whose many different studies constituted a unified plan for obtaining Truth, saw value and relevance in all of his pursuits. To him it seemed possible to obtain partial truths from many different approaches to knowledge, be it textual work aimed at the interpretation of prophecy, the study of ancient theology and philosophy, creative mathematics, or experiments with prisms, pendulums, vegetating minerals, light, or electricity. Newton's work was a constant attempt to bring these partial truths together, with the larger goal of restoring true natural philosophy and true religion. Within this broad interpretative strategy, Dobbs traces the evolution of Newton's thought in alchemy, religion, and cosmology, and details his struggles with the interwoven problems of the microcosmic spirit of alchemy and the cause of the cosmic principle of gravitation. A landmark study of the "founder of modern science," The Janus Faces of Genius is an important contribution to the history of science.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Dobbs is always in complete control of the highly diverse strands of her argument. A splendid achievement." R. Palter, Choice

"...provides many interesting insights into Newton's way of working. It is clearly written." J.S. Joel, Mathematical Reviews

"...detailed and convincing..." William R. Shea

"In this outstanding book Dobbs has raised the understanding of Newton to a new level of sophistication. No superlative I have used overstates my estimate of the value of The Janus Faces of Genius." Richard Westfall, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"...tracks, more thoroughly than any single work previously has done, the constant recalibrations of Newton's efforts to synthesize all human knowledge so that history, theology, and science become reflexive confirmations of a mysterious order of the universe....its appeal should extend beyond historians of science. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the intellectual development of early modern history." Robert Markley, Configurations

"This is an important and stimulating book. The fruit of long and patient research, it offers a full account of Newton's varied intellectual interests and of the unity that links and shapes the diverse expressions of his quest for truth. Professor Dobbs builds skillfully upon the firm foundations of contemporary scholarship to forge a masterly account of Newton's vision, and to examine the cultural and individual imperatives that impelled his search for an ultimate understanding of the way things are. Dobb's study can be read with profit by specialist and nonspecialist alike." J.E. McGuire, American Journal of Physics

"Dobbs's achievement is to make the unity of Newton's many different studies, when viewed within the integrating framework of alchemy, not only evident but obvious; I know of no more thorough or learned treatment of her subject." Tracy Fessenden, History of Religions

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521524872
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/22/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 1,226,583
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Table of Contents

List of illustrations
1 Isaac Newton, philosopher by fire 1
2 Vegetability and providence 19
3 Cosmogony and history 53
4 Modes of divine activity in the world: before the Principia 89
5 Modes of divine activity in the world: the Principia period 122
6 Modes of divine activity in the world: after the Principia, 1687-1713 169
7 Modes of divine activity in the world: after the Principia, 1713-1727 213
8 Epilogue 250
Appendix A "Of natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation" 256
Appendix B "Hermes" 271
Appendix C "Out of La Lumiere sortant des Tenebres" 278
Appendix D "Experiments & Observations Dec. 1692 & Jan. 1692/3" 288
Appendix E "Praxis" 293
Bibliography 306
Index 345
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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    Must reading

    This is without a doubt the best treatment of a little known, yet indispensible, aspect of Newton's thought. Most of us only know of Newton the scientist who "discovered" the law of gravity. Little do we know that this law of gravity was inextricably bound by his greater interest in alchemy. This book describes it all. The appendix is especially interesting because it contains actual alchemal texts, observations from his many experiements in alchemy.

    This is an engrossing read!

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