The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia'
by  B[oris Mikhailovich] Hessen

Robert S. Cohen


to the Howard Fertig, Inc. Edition

Hessen appeared in the English‑reading world of the thirties at the pioneer second international conference for the history of science and technology in London in the early summer of 1931. He was a member of the superb and dazzling delegation from the Soviet Union, led by that sparkling intellectual and political partisan, Bukharin. All of the Soviet papers were interesting, and they still are. By popular pressure they were rapidly published—was it really within a fortnight?—in the form of an influential volume, Science at the Crossroads.* But their influence was never carried through by the Soviet historians and sociologists of science and technology. Hessen himself soon disappeared, virtually a meteor in historical scholarship, for he had been a working physicist before London and he was thereafter to vanish into the turmoil and tragedy of the political court trials of the Stalinist repression. Was it his association with Bukharin that brought his end? The names of his colleagues of that Soviet delegation will suggest both the imaginative competence of the group as well as the focus of troubles then about to arise: the economist M. Rubinstein, the physicist A. F. Joffe, the biologists B. Zavadovsky and N. I. Vavilov, the engineer W. Mitkewich, the mathematician and philosopher E. Colman, and of course Bukharin.

The shock of Hessen's paper was multiple. Marxist interpretation of culture by which culture is seen as a derivative though active part of political economy and social reality, was known about but little read and less meditated on. And what was known was thought to concern religions and arts and systems of law, ways of self-justification and deception, management of others and of oneself. To an English social philosopher, the Marxist theory of such ideologies was congenial enough for had not Francis Bacon already written of the idols and idolatries that beset thinking men and women? And yet Hessen emphasized that it was not only ideology or hypocrisy or mere belief that Marxism was now to explain, but knowledge. Hessen put it starkly in the blunt and efficient title of his essay, and in the questions posed by his first three paragraphs. Using a Marxist conception of historical explanation, Hessen will try to show how it was that the genius of Isaac Newton turned to the problems and toward the modes of solution of these problems which mark his great Principia.

With this claim, Hessen not only offered one beautifully sharp and (I have no doubt) deliberately exaggerated sketch of how the most important scientific treatise of western civilization had developed from the material conditions placed upon social and intellectual processes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; in addition, he set forth by example the demand of all Marxist sociology of knowledge that science, which is rational and true, be explained just as insistently as irrational prejudice and false beliefs. If we now recognize that scientific descriptions and theories are not altogether rational and only probably true, and if we add that different scientists have their alternative problems, techniques, modes of thought and standards of explanation, and, further, if we see that differing epochs and societies approach the neutral environment by differing ways (may we say they have differing sciences just as comparative historians will describe differing religions?), then Hessen's treatment of the historical phenomenon, Newton's Principia, becomes a challenge.

The challenge, in the scholarship about the seventeenth century and the history of modern science, was taken up in a wealth of subsequent studies. Marxists and their critics, whether eminent historians such as Christopher Hill, Benjamin Farrington, and Robert K. Merton, and critics G. N. Clark and Herbert Butterfield, or distinguished and creative scientists who were drawn into historical and philosophical work, such as J. B. S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, and J. D. Bernal, took Hessen's essay as a pivot. Not that Hessen's work was a sacred text for Talmudic commentary; far from it. It is rough‑cut and gravely incomplete. But it did pose Marxist questions about the relationship of the economic and social basis to the intellectual and cultural superstructure of society with respect to a vital part of British history in a new way: the age of the English revolution, the age of Newton and of the Puritans and of Locke, the economic transformation of English urban life and national spirit, the general European character of that English revolutionary change, and all of this with respect to the citadel of pure science, the theoretical masterpiece of accumulated and transformed scientific thought, Newton's own treatise. Hessen is not vague nor abstract, although his claims are general; he can be tested, refined, elaborated, confirmed or refuted or re‑written, and all of this with specific historical reality in focus. And so he was, confirmed and deepened by some, supplemented and rejected by others. His statistics were right (but incomplete), his literary allusions had the spirit of Chaucer, his military history caught the rapid competitive development of that early arms race, his character lists of scientists and technicians might have formed an index and a research list for forty years of investigations into early modern science, his sociology of academic scholasticism was a sharply selected but accurate cartoon, his biography of Newton one‑sidedly drawn but how surprisingly right for that perspective.

Hessen worked with themes and tendencies. His own explanatory technique did not attribute direct causal influences, nor did he claim any unique role for economic upon other factors of human life. Not causes, but causal conditions; not private genius, but again historically situated causal conditions. But none of this linkage of scientific problems with the social matrix of technologically perceived needs and practically perceived possibilities of solutions was intended to dissolve respect either for men of great creative insight or for those many humbler workers whose own achievements were transmuted by the achievements of individual genius. All honor to Newton; and to Galileo and Descartes, to Hobbes and Huygens; and to Boyle and Locke, honor even to Henry More and David Hume. But Hessen asks why Newton, who completed the work of Kepler and Galileo, nevertheless was so restricted in his conceptual way with Nature? And Hessen, who surely did not know the exactly contemporary American classic discussion in E. A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Physical Science, swiftly presses to the metaphysical character of a physics which he describes as "inert in the full meaning of the word." Newtonian mechanics is a science of movement without development, and of Nature without history.

For Hessen, to understand Newton was, first, to understand the sources and stimuli of Newton's knowledge and style of knowing as well as of Newton's scientific concerns and goals. But, second and deeper, it was to understand Newton's logically strange but historically plausible cut‑off points, his undrawn implications, his mechanical anti‑materialism. If the logic of discovery were straightforward, Newton should have had his greatest triumph in the law of the conservation of energy. But he did not. His second law of motion seems in retrospect to demand empirical or theoretical enlargement of the range of natural forces from collisions and frictions and gravitation to all that was to come: magnetic and electric, heat and chemical, the forces to explain what then or now was still mysterious in its existence, and the forces to explain the nature and the origin of life where life had not yet existed. Hessen broadly hints at such an enlarged Newtonian methodology of scientific inquiry for which Newton's laws of motions and their forces are but the glorious fundamental instance and initiating model.

What might break through Newton's time‑bound limits of reductive mechanism? Did not Newton raise the same questions, tentatively but then to reject them with theological firmness? So it seems to Hessen, and he explains why in his striking section on energy, Engels, and the steam engine. To comprehend the discovery of conservation of energy, demands not the internal deductive logic of Newton's mathematical theory of moving matter but an external deductive logic of the historical evolution of science; and if we ask Hessen how these two logics differ, he seems to say that the shifting scientifically relevant demands and opportunities provided by the complex political economy of the subsequent two centuries changed the premises and thereby constituted a new and changing deductive structure. His scheme may appear simple: practical experience, like the empiricism of scientific experimentation, yields not only new tests for old theories but also new foundations,  new postulates for theorizing; and the productive engineering inventiveness of industrial capitalism after Newton's times (in contrast to the military and financial inventiveness of merchant capitalism) brought a new world of steam power and the industrial division of labor.

To Hessen, then, it is plausible to construe the industrial revolution as the source, indeed the inspiration, of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century revolutions in classical physics and chemistry, pushing science from without, enticing scientists from within to enlarge their vision to include the chemistry of fire and steam power within the explanatory scope of physical laws. Hessen sees a dialectic of useful reverence for Newtonian models of scientific explanation which themselves are soon exploded, to be replaced by transformed forces and fields, by unities of matter which are not static but dynamic, by a chemistry for life processes, by equations of change of matter and exchange of material energies. He even finds it reasonable to see that such historical understanding as is needed to make clear the historical development of physics must be part of a general social history, itself part of the natural world. And so Hessen asks for detailed studies of the historical interactions of science with engineering technology, and of both with the percived changes of human work and social organization. He was not, in the end I feel, either simple‑minded or one‑sided; the dialectic of scientific research with political and economic powers was dependent upon inner dialectics of each side. He used, at times, the helpful Marxist cliché that culture 'reflects' the reality of social conflicts and material circumstances but Hessen did not claim that this metaphor of reflection was itself more than a heuristic for further understanding. Nor did he, nor did Marx, ever find such reflection to be a simple projection of economic conflicts onto the philosophical or scientific or religious arena. Every proposed explanation of a cultural phenomenon demands full exploration of the history and physiology of that phenomenon along with a placing of its history within that of the social whole.

At the end of his paper, Hessen turned to the economic crisis of the early thirties. How deep that capitalist depression appeared to a visitor from the struggling industrializing socialist society of 1931! No matter that the Soviet Union was poor and struggling to stand on its own, for it was then mainly a land of optimism about creative, productive science in the minds and hearts of all the people. Fascism existed but it had not yet transcended its defensive capitalist-military role to become the Nazi monster. Even today Hessen's hope is the hope of a rational humanist. Science itself would be liberated by the struggle to liberate men, women, and nations; not less science but massive use of science, education in science, to solve what we now must recognize to be the painfully evident problems of late twentieth century industrial societies and their oppressed colonial and peasant fellow‑peoples.

Is Hessen right? Is science "the means and instrument of reconstruction"? Is it necessary, as he states, to demonstrate the social and economic origins of scientific progress from early modern times in order to liberate science from the limits which social and economic politics place upon it? It does seem a good deal to claim for the study of the history of science and technology, but we should pay close attention. For successfully coping with the conditions of present health and illness of science will, as Hessen might tell us, depend upon knowledge of how we and our science came to the present situation. And if a genuine socialist order is required to establish a humane science for the people, what more persuasive argument for socialist reorganization of society?

Hessen's essay was an act of liberation. He neglected so much—the conflicting roles of mysticism in science, the self‑dynamics of mathematical astronomy, renaissance and late medieval anticipators who could not break through to Galileo, much less Newton, the transformation of Newtonianism within continental thought, an appreciation of Leibniz and Spinoza, and Newton's inner lives—but he set free so much more. If only the social conditions which brought forth the ranging inquiring spirit of B. Hessen had kept open, if only a generation of those superb Soviet scholars had continued his illuminations, we might now have reached a degree of solidity in our comprehension of the extraordinary character of modern Western civilization and its science.

R. S. COHEN    
Boston University

* London: Kniga (England) Ltd. 1931.

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert S. “Introduction” to The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia' by  B[oris Mikhailovich] Hessen (New York: Howard Fertig, 1971; 62 pp.), pp. v-x. Originally published in: Science at the Cross Roads; Papers Presented to the [2nd] International Congress of the History of Science and Technology Held in London from June 20th to July 3rd, 1931 by the delegates of the U.S.S.R [N. I. Bukharin et al] (London: Kniga, Ltd., 1931), pp. 151-212.

Note: Footnote in original was converted into endnote.

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"The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia" by Boris Hessen
Translated by Phlippa Shimrat; edited by Peter McLaughlin & Gideon Freudenthal
(Note: different translation from the original published translation)

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Robert S. Cohen (1923-2017)

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