Dirty laundry

Yesterday, in a guest post on the Guardian’s admirable H word blog (thanks to Vanessa Heggie and Rebekah Higgitt for letting me post), I considered the irony that Newton’s secrets–obsessed over for a long lifetime and carefully preserved though hardly ever shared–are now, gloriously, almost embarrassingly, easy to access. My point is that this digital disrobing, an undeniable step forward (or giant leap, more like) for Newton scholars, presents a potentially very disorienting remapping of Newton’s work. It’s almost all up there now–science, religion, alchemy (the last redoubt of Newton’s privacy turns out to be the administrative papers from his role as Master of the Mint)–rubbing shoulders in the ether. It’s easy to forget, hopping to and fro amidst the texts, which have been translated when necessary, normalized (additions and deletions invisibly added–don’t worry you can also reveal them), and rendered instantly searchable, that they belong to an intensely contoured psycho-geography.

In other words, Newton was extremely aware of who his audience was as he wrote a given text. Usually it was very small. Often it contained just one person, the only person Newton could always trust: Newton himself. Now, his audiences are multiplied, his communications granted equal billing in the everywhere/nowhere space of the online world. The challenge for  scholars is to resurrect the outlines of Newton’s personal landscape from this flattened digital world.

Perhaps new digital tools will help to map the social, intellectual and chronological connections between these ideas. But it also occurs to me that one thing that might make it easier are the traditional disciplinary divisions of the scholars themselves. These have sometimes been a source of tension. In the 1960s and 1970s,  the non-scientific papers first became accessible at the same time as work was finally underway editing the mathematical papers, Principia drafts and correspondence. Scholars responded differently to what felt like the fragmentation of Newton into pieces. Some sought unity between the science and the alchemy and theology. Others remained unapologetically focused on the natural philosophy and mathematics. Scholarship has moved on, but the fact remains that it requires very different skills to study Newton’s mathematics, his theology, his natural philosophy, and his alchemy. The depth and technicality of Newton’s engagement with each subject is part of the reason it’s taken nearly 300 years to take their measure.

Today, there are scholars with, as Augustus De Morgan put it, both  ‘enough energy and leisure to work the ore and the metal’ of the Newton’s heterogeneous archive (substitute ‘paid work’ for ‘leisure’ to bring this up-to-date). Though the heady days of the so-called ‘Newton Industry’ are now decades past, the field of history of science has, happily, expanded. What it would be very difficult for one scholar to do–to master each of Newton’s chosen obsessions–is much easier for a group to achieve (insert provisos about herding cats, etc, here).

Intellectually, it’s a good moment for Newton studies. The materials are up. The historiographical toolkit is better than ever. The variety of scholars greater than ever.

The point about dirty laundry is obviously not to bemoan the  availability of so much of Newton’s archive but to point out the new challenges it creates and the way it shifts how scholars relate to each other and to their own work.

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One thought on “Dirty laundry

  1. Pingback: Whewell Gazette: Vol. 4 | Whewell's Ghost

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