May-December 2015

Kirsten WalshBio: Kirsten’s main research interests are early modern philosophy and the philosophy of science (with an historical bent). She recently completed her PhD at the University of Otago in New Zealand, focusing on the scientific methodology of Isaac Newton. She is interested in Newton’s methodology in both historical and philosophical contexts. Kirsten has been carrying out her research as part of a team studying the emergence of experimental philosophy in the early modern period. She makes regular contributions to the project blog, ‘Early Modern Experimental Philosophy’: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/emxphi. Kirsten grew up in Melbourne, Australia and has studied and taught at the University of Melbourne, University of Otago and University of Sydney. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Australian National University and University of Calgary.

Project titleNewton’s Epistemic Triad

Project description: Isaac Newton condemned the use of hypotheses with his (in)famous methodological statement, Hypotheses non fingo, and yet employed hypotheses explicitly in every edition of Principia. Some commentators have argued that Newton was working with several inconsistent notions of ‘hypothesis’: specifically, the hypotheses he used in Principia are not the sort that he railed against in the General Scholium at the end of that book. Other commentators argue that Newton’s methodological statements are simply inconsistent with how he actually proceeded: for example, they argue that the queries introduced by Newton at the end of his Opticks are hypotheses-in-disguise. I argue that Newton’s methodological pronouncements and his use of hypotheses are far more consistent than previously thought. I consider Newton’s hypotheses within the framework of his three-way epistemic distinction between theories, which are certain and experimentally confirmed, hypotheses, which are uncertain and speculative, and queries, which are not certain, but provide the proper means to establish the certainty of theories. I call this division Newton’s ‘epistemic triad’. I argue that Newton’s hypotheses and queries have distinctive and vital supporting roles within this epistemic triad. This provides us with a much more consistent picture of Newton’s methodology.