Gravity and De gravitatione: The Development of Newton’s Ideas on Action at a Distance

John Henry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper is in three sections. The first establishes that Newton, in spite of a well-known passage in a letter to Richard Bentley of 1692, did believe in action at a distance. Many readers may see this merely as an act of supererogation, since it is so patently obvious that he did. However, there has been a long history among Newton scholars of allowing the letter to Bentley to over-ride all of Newton's other pronouncements in favour of action at a distance, with devastating effects on our understanding of related aspects of his physics and his theology. Furthermore, this misconceived scholarly endeavour shows no sign of abating. The second section then offers a historical reconstruction, based on Newton's writings, of how, when and why he began to accept actions at a distance and make them one of the cornerstones of his physics. Finally, using this chronological account of Newton's use of actions at a distance, the paper re-assesses the claims of B. J. T. Dobbs that Newton's important manuscript, De gravitatione et aequipondio fluidorum, was written, not in the late 1660s or early 1670s as was previously supposed, but during the composition of the Principia, in 1684 or 1685.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-27
Number of pages17
JournalStudies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2011


  • Isaac Newton
  • Action-at-a-distance
  • Gravity
  • Force
  • Aether
  • Attraction


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