On the Materialization of the External World
and Sir Isaac Newton

[There was an intellectual and moral decline in English society from the late 17th century onward despite material prosperity.] [These] two symptoms characterize the amplitude of the loss of the concrete. . . The concrete is lost with regard to the fundamental orientation of existence through faith, and it is lost with regard to the system of symbols and concepts by which the orientation of existence is expressed. The two losses are related to each other because the loss of orientation through faith prevents the creation and clarification of symbols, and at the same time the perversion of meaning in the realm of symbols and concepts prevents the return to the orienting experiences. The devastation is far-reaching. . . .

[The contemporary critic Bishop George] Berkeley focused his diagnosis in the symbols of materialism and freethinking, and we shall follow his analysis. We shall accept the two symbols as signifying the principal sources of confusion, and we shall lend them a preliminary precision by defining them as materialization of the external world and psychologization of the self.

By materialization of the external world we mean the misapprehension that the structure of the external world as it is constituted in the system of mathematized physics is the ontologically real structure of the world. The tendency of mistaking the laws of mechanics for the structure of the world makes itself felt strongly even by the middle of the seventeenth century under the influence of Galileo's discoveries and even more so under the influence of Cartesian physics.

. . . . The movement gains its full momentum, however, only with the publication of Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, of 1687. The impact of this masterful systematization of mechanics on his contemporaries, coming at a time when the sources of an active faith were drying up, must have had a force that is difficult to reproduce imaginatively today. To a spiritually feeble and confused generation, this event transformed the universe into a huge machinery of dead matter, running its course by inexorable laws of Newton's mechanics. The earth was an insignificant corner in this vast machinery, and the human self was a still more insignificant atom in this corner.

. . . . The obliteration of the substance of nature through the propositions of mathematized science that could still be resisted at the beginning of the seventeenth century had become an almost accomplished social fact at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The obliteration had been so thorough that Western thought has not completely recovered from the blow even today.

The first shock, of course, wore off, and the recovery of substance became the preoccupation of the foremost Western thinkers. Nevertheless, from the age of Newton the great cleavage runs through the Western world between the thinkers who submit to the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness" (as Whitehead has named this philosophical mistake) and those who can free themselves of it. It is not an exaggeration to say that in the history of Western civilization Newton's Principia Mathematica is at least as important as the cause of the great schism in Western thought as it is important in the advancement of science.

CW Vol 24 (HPI-VI),
Chapter 4, THE ENGLISH QUEST FOR THE CONCRETE,
§ 2. The Loss of the Concrete, pp 163-165.


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