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Why is so much emphasis put on the concepts of absolute space and time as the grand foundations of Newtonian mechanics, and not as foundations also of previous theories, as for example Kepler's laws of planetary motion, or even the ancient Ptolemaic system?

Is not the concept of universal force Newton's main contribution, and not the concepts of absolute space and time?

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  • $\begingroup$ Where have you seen that? I don't think I've ever heard someone explain the significance of Newtonian physics like that. $\endgroup$ – JMac Jun 12 '17 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ My sense is that others took absolute space and time for granted without realizing (or without acknowledging) that this was an assumption, whereas Newton was the first to explicitly recognize that something substantive was being assumed here. $\endgroup$ – WillO Jun 12 '17 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ Is it true that Newton was the first person to emphasise this point? The general discussion of relative vs absolute motion goes back to Galileo, although you could argue that the notion of absolute space is clearly implicit in Aristotelian mechanics. I suspect the reason modern discussions focus on Newton's views is that they want to contrast special relativity with the paradigm that immediately preceded it and because any earlier discussion is naturally subsumed into the Newtonian framework. $\endgroup$ – By Symmetry Jun 12 '17 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ at WillO: your view reminds me of Euclid's parallel postulate. Something substantive was being assumed, intuitively "obvious", but which was later challenged and substituted by something else. $\endgroup$ – J.Avaris Jun 12 '17 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @BySymmetry: Yes, I think you are right about Galileo (and also in your final sentence). Thanks. $\endgroup$ – WillO Jun 12 '17 at 12:53
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Newton was not the first to conceive of the notion of absolute space. The Stoics, John Philoponus in particular, and the medieval physicist Bishop Nicole Oresme (1320-1382) conceived of it. For the quote from Bishop Oresme's Traite du ciel et du monde illustrating this, see pp. 264-266 of Pierre Duhem's Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and the Plurality of Worlds.

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Max Jammer has an original theory which should be treated cautiously. In his book Concepts of Space, (Einstein wrote a preface for it) he argues that Newton's absolute space is a notion of religious origin. It is an attribute of the absolute deity, an argument that was made visible in the controversy Leibniz-Clarke about space being the "sensorium dei". He traces back the idea to early theology but that is no more 'history of science'. Such more or less mystic ideas are not uncommon during the Renaissance and Jammer also comments some of them.

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No, in his Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Newton stated - "Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time" According to him absolute space and time existed independently regardless of the state of motion of observer, the Law of Gravitation was not the only work he published in the Principia Mathematica, this concept of absolute space and time was later disproved by Albert Einstein in his Theory of Relativity.

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  • $\begingroup$ Didn't e.g. Kepler assume the same properties of "absolute, true and mathematical time"? $\endgroup$ – J.Avaris Jun 12 '17 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ @J.Avaris -- I doubt if Kepler expressed himself about time, but in any event he didn't have laws of inertia, accelerative force or action/reaction. See Bruce Stephenson's 'Kepler's Physical astronomy': Kepler's idea of force produced velocity around an orbit. Since Kepler's kinetics/dynamics were so entirely different it hardly seems to matter what his views about time were, he seems to have taken it for granted. $\endgroup$ – terry-s Jun 14 '17 at 21:59

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