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John Maynard Keynes about Isaac Newton

The subject of this page is Maynard Keynes' biographical essay about Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the last magician, titled "Newton, the Man", which was written in the early 1940s. Keynes' view of Newton is based on the vast writings that Newton did not publish nor intend for publication. It is very different from Voltaire's picture of Newton, which is only of the public Newton, the one who wrote: "I make no hypotheses", the one who spurned theology, alchemy and mystery.

Intuition and discovery

Isaac Newton was, according to Keynes, the last of the magicians who believed they could discover the solution to all the mysteries of the universe, and what Newton did discover he discovered by "intuition", only later verifying it by means of mathematical proofs and scientific experiments, although the proofs were of little importance to him; he was certain that he knew the truth and did not feel the need to prove it to himself.

Keynes uses the word 'intuition' -- as if its meaning were clear. I myself have always avoided that word, because I think it is simply a safe-house for obscurity. "What exactly do you mean?" For none of us normally follows a formula to think, unless we are doing a calculation (following a step-by-step procedure), which is something a machine does, but instead we try to find our way about among our vague notions, at first following only our noses and only then trying to bring clarity and order to our thoughts. If that is what you are calling 'intuition', then what are you saying specifically about Isaac Newton? (It may be that mathematicians work by intuition or instinct, but what has that do with the nature of mathematics?)

Outline of this page ...

"The Last Magician"

He was less ordinary, more extraordinary, than the nineteenth century cared to make him out. Geniuses are very peculiar.... In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

I do not see him in this light.... He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians ... who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. (p. 280-281)

Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle [cryptogram], as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. (p. 283)

... in vulgar modern terms Newton was ["a most extreme example"] profoundly neurotic of a not unfamiliar type ... His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic -- with profound shrinking from the world, a paralyzing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs, his discoveries in all nakedness to the inspection and criticism of the world.... The too well-known conflicts and ignoble quarrels with Hooke, Falmsteed, Leibnitz are only too clear an evidence of this. (p. 281)

Newton's extraordinary ability to concentrate

I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist [But "His experiments were always, I suspect, a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he knew already." [Comment: Here 'knew' can only mean 'was subjectively certain of'. The Socratic standard in philosophy: if a man knows anything he can explain and defend his claim in cross-questioning, or in other words he can show his verification to others: knowledge is public.] (p. 283) He also devoted much energy to his secret experiments in alchemy (p. 286-287).] His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it.... Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary ... The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards -- they were not the instrument of discovery. (p. 281-282)

The story with Edmund Halley

There is the story of how he informed Halley of one of his most fundamental discoveries of planetary motion. "Yes," replied Halley, "but how do you know that? Have you proved it?" Newton was taken aback -- "Why, I've know it for years," he replied. "If you'll give me a few days, I'll certainly find you a proof of it" -- as in due course he did. [Comment: In this story Halley was using 'know' to mean 'objective certainty', Newton to mean 'subjective certainty'.] (p. 282)

Certainly there can be no doubt that the peculiar geometrical form in which the exposition of the [Philosophiae Naturalis] Principia [Mathematica] is dressed up bears no resemblance at all to the mental process by which Newton actually arrived at his conclusions. (p. 282-283)

By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

He did read the riddle of the heavens. And he believed that by the same powers of his introspective imagination he would read the riddle of the Godhead, the riddle of the past and future events divinely fore-ordained, the riddle of the elements and their constitution from an original undifferentiated first matter, the riddle of health and of immortality. (p. 283)

Newton was a very careful and exact thinker, regardless of the subject

Let me not exaggerate through reaction against the other Newton myth which has so sedulously created for the last two hundred years. There was extreme method in his madness. All his unpublished works on esoteric and theological matters are marked by careful learning, accurate method and extreme sobriety of statement.... They were nearly all composed during the same twenty-five years of his mathematical studies. (p. 285)

Newton later lost his ability to concentrate

Somewhere about his fiftieth birthday on Christmas Day in 1692, he suffered what we should [would] now term a severe nervous breakdown. Melancholia, sleeplessness, fears of persecution ... He lost, in his own words, the "former consistency of his mind". He never again concentrated after the old fashion or did any fresh work. [In the years that followed] Magic was quite forgotten. He has become the Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason. The Sir Isaac Newton of orthodox tradition -- the eighteenth-century Sir Isaac, so remote from the child magician born in the first half of the seventeenth century -- was being built up. Voltaire returning from his trip to London was able to report of Sir Isaac -- "'twas his peculiar felicity, not only to be born in a country of liberty, but in an Age when all scholastic [Scholastic] impertinences were banished from World. Reason alone was cultivated and Mankind cou'd only be his Pupil, not his Enemy". Newton, whose secret heresies and scholastic superstitions it had been the study of a lifetime to conceal! (p. 288-289)

[Keynes characterizes Newton as] Copernicus and Faustus in one. (p. 290)

Wittgenstein wrote in his notebooks circa 1939-1940 that --

There is no more light in a genius than in any other honest man -- but he has a particular kind of lens to concentrate this light into a burning point. (CV p. 35)

Other Essays:

Maynard Keynes also wrote biographical essays about the economist Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924 and the mathematician Frank Ramsey, 1903-1930, as well as his own cautionary memoir "My Early Beliefs", from all three of which I have taken selections and made comments.

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