A Dialectical World Cruise – Part 1Cover Image of Thomas K. Simpson's new book: Newton, Maxwell, Marx

Good news! The Green Lion Press has now released in a single volume three of my earlier essays, collectively titled Newton/Maxwell/Marx. Many of their themes are familiar to readers of this website, but these essays are extensive, and gathered in this way, with new introductions and an overall conclusion, they reveal surprising relevance to one another. These essays speak to our troubled world today.

Does Marx, for example, have anything to do with Maxwell? Not on the surface—but at some deeper levels, which the book calls dialectical, each lifts us out of the Newtonian world in which we have lived since Newton wrote. Let us call this tour of three contrasting world-views, a dialectical world-cruise!

Edward Abbott once wrote of a realm called Flatland, whose citizens—confined to life in a table-top—had no idea how flat their world-view might be. They had never viewed themselves and their confinement from outside. Now, no less than they, we too need fresh perspectives and new insights, if we are to take the measure of own confinement and our net of unquestioned habits of thought. Newton/Maxwell/Marx navigates these unexplored waters, becoming a dialectical journey between worlds of thought, each based on its own fundamental premises concerning, as we shall see, even the nature of science itself. In turn, our concept of the nature of nature has ramifying consequences for our beliefs concerning society and human freedom.

In these essays, each port of call is represented by one of the great works of our western tradition—so these thoughts are in one sense, rather timeless, than new. But this is to be a spirited, not a scholarly investigation. We are no mere tourists, but earnest inquirers. Our purpose is not that of the objective scholar, to know about the works, but of the free mind, reading as if their authors addressed their words to us to us—as indeed, in some sense they surely did.

Reading in this mode is itself an art, and calls for skills which collectively have been known as the liberal arts, because these are the arts meant to set our minds fee. Not surprisingly, then, these three essays concern three books read at St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, whose curriculum is designed to capture the liberal arts in the modern world. Our essays ion emerged from this cauldron, and first appeared in the pages of the Great Ideas Today, once an annual al publication devoted to critical studies of the great books and their corollaries in our time. I express my indebtedness to John Van Doren, then executive editor, who guided these essays to their first appearance.

Our three ports of call will be, to give them their full and proper titles: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – the philosophy of all the natural world—by no means that part we now call “physics”; James Clerk (inexplicably pronounced Clark) Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, and Karl Marx’s Capital. These works are in dialogue with one another—not literally, for the first two were far apart in time, and while Maxwell and Marx overlapped London for a time, and indeed shared an interest in lectures on mechanism, it would be hard to imagine they ever met! No: their dialogue is the more real for being conceptual—belonging to a world of ideas—and there, Newton/Maxwell/Marx will show, their ties are deep, and very real.

This set of essays, then, becomes a book for adventurous spirits, and in that sense may be a book whose time has come. People today are restless, questioning institutions which no longer make sense. Long-held assumptions are subjected to doubts reaching to the foundations of our societies and their economic systems. Even our sciences come into question, as in thrall to a limiting, encompassing world-view.

All this is of a piece with the dialectical sprit of our authors themselves: imperial in Newton’s case, gentle in Maxwell’s, boldly ironic in Marx’s – but in one style or another, each is a revolutionary, questioning the foundations of the world which surrounds them.

 A posting to follow soon will offer a brief synopsis of this Dialectical World Cruise.

Visit Newton /Maxwell / Marx 2

5 thoughts on “NEWTON / MAXWELL / MARX 1

  1. Pingback: THE PRINCIPLE OF LEAST ACTION « Tom's Blog

  2. Tony Hardy


    I think you have produced here with your “dialectical cruise” an imaginative new way of presenting your primary theses. And these are of large scope, bringing forth as they do a quite different way of viewing recent history of science (Enlightenment and beyond) than the one usually taken. You document well the growing importance of the concept of “field” and “whole” in explaining ground movements that have taken place since Newton, and their dialectical opposition to the force perspective that Newton advocated.

    If I had any difficulty at all with your exposition, it would be with the concept of “dialectic.” Sure, there is a back-and-forth in the progress of knowledge; but “dialectic” somehow evokes a limited thesis-antithesis-synthesis movement when I think there are all kinds of perspectives at work at any given time. Some of these perspectives gel after a time into higher-order ones, and eventually we arrive at those complex conceptual forms-for-seeing that we get in such notions as “energy” and “field.” I admit though, it’s all a little hard to grasp, and maybe the dialectic concept is as good a way as any of making sense out of the chaos that is the history of science.

    Keep on!

    1. Tom

      Tony —

      You do well to challenge my concept of “dialectic”, in face of the multitude of perspectives and opinions which abound at every stage of history. I take the concept from Socrates (as Plato has portrayed him in the “Dialogues”) and for me that golden thread of truth holds fast! “Perspectives” is I believe a very appropriate term here — ways we have shaped, of viewing the world. You speak of”progress” in human leaning, and that I think is key here. We have some compass in this process, and can weigh progress toward truth as we perceive it. Aristotle thought it was friendship, community in the cosmos. We can detect that, or its absence.

  3. Patricia Arno

    While I tend to become seasick, I enjoy the voyage of this coming together of such disparate views in a new understanding. Thank you!

    1. Tom

      For anyone with a tendency to seasickness (being “at sea” between secure positions) the posting coming next may be something of a challenge. We follow Maxwell’s lifetime voyage, cast-off from the land of Newton, in search of his own new world-view! We do know that he succeeded — so all will arrive safely! Hope you’ll be aboard for that one. And yes — at the end of the whole cruise — all positions may in some way reconciled. We’ll have to see, how.


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