CFP: Call for contributions: “Isaac Newton and Conceptions of Sublimity in the Long Eighteenth Century”

Submission deadline: December 31, 2020

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Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night
God said: Let Newton be! And all was Light.

-Alexander Pope


The first to offer a comprehensive theory of the sublime in writing and oratory was Greek rhetorician Longinus. He quoted “Let there be light” from the Bible as an example of sublime writing in its capacity to overwhelm and exalt the reader. While the above epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton may not have the same universal and eternal quality as its biblical counterpart, it certainly reflects a palpable association that contemporaries and followers of Newton accorded between his discoveries and sublime themes. In the opening pages of The Theory of the Sublime: from Longinus to Kant, Robert Doran defines the sublime as both a discourse and as an experience of transcendence, together creating nexuses between religion, nature, art, and society. In the early modern period, theories of sublimity became concerned for the preservation of transcendence during secularization. Whether Newton’s discoveries of the nature of our universe served a similar function of secular transcendence, or whether they led ultimately to religious exaltation, is a subjective matter for the early-modern, or modern, reader. But his elucidation of sublime themes through natural philosophy was apt to both overwhelm and exalt his audience, notably an infinite space independent of human observation and an unobservable force of gravity acting upon planets and people. His ability to arrive at such illuminations, and his knack for finding those pathways to new observable truths, further attests to a creativity often associated with genius.

The current volume seeks essays that explore Newton’s influence in the arts and sciences, in particular the promotion or refutation of Newton as a divine character or his work as having a sublime quality. Contributions that address the following queries are especially welcome: how did Newton himself discuss the sublime? (For example, the subtitle of Newton’s System of the World is: “Demonstrated in an easy and popular manner. Being a proper introduction to the most sublime philosophy.”) Did Newton consider his forays into the occult sciences to grant him access to sublime wisdom?

How did Newton react to the title when it was attributed to him or his theory of gravitation? How did non-Europeans perceive Newton's work and did they consider him a genius? Are there other instances of opposition to the claim of Newton’s sublimity? Are there other mediums in which his sublime genius is supported or denounced (theatre, oratory, sculpture, etc.)?

The volume is inspired by a panel titled “Acolytes and Adversaries of Newton” from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference in March 2019, where panelists sought to discuss Newton’s paradoxical status as both an essential figurehead of reason and natural philosophy and as an enemy to scientific independence and freedom; Newton’s influence as a public figure in quarrels of science; and how Newton himself was depicted in fiction. While the panelists’ approaches varied by discipline—from the vantage of the History of Science, our first panelist discussed Fontenelle’s hidden denunciatory rhetoric in Eloge de Newton (1729); our second panelist took an Art History perspective to examine ruin rooms in relation to Newton’s universal law of gravitation; and our last panelist elucidated Émilie Du Châtelet’s sublime philosophy which was born of her translation of the Principia—our respondent highlighted a common theme concerning each of the acolytes or adversaries of Newton interdisciplinary approach that invigorated the conference panel, and remains open to interpretations of sublimity surrounding Newton’s genius and theories. 

The editors aim to assemble accepted contributions for review by December 2020. The volume proposal will be submitted to Manchester University Press by the end of January 2021. Contributions should be scholarly articles, 6,000-8,000 words, and they may not currently be under consideration for publication. Please submit a CV along with your contribution to Erika Mandarino emandari@tulane.edu and Arianne Margolin margolan@colorado.edu, with “Newton volume submission” in the subject line.

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