By A. Cornelius Benjamin
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61 It . may be instructive to contrast his general position in this regard with the Cartesian and Leibnizian natural philosophies, the two views that he was continually forced to distinguish 29 30 NEWfON ON MATI'ER AND ACI1VITY from his own : Indeed, the effort to separate his concept of matter from that of Descartes at one extreme and that of Leibniz at the other clearly dominated his mind in the 1690s and again in the 171Os, as a reading of the draft material from these periods shows. Descartes proposed a two-level ontology of matter and spirit, with motion an ambiguous third element.
Is the "power of resisting" a disposition, then, which is ac- Is Matter Active? 39 tualized when an impressed force acts to change the motion of the body? Newton appears to have this in mind when, in the second half of the Definition, he says that vis insita, now under the name vis inertiae, is "exerted" only when an impressed force acts to alter the motion of the body. Is this "resistance" connected with the "reaction" mentioned in Law Ill? Newton draws our attention to two ways in which the "exercise" of vis inertiae can be considered.
On the side of "passive force", however, there was a remarkable similarity between the two systems. In each, there is a Is Matter Active? 33 "force of resistance", proportional to quantity of matter, somehow resident in every body. This fits neatly into Leibniz' general account of matter as dynamic; one of the characteristic dynamisms of matter is its effort to remain in the state in which it is. But it introduced an incoherence into Newton's theory from the start, because of the attribution to a supposedly inert matter of something called "force", and the proportionality of this vis inertiae and mass, itself inexplicably determinative of vis impressa, and thus, apparently, a measure also of the capacity of a body to act on another body.
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by A. Cornelius Benjamin