Leibniz and Newton on Space

Ori Belkind*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper reexamines the historical debate between Leibniz and Newton on the nature of space. According to the traditional reading, Leibniz (in his correspondence with Clarke) produced metaphysical arguments (relying on the Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Principle of Identity of Indiscernibles) in favor of a relational account of space. Newton, according to the traditional account, refuted the metaphysical arguments with the help of an empirical argument based on the bucket experiment. The paper claims that Leibniz's and Newton's arguments cannot be understood apart from the distinct dialectics of their respective positions vis-à-vis Descartes' theory of space and physics. Against the traditional reading, the paper argues that Leibniz and Newton are operating within a different metaphysics and different conceptions of "place," and that their respective arguments can largely remain intact without undermining the other philosopher's conception of space. The paper also takes up the task of clarifying the distinction between true and absolute motion, and of explaining the relativity of motion implied by Leibniz's account. The paper finally argues that the two philosophers have different conceptions of the relation between metaphysics and science, and that Leibniz's attempt to base physical theory on an underlying metaphysical account of forces renders his account of physics unstable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-497
Number of pages31
JournalFoundations of Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Absolute motion
  • Absolute space
  • Laws of motion
  • Leibniz
  • Newton
  • Relationalism


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