Self-experiment, Sex, and the Care of the Self: Newton’s Private Life in the Age of the Web

11 Apr 2013
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Rob Iliffe
Professor of Intellectual History and History of Science, University of Sussex

The digital publication of millions of words written in private by Isaac Newton
provides an unprecedented opportunity to engage in a close reading of the textual
sediments bequeathed by an early modern individual. In this talk I look at two
ostensibly unconnected areas of Newton’s researches that focus on the faculty of the
imagination. As an undergraduate he sought to train his faculty of imagination in
order to enhance its powers, finding that it was capable of provoking uncontrollable
mental images. Later, in the 1680s he discussed how monastic religious practices,
in particular those connected with sexual abstinence, could cause the imagination to
unleash irresistible images of women that could ultimately drive ascetics insane.
In the first place I reflect on what these documents tell us about Newton’s personal
life as a university don living in a quasi-monastic environment. Secondly, I
consider how our understanding of Newton’s mental worlds has been facilitated and to
some extent shaped by the online publication of his writings.

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