Lewis Ashman

Thesis title: The reception of Isaac Newton in the Scottish Enlightenment


I grew up in Glasgow and began university life as a student on the Physics with Astrophysics course at the University of Glasgow. Before long I switched from natural science to humanities and the social sciences,  graduating with a joint degree in Economic and Social History and Politics. From there I found my way on to the Intellectual History MSc programme at the University of Edinburgh, where I wrote a dissertation on Thomas Reid's ‘Newtonianism’. After some years away from academia, I began my PhD on Isaac Newton’s reception in Enlightenment Scotland in 2019.



  • (MSc) Intellectual History, University of Edinburgh, 2012–13 (Distinction)
  • (MA Hons) Economic and Social History and Politics, University of Glasgow, 2008–12 (1st)


Undergraduate teaching

2019/2020: Tutor, 'The History of Edinburgh: From Din Eidyn to Festival City'

2020/2021: Tutor, 'Introduction to Historiography'

Research summary

I am interested in early modern European intellectual history, particularly the history of natural philosophy in eighteenth century Britain and Ireland.

With my PhD project, I developed a new account of the reception of Isaac Newton in the Scottish Enlightenment. I argue that the catalytic influence of Newton’s physics – through, above all, his treatment of gravitation – helped to bring about a transformation in Scottish natural philosophy during the eighteenth century. By focusing on how Newton’s ideas were understood by his readers and the many ways his example was drawn on by both admirers and critics, my thesis shows how Newton’s reception animated and shaped important debates that cut across several fields of inquiry. My aim is to situate Newton’s reception in intellectual contexts that best reflect the interests and concerns of the actors under investigation, challenging the established narrative of the rise of Newtonianism in Scotland with a view to better integrating natural philosophy into the historiography of the Scottish Enlightenment.

My work has involved thinking about: reception studies; the relationship between different areas of inquiry in the early modern period; institutions as contexts for intellectual change and the transmission of ideas; discipleship and philosophical isms; the relationship between belief or ideology and scholarship; and the use of histories of learning in intellectual debates.


Conference details

European Society for the History of Science annual conference (31st Aug–3rd Sep 2020, Bologna)

Co-organiser of symposium: ‘Views from the Periphery: Visual, Material and Sensory Cultures of Science in Early modern Scotland’.

Paper: ‘A Sign of the Times: Newton's Calculus and the Limits of Geometry in Eighteenth Century Scotland’


British Society for the History of Mathematics conference (12th–15th Jul 2021, St Andrews)

Contributer to symposium: ‘The Practices of Mathematical Antiquaries in Early Modern Britain’

Paper: ‘Colin Maclaurin and the “Unexceptionable Principles” of Archimedes’


European Society for the History of Science Early Career Scholars conference (20th–22nd Sep 2021, Athens)

Paper: ‘The Genius of Modesty: Anti-Cartesianism and the Making of Newton in Enlightenment Scotland’


‘The Mind Is Its Own Place? Early Modern Intellectual History in an Institutional Context’ (5th–6th May 2022, Oxford)

Paper: ‘David Gregory’s “Astronomical City”: Newton’s Principia and the Problems of Philosophy’


British Society for the History of Science Digital Festival for the History of Science (3rd–6th July 2023, online)

Participant in panel discussion: ‘Newtonian Mechanics in Enlightenment Scotland’


International Society for Intellectual History annual conference (4th–6th September 2023, Edinburgh)

Paper: ‘Scepticism, Atheism, and the Completion of the Newtonian System: The Defence of Natural Philosophy in Late Enlightenment Edinburgh’