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 Newton's reception in Enlightenment Scotland.



  • (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.

My PhD project is looking at the reception of Isaac Newton in Scotland, in which I am developing a new account of Newton's influence on the Scottish Enlightenment. Through understudied texts that contain the most substantial explicit engagement with Newton's achievements, I aim to show how Newton's example functioned in popular pedagogical works and important contemporary debates that often cut across several fields of inquiry.

I argue that Newton's example was of primary significance in the Scottish Enlightenment for providing an exemplary approach to causation, with the explanation of planetary motion by way of gravitation its defining feature. My account intends to show how the discipline of natural philosophy underwent a transformation in eighteenth-century Scotland, partly under the influence of debates over Newton's treatment of gravitation, and was redefined as something resembling the modern notion of 'science' around the turn of the nineteenth century. This account is aimed at integrating natural philosophy into the Scottish Enlightenment more fully, and contributes to an understanding of Newton's reception based on the purposes his example served for those who engaged with his legacy, rather than one based on a comparison between Newton's ideas and the ideas of those who came after him.

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 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’