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was carried out primarily through his major work,
Introductio ad veram physicam ... (1701), based on
the series of experimental lectures on Newtonian
natural philosophy he had been giving at Oxford
since 1694. The first such lectures ever given, their
attempt to derive Newton's laws experimentally did
much to influence later publications. Although Keill
makes the decidedly anti-Newtonian principle of the
infinite divisibility of matter in nature a fundamental
axiom, the Introductio again unfavorably contrasts
Cartesian mechanism, with its dangers of atheism,
and Newtonianism. Descartes's insufficient use of
geometry, his attempt to define the essences of things
rather than being content merely to describe their
major properties, and his desire to explain the complex
before he can adequately deal with the simple distinguish
his fictions from the true principles of Newton.
An appendix to the Introductio gives a proof for the
law of centrifugal “force,” whose magnitude had been
announced in 1673 by Christiaan Huygens. Several
years after the Introductio, Keill published an article
on the laws of attraction, dealing mainly with shortrange
forces between small particles, in which he
elaborated on Newtonian hypotheses that Newton
himself had been unable to pursue.
Some of Keill's writings also brought hostile
attacks against Newtonianism from the Continent.
For example, his charge that Leibniz had plagiarized
from Newton's invention of the calculus gave rise to
a major dispute between English and Continental
natural philosophers, in which Keill served as Newton's
“avowed Champion.” Keill's article on the laws
of attraction also brought criticisms from the Continent
against the employment in Newtonianism of such
dubious philosophical concepts as attraction.
In 1700 Keill was elected fellow of the Royal
Society. Support from Henry Aldrich, dean of Christ
Church College, Oxford, helped Keill's preferment,
particularly in becoming deputy to Millington in 1699,
just after the attack on Burnet, Whiston, and Bentley.
In 1709 Robert Harley helped Keill become treasurer
for the refugees from the Palatinate, in which connection
he traveled to New England. From 1712 to 1716,
with Harley's help, he was a decipherer to Queen
Keill's uncle was John Cockburn, a controversial
Scottish clergyman with Jacobin sympathies. His
brother, James, with help from John, tried to apply
Newtonian principles to medicine; at his death James
left a large sum of money to John. John's marriage in
1717 to Mary Clements, many years his junior and of
lesser social standing, was the cause of some scandal.
Besides her, Keill was survived by a son, who became
a linen draper in London.
I. ORIGINAL WORKS.
Introductio ad veram physicam,
accedunt Christiani Hugenii theoremata de vi centrifuga et
motu circulari demonstrata ... (Oxford, 1701) was translated
as An Introduction to Natural Philosophy, or Philosophical
Lectures Read in the University of Oxford ...
(London, 1720); when Newtonianism began to make
inroads in France, it was translated into French. An
Examination of Dr Burnet's Theory of the Earth. Together
With Some Remarks on Mr Whiston's New Theory of the
Earth (Oxford, 1698) includes, in the 1734 ed., Maupertuis's
Dissertation on the Celestial Bodies. Keill answered
Burnet's and Whiston's defenses in An Examination of the
Reflections on the Theory of the Earth. Together With a
Defence of the Remarks on Mr Whiston's New Theory
(Oxford, 1699). Introductio ad veram astronomiam, seu
lectiones astronomicae ... (Oxford, 1718) was translated
as An Introduction to the True Astronomy; or, Astronomical
Lectures ... (London, 1721) and also appeared in French.
“On the Laws of Attraction and Other Principles of
Physics” is in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,
no. 315 (1708), p. 97. “Response aux auteurs des remarques,
sur le différence entre M. de Leibnitz et M. Newton,”
in Journal litéraire de la Haye,2 (1714), 445-453, is
several articles by Keill on the calculus controversy. He
edited the Commercium epistolicum D. Johannis Collins, et
aliorum, de analysi promota ... (London, 1712), which
contains the original documents bearing on the Newton-Leibniz
controversy. Samuel Halkett and John Laing,
Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature,
II (Edinburgh, 1926), 202, cite a contemporary MS
note in attributing authorship of Martin Strong [pseud.],
An Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning.
In a Letter From a Gentleman in the City to His Friend at
Oxford (London, 1701), to John Arbuthnot and Keill.
“Theoremata quaedam infinitam materiae divisibilitatem
spectantia, quae ejusdem raritatem et tenuem compositionem
demonstrans, quorum ope plurimae in physica
tolluntur difficultates” is in Philosophical Transactions of
the Royal Society, no. 339 (1714), p. 82. There are letters
from Keill in Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton and
Professor Cotes, J. Edleston, ed. (London, 1850). Two
boxes of Keill MSS, including some letters, drafts of
lectures, notebooks, and an inventory of his library are
in the Lucasian Papers at Cambridge University Library.
II. SECONDARY LITERATURE.
There has been very little
attention given to Keill by historians of science, and
mention of him generally is found only in connection with
the controversy over the calculus. Among Newton's biographers,
Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings,
and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, I (Edinburgh, 1855),
pp. 335, 341-342, II, pp. 43-44, 53, 69; and Frank Manuel,
Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Mass., 1968),
pp. 271-278, 321-323, 329, 335-338, 351, 399, 456, discuss
Keill. There is a section on Keill's approach to natural
philosophy in E. W. Strong, “Newtonian Explications of
Natural Philosophy,” in Journal of the History of Ideas,18 (1957), 49-83. Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem