Isaac Newton's rotating bucket argument (also known as "Newton's bucket") was designed to demonstrate that true rotational motion cannot be defined as the relative rotation of the body with respect to the immediately surrounding bodies. It is one of five arguments from the "properties, causes, and effects" of true motion and rest that support his contention that, in general, true motion and rest cannot be defined as special instances of motion or rest relative to other bodies, but instead can be defined only by reference to absolute space. Alternatively, these experiments provide an operational definition of what is meant by "absolute rotation", and do not pretend to address the question of "rotation relative to what?".
These arguments, and a discussion of the distinctions between absolute and relative time, space, place and motion, appear in a Scholium at the very beginning of his great work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), which established the foundations of classical mechanics and introduced his law of universal gravitation, which yielded the first quantitatively adequate dynamical explanation of planetary motion. See the Principia on line at Andrew Motte Translation pp. 77–82.
Despite their embrace of the principle of rectilinear inertia and the recognition of the kinematical relativity of apparent motion (which underlies whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system is correct), natural philosophers of the seventeenth century continued to consider true motion and rest as physically separate descriptors of an individual body. The dominant view Newton opposed was devised by René Descartes, and was supported (in part) by Gottfried Leibniz. It held that empty space is a metaphysical impossibility because space is nothing other than the extension of matter, or, in other words, that when one speaks of the space between things one is actually making reference to the relationship that exists between those things and not to some entity that stands between them. Concordant with the above understanding, any assertion about the motion of a body boils down to a description over time in which the body under consideration is at t1 found in the vicinity of one group of "landmark" bodies and at some t2 is found in the vicinity of some other "landmark" body or bodies.
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