Happy Birthday William Whewell, b. May 24, 1794

William Whewell was a true polymath, an innovator in numerous fields: crystallography, mathematical economics, tidal research, international “big” science, educational reform, history of science, and philosophy of science. In honor of his birthday, I would like to share this brief excerpt from chapter 10 of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, in which I discuss the inspiration behind one of Whewell’s most important contributions to discussions of scientific method, namely his claim that finding the correct concept to use in bringing together the known facts under a law—as when Kepler used the concept of an ellipse rather than a circle to unify the motions of the planets—is often the most difficult and crucial part of scientific discovery.

“The inspiration for Whewell’s belief in the crucial role of clearly formulated concepts in scientific knowledge originated from an unlikely source: Whewell’s study of architecture. . . . Examination of [over eighty Gothic] churches led Whewell to the belief that the development of Gothic architecture was due to the introduction of an idea: the idea of verticality, the concept of reaching upwards towards the heavens. The rise of the Gothic style, Whewell concluded, had occurred by the substitution of the idea of verticality for the Romanesque idea of horizontality. The new style, then, was brought about not by the introduction of one feature such as the pointed arch [as other architectural historians typically argued], but rather by the introduction the new idea. Indeed, the new idea led to the new feature: the desire for more vertical lines led to the use of the pointed arch, because in order to have greater height with thinner walls and more light, it was necessary to provide greater stabilization for the increased thrusts of the vaults over the interior. The was partially provided by pointed arches. . . .

“Far from being a barbaric form of architecture, as many had argued, and as the original use of the term ‘Gothic’ was meant to signify, the Gothic style is beautiful when found in its purest form. Whewell explained that what makes a building or architectural style ‘beautiful’ is that it contains a principle or idea that gives unity and harmony to the whole. The Gothic style, ‘in adopting forms and laws which are the reverse of the ancient ones . . . introduced new principles as fixed and true, and as full of unity and harmony, as those of the previous system.’ Buildings are ‘barbarous’ or ‘degenerate’ when they mix styles, when there is no overriding principle of unity.

“His work in architecture suggested to Whewell that concepts could be unifying principles, means of bringing together and making lawful a group of otherwise disparate facts. Just as the concept of verticality could unify diverse parts of a Gothic structure, so too the concept of an ellipse could unify and make lawful the observed points of the orbit of Mars. The scientist, then, was like an architect, building lovely, unified structures called theories, using the bricks that nature provided, and the blueprints provided by the mind.”

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