Happy Birthday, William Whewell (1794-1866)!!


William Whewell (1794–1866)

William Whewell (1794–1866)

On this date in 1794, the British natural philosopher, mathematician, all-around polymath (and inventor of the word “scientist”) William Whewell was born. I first heard of Whewell in my first year of graduate school, and it is no exaggeration to say that the event changed my life: it led me to write my two books, and indeed to change course in my scholarship, as well as helping to bring about my dream of writing books that people other than scholars would want to read.

The first time Whewell was mentioned in my presence was in a lecture on philosophy of science. Whewell was then mainly known (if at all) as the foil for the (now) more famous British philosopher J.S. Mill. Whewell and Mill famously disagreed about scientific method. Philosophers of Science would at that time routinely refer to Mill as the “winner” in their debate, the one who better understood how science actually worked, casting it as an argument between an inductive view of science and a non-inductive viewpoint, with Whewell in the role of the non-inductivist. I couldn’t help but wonder why a non-inductivist would write a book called Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences! This led me to an intense study of the two philosophers, which resulted in my first book, Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. I argued there that, in fact, Whewell was proposing an inductive, evidence-based scientific method, in the tradition of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Mill was changing the meaning of induction by introducing a vision of inductive reasoning that held it impossible to have knowledge of anything unseen, such as the unobserved entities and properties part of any scientific law. Mill was the one who did not understand the way science worked.

Mill was not particularly concerned about scientific method; his massive and mostly misunderstood work, A System of Logic, was written as a political tract. The English author and critic (and father of Virginia Woolf) Leslie Stephen said the book was recognized by students of the time as being a treatise on the Utilitarian moral and political philosophy. In Reforming Philosophy I argued that Mill’s scientific method was meant to counter what he considered to be reactionary political and moral views—such as those he, somewhat unfairly, associated with Whewell. So in that book I examined not only the scientific and logical views of Mill and Whewell, but also their positions on moral philosophy, politics, and economics.

That interdisciplinary approach brought me back to my origins as a student not only of philosophy but of history, and particularly the history of thought. The research for that book also led me to a letter received by Whewell when he was Master of Trinity college–a letter that referred back to the “philosophical breakfasts” held in John Herschel’s rooms.

“Philosophical Breakfasts?” I remember thinking, “with Herschel and Babbage? Now this would make a great book!”

A few years later, I finally had the opportunity to write that book, and to write it the way it should be written—in an accessible narrative style. And since the publication of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people about Whewell and his friends, and the revolution in science they helped bring about. This relationship with Whewell has brought me to a wonderful place in my life. So, for selfish reasons, I celebrate his birthday today.

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.”