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William Whewell

William Whewell (1794-1866)
Born 24 May 1794(1794-05-24)
Lancaster, Lancashire, England
Died 6 March 1866 (aged 71)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Residence England
Nationality English
Fields Polymath, philosopher, theologian
Institutions University of Cambridge
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Known for Coining the words 'scientist' and 'physicist' and the phrase 'hypothetico-deductive'
Influences John Gough
John Hudson
Influenced Augustus De Morgan
Isaac Todhunter

William Whewell (24 May 1794 – 6 March 1866) was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science. His surname is pronounced /ˈhjuːəl/ HEW-əl.


Life and career

Whewell was born in Lancaster, England. His father, a carpenter, wished him to follow his trade, but his success in mathematics at Lancaster and Heversham grammar schools won him an exhibition (a type of scholarship) at Trinity College, Cambridge (1812). In 1814 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal for poetry.[1] He was Second Wrangler in 1816, President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1817, became fellow and tutor of his college, and, in 1841, succeeded Dr Christopher Wordsworth as master. He was professor of mineralogy from 1828 to 1832 and Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy (then called "moral theology and casuistical divinity") from 1838 to 1855.[2]

Whewell died in Cambridge 1866 as a result of a fall from his horse.[3]

Full bibliographical details are given by Isaac Todhunter, W. Whewell: an Account of his Writings (2 vols., 1876). See also Life of W. Whewell, by Mrs Stair Douglas (1881).

Scientific generalist


Multiple disciplines

What is most often remarked about Whewell is the breadth of his endeavours. At a time when men of science were becoming increasingly specialised, Whewell appears as a vestige of an earlier era when men of science dabbled in a bit of everything. He researched ocean tides (for which he won the Royal Medal), published work in the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts.

Tracing the history and development of science

For all these pursuits, it comes as no surprise that his best-known works are two voluminous books which attempt to map and systematize the development of the sciences, History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840). While the History traced how each branch of the sciences had evolved since antiquity, Whewell viewed the Philosophy as the “Moral” of the previous work as it sought to extract a universal theory of knowledge through the history he had just traced. In the Philosophy, Whewell attempted to follow Francis Bacon's plan for discovery of an effectual art of discovery. He examined ideas ("explication of conceptions") and by the "colligation of facts" endeavoured to unite these ideas with the facts and so construct science. But no art of discovery, such as Bacon anticipated, follows, for "invention, sagacity, genius" are needed at each step.

Whewell's three steps of induction

Whewell analysed inductive reasoning into three steps:

  • The selection of the (fundamental) idea, such as space, number, cause, or likeness (resemblance);
  • The formation of the conception, or more special modification of those ideas, as a circle, a uniform force, etc.; and,
  • The determination of magnitudes.

Upon these follow special methods of induction applicable to quantity: the method of curves, the method of means, the method of least squares and the method of residues, and special methods depending on resemblance (to which the transition is made through the law of continuity), such as the method of gradation and the method of natural classification. In Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Whewell was the first to use the term "consilience" to discuss the unification of knowledge between the different branches of learning.

Opponent of English empiricism

Here, as in his ethical doctrine, Whewell was moved by opposition to contemporary English empiricism. Following Immanuel Kant, he asserted against John Stuart Mill the a priori nature of necessary truth, and by his rules for the construction of conceptions he dispensed with the inductive methods of Mill.

Whewell's neologisms

One of Whewell's greatest gifts to science was his wordsmithing. He often corresponded with many in his field and helped them come up with new terms for their discoveries. In fact, Whewell came up with the term scientist itself. (They had previously been known as "natural philosophers" or "men of science"). Whewell also contributed the terms physicist, consilience, catastrophism, and uniformitarianism, amongst others; Whewell suggested the terms anode and cathode to Michael Faraday.


Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, an equation defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system.

Work in college administration

Whewell was prominent not only in scientific research and philosophy, but also in university and college administration. His first work, An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics (1819), cooperated with those of George Peacock and John Herschel in reforming the Cambridge method of mathematical teaching. His work and publications also helped influence the recognition of the moral and natural sciences as an integral part of the Cambridge curriculum. In general, however, especially in later years, he opposed reform: he defended the tutorial system, and in a controversy with Connop Thirlwall (1834), opposed the admission of Dissenters; he upheld the clerical fellowship system, the privileged class of "fellow-commoners," and the authority of heads of colleges in university affairs. He opposed the appointment of the University Commission (1850), and wrote two pamphlets (Remarks) against the reform of the university (1855). He stood against the scheme of entrusting elections to the members of the senate and instead, advocated the use of college funds and the subvention of scientific and professorial work.

Whewell's interests in architecture

Aside from Science, Whewell was also interested in the history of architecture throughout his life. He is best known for his writings on Gothic architecture, specifically his book, Architectural Notes on German Churches (first published in 1830). In this work, Whewell established a strict nomenclature for German Gothic churches and came up with a theory of stylistic development. His work is associated with the "scientific trend" of architectural writers, along with Thomas Rickman and Robert Willis.

Whewell's works in philosophy and morals

Between 1835 and 1861 Whewell produced various works on the philosophy of morals and politics, the chief of which, Elements of Morality, including Polity, was published in 1845. The peculiarity of this work—written, of course, from what is known as the intuitional point of view--is its fivefold division of the springs of action and of their objects, of the primary and universal rights of man (personal security, property, contract, family rights and government), and of the cardinal virtues (benevolence, justice, truth, purity and order).

Among Whewell's other works—too numerous to mention—were popular writings such as the third Bridgewater Treatise Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology (1833), and the essay, Of the Plurality of Worlds (1854), in which he argued against the probability of life on other planets, and also the Platonic Dialogues for English Readers (1850-1861), the Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England (1852), the essay, Of a Liberal Education in General, with particular reference to the Leading Studies of the University of Cambridge (1845), the important edition and abridged translation of Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis (1853), and the edition of the Mathematical Works of Isaac Barrow (1860).

Whewell was one of the Cambridge dons whom Charles Darwin met during his education there, and after the Beagle voyage when Darwin was at the very start of The Origin of Species Darwin placed a citation from Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise showing his ideas to be founded on a natural theology of a creator establishing laws:[4]

"But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws."

Checklist of works by Whewell

(1831) Review of J. Herschel's Preliminary discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy (1830), Quarterly Review 90: 374-407.

(1833) Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to Natural Theology (Bridgewater Treatise). Cambridge.

(1840) The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, founded upon their history. 2 vols, London. 2nd ed 1847. Volume 1. Volume 2.

(1845) The Elements of Morality, including polity. 2 vols, London. Volume 2.

(1846) Lectures on systematic Morality. London.

(1849) Of Induction, with especial reference to Mr. J. Stuart Mill's System of Logic. London.

(1850) Mathematical exposition of some doctrines of political economy: second memoir. Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 9:128-49.

(1852) Lectures on the history of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(1853) Of the Plurality of Worlds. London.

(1857) Spedding's complete edition of the works of Bacon. Edinburgh Review 106:287-322.

(1857) History of the Inductive Sciences, from the earliest to the present time. 2 vols, New York.

(1858a) The history of scientific ideas. 2 vols, London.

(1858b) Novum Organon renovatum, London.

(1860a) On the philosophy of discovery: chapters historical and critical. London.

(1861) Plato's Republic (translation). Cambridge.

(1862) Six Lectures on Political Economy, Cambridge.

(1862) Additional Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, Cambridge.

(1866) Comte and Positivism. Macmillan's Magazine 13:353-62.

Honors and recognitions

See also


  1. ^ University of Cambridge (1859) (PDF). A Complete Collection of the English Poems which Have Obtained the Chancellor's Gold Medal in the University of Cambridge. Cambridge: W. Metcalfe. Retrieved 1 October 2008.  
  2. ^ Whewell, William in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  3. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: MAR 1866 3b 353 CAMBRIDGE - William Whewell, aged 71
  4. ^ Darwin, Charles (1859), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London: John Murray, <> (The Origin of Species page ii.) Retrieved on 5 January 2007

Further reading

  • Heilbron, J L (2002), "Coming to terms.", Nature 415 (6872): 585, 2002 Feb 7, doi:10.1038/415585a, PMID 11832919  
  • Losee, J (1983), "Whewell and Mill on the relation between philosophy of science and history of science.", Studies in history and philosophy of science 14 (2): 113–26, 1983 Jun, PMID 11615935  
  • Metcalfe, J F (1991), "Whewell's developmental psychologism: a Victorian account of scientific progress.", Studies in history and philosophy of science 22 (1): 117–39, 1991 Mar, PMID 11622706  
  • Ruse, M (1975), "Darwin's debt to philosophy: an examination of the influence of the philosophical ideas of John F. W. Herschel and William Whewell on the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.", Studies in history and philosophy of science 6 (2): 159–81, 1975 Jun, PMID 11615591  
  • Whewell, W., Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology; Bridgewater Treatises, W. Pickering, 1833 (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 9781108000123)
  • Whewell, W., Of the Plurality of Worlds. An Essay; J. W. Parker and son, 1853 (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 9781108000185)

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Christopher Wordsworth
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
William Hepworth Thompson


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Every failure is a step to success. Every detection of what is false directs us towards what is true: every trial exhausts some tempting form of error.

William Whewell (May 24, 1794March 6, 1866) was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian and historian of science.


  • And so no force however great can stretch a cord however fine into an horizontal line which is accurately straight.
    • Elementary Treatise on Mechanics, The Equilibrium of Forces on a Point (1819)
  • We cannot observe external things without some degree of Thought; nor can we reflect upon our Thoughts, without being influenced in the course of our reflection by the Things which we have observed.
    • The Elements of Morality, Book 1, ch. 1. (1845)
  • Every failure is a step to success. Every detection of what is false directs us towards what is true: every trial exhausts some tempting form of error. Not only so; but scarcely any attempt is entirely a failure; scarcely any theory, the result of steady thought, is altogether false; no tempting form of Error is without some latent charm derived from Truth.
    • Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England, Lecture 7. (1852)

Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840)

  • According to the technical language of old writers, a thing and its qualities are described as subject and attributes; and thus a man’s faculties and acts are attributes of which he is the subject. The mind is the subject in which ideas inhere. Moreover, the man’s faculties and acts are employed upon external objects; and from objects all his sensations arise. Hence the part of a man’s knowledge which belongs to his own mind, is subjective: that which flows in upon him from the world external to him, is objective.
    • Part 1, Book 1, ch. 2, sect. 7
  • By speaking of space as an Idea, I intend to imply...that the apprehension of objects as existing in space, and of the relations of position, &c., prevailing among them, is not a consequence of experience, but a result of a peculiar constitution and activity of the mind, which is independent of all experience in its origin, though constantly combined with experience in its exercise.
    • Part 1, Book 2, ch. 2, art. 1
  • Our assent to the hypothesis implies that it is held to be true of all particular instances. That these cases belong to past or to future times, that they have or have not already occurred, makes no difference in the applicability of the rule to them. Because the rule prevails, it includes all cases.
    • Part 2, Book 11, ch. 5, sect. 3, art. 10
  • The system becomes more coherent as it is further extended. The elements which we require for explaining a new class of facts are already contained in our system. Different members of the theory run together, and we have thus a constant convergence to unity. In false theories, the contrary is the case.
    • Part 2, Book 11, ch. 5, sect. 3, art. 12
  • Man is the interpreter of nature, science the right interpretation.
    • Aphorism 17
  • In art, truth is a means to an end; in science, it is the only end.
    • Aphorism 25
  • The catastrophist constructs theories, the uniformitarian demolishes them.
    • Aphorism 36
  • It is a test of true theories not only to account for but to predict phenomena.
    • Aphorism 39

External links

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Simple English

File:Whewell William
William Whewell

William Whewell (24 May 1794 – 6 March 1866) was an English polymath, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science. He influenced the great scientists of his day: John Herschel, Charles Darwin,[1] Charles Lyell and Michael Faraday. He invented many terms we use today, such as scientist (in 1837).

The son of a carpenter, Whewell rose to the top. For 28 years he was a Professor, and for 25 years he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge University. He was one of the founding members and a president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and President of the Geological Society. It was the Prime Minister himself, Robert Peel, who recommended his appointment as Master of Trinity.

Whewell had wide interests. He researched ocean tides (for which he won the Royal Medal). He published work in mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics. He composed poetry, wrote books, translated the works of Goethe, and wrote sermons and theological tracts.

History & philosophy of science

Whewell's five volumes of the History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences are his major work. Science was then still a novel activity. The scientists themselves held differing views as to how best to go about their work. Whewell provided a theoretical framework,[2] and the framework provoked a great deal of debate. There was also a long-running discussion with John Stuart Mill about social and economic philosophy.[3][4]


  1. Ruse M. 1975. Darwin's debt to philosophy: an examination of the influence of the philosophical ideas of John F.W. Herschel and William Whewell on the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 6: 159–181.
  2. Yeo R. 1993. Defining Science: William Whewell, natural knowledge, and public debate in early Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Mill J.S. 1836. Dr. Whewell on Moral Philosophy. Westminster Review 58:349–385.
  4. Snyder L.J. 1997. The Mill-Whewell debate: much ado about induction. Perspectives on Science 5: 159–198.
  • History of the inductive sciences, 3 vols. Editions: 1837; 1847; 1857.
  • Philosophy of the inductive sciences, founded upon their history, 2 vols. Editions: 1840; 1847; 1858–1860


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