William Whewell

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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. 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[change | edit source]

It can be said that Whewell was the first, or one of the first, to put together a philosophy of science. His only rival in this respect was John Herschel, whose A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy covered some of the same ground.[2]

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,[3] 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.[4][5]

Words he coined[change | edit source]

  • Scientist
  • Physicist
  • Anode
  • Cathode
  • Uniformitarianism: the same laws and processes that operate now have always operated in the past and apply everywhere. It is often said as 'the present is the key to the past'. Similar to gradualism, the idea that small continual changes add up to huge effects.
  • Catastrophism: the idea that Earth has had sudden, short-lived, violent events, possibly worldwide in scope.
  • Consilience: the unity of knowledge, literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge.

Books[change | edit source]

  • 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

References[change | edit source]

  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. Herschel, John 1831. A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy {part of Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet cyclopædia) new edition 1840.
  3. Yeo R. 1993. Defining Science: William Whewell, natural knowledge, and public debate in early Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Mill J.S. 1836. Dr. Whewell on Moral Philosophy. Westminster Review 58:349–385.
  5. Snyder L.J. 1997. The Mill-Whewell debate: much ado about induction. Perspectives on Science 5: 159–198.