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William Whewell

William Whewell (May 24, 1794 - March 6, 1866) was a British philosopher and historian of science.

Whewell was born at Lancaster in 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 at Trinity College, Cambridge (1812). He was second wrangler in 1816, became fellow and tutor of his college, and, in 1841, succeeded Dr Wordsworth as master. He was professor of mineralogy from 1828 to 1832, and of moral philosophy (then called "moral theology and casuistical divinity") from 1838 to 1855.

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), co-operated with those of George Peacock and John Herschel in reforming the Cambridge method of mathematical teaching; he influenced the recognition of the moral and natural sciences as an integral part of the Cambridge curriculum (1850). 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 advocated as the true reform, against the scheme of entrusting elections to the members of the senate, the use of college funds and the subvention of scientific and professorial work.

In 1826 and 1828, Whewell was engaged with George Biddell Airy in conducting experiments in Dolcoath mine, Cornwall, in order to determine the density of the earth. Their labours were unsuccessful, and Whewell did little more in the way of experimental science. He wrote an Essay on Mineralogical Classification, published in 1828, and contributed various memoirs on the tides to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society between 1833 and 1850. But it is on his History and Philosophy of the Sciences that his claim to fame rests. The History of the Inductive Sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Time appeared originally in 1837.

Whewell's wide, if superficial, acquaintance with various branches of science enabled him to write a comprehensive account of their development, which is still valuable. He regarded the History as an introduction to the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840). The latter treatise analyses the method exemplified in the formation of ideas, in the new inductions of science, and in the applications and systematization of these inductions all exhibited bv the History in the process of development. In the Philosophy, Whewell attempts to follow Francis Bacon's plan for discovery of an effectual art of discovery. He examines ideas ("explication of conceptions") and by the " colligation of facts endeavours to unite these ideas to 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. He analyses induction into three steps:

  1. the selection of the (fundamental) idea, such as space, number, cause or likeness
  2. the formation of the conception, or more special modification of those ideas, as a circle, a uniform force, etc
  3. the determination of magnitudes.
Upon these follow special methods of induction applicable to quantity, viz., 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), viz. the method of gradation and the method of natural classification.

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.

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 Bridgewater Treatise on Astronomy (1833), and the essay, Of the Plurality of Worlds (1854), in which he argued against the probability of planetary life, and also to the Platonic Dialogues for English Readers (1850-1861), to the Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England (1852), to the essay, Of a Liberal Education in General, with particular reference to the Leading Studies of the University of Cambridge (1845), to the important edition and abridged translation of Hugo Grotius, De jure belli et pads (1853), and to the edition of the Mathematical Works of Isaac Barrow (1860).

He died as a result of a fall from his horse.

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).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.