WHEWELL, WILLIAM (1794–1866), British philosopher and historian of science, was born on the 24th of May 1794 at Lancaster. His father, a carpenter, wished him to follow his trade, but his success in mathematics at Lancaster and Heversham grammar-schools enabled him to proceed with an exhibition to Trinity, 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. He died on the 6th of March 1866 from the effects of a fall from his horse.
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 Peacock and Herschel in reforming the Cambridge method of mathematical teaching; to him in large measure was due 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 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 Airy in conducting experiments in Dolcoath mine, Cornwall, in order to determine the density of the earth. Their united labours were unsuccessful, and Whewell did little more in the way of experimental science. He was the author, however, of 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 an enduring reputation mainly 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 of the greatest value. In his own opinion, the History was to be regarded 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 by the History in the process of development.
In the Philosophy, Whewell endeavours to follow 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, &c.; and (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 (see Ethics), Whewell was moved by opposition to contemporary English empiricism. Following Kant, he asserted against J. S. 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 was the author of 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 work—too numerous to mention—reference must be made to writings popular in their day, 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 (1859–1861), 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 Grotius, De jure belli et pacis (1853), and to the edition of the Mathematical Works of Isaac Barrow (1860).
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).
- Afterwards broken up into three parts published separately: (1) the History of Scientific Ideas (1858), substantially a reproduction of the first part of the Philosophy; (2) the Novum organum renovatum (1858). containing the second part of the same work, but without the historical review of opinions, which was issued with large additions as (3) the Philosophy of Discovery (1860).