Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/May 1875/Sketch of Dr. William Whewell

 
PSM V07 D008 William Whewell.jpg
DR. WILLIAM WHEWELL
 

SKETCH OF DR. WILLIAM WHEWELL.

DR. WILLIAM WHEWELL stands highest in the literary world as the historian of science. His "History of the Inductive Sciences" is not a mere bald narration of the facts and details of scientific progress, but is a philosophical treatment of the subject, which shows the growth and advancement of principles or general truths. It is, in fact, an elaborate historical review of the processes of generalization, such as had never before been attempted. This work stands eminent among the scientific contributions of the past age, both on account of its historic erudition and its trustworthy representation of the broad inductions of modern scientific inquiry. It is a permanent work of reference in every scientific library; and the extent to which it has influenced the philosophical mind of the age is well illustrated by the acknowledgment of John Stuart Mill: that, if Whewell had not written the "History of the Inductive Sciences," the "Logic, Ratio-cinative and Inductive," might never have appeared.

Dr. Whewell was born in Lancaster, May 24, 1794. His father was a joiner, and intended to have his son follow his trade. But while at school he showed such a remarkable talent for mathematics, together with evidences of more than ordinary ability in other branches, that it was decided to send him to Cambridge. He entered Trinity College, as Freshman, in 1813, at the age of nineteen. The following year he distinguished himself by winning the English Poetical Prize. He was graduated B. A. in 1816, with the honors of second wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos, was elected a Fellow, and soon afterward Tutor of Trinity College. He rapidly earned a reputation as a successful teacher, both in the class-room and as "coach," or private tutor.

He applied himself to mathematics and vigorously went to work to bring about a radical reform in the methods of teaching the physical sciences in England. In 1819 he published his first work, "An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics," designed for the use of students of the university. In 1820 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and we now find him contributing to the "Transactions" of learned and scientific societies, and to scientific journals, papers on the tides, beat, electricity, and magnetism; and to the literary journals and reviews miscellaneous papers on subjects literary, historical, and metaphysical. In 1828 he was appointed Professor of Mineralogy in the university. In order to perfect his knowledge of that branch of natural science, he visited Germany and spent some time at the celebrated mining-schools of Freiburg and Vienna. He resigned his mineralogical professorship in 1833; published his treatises on "Statics," "Mechanics," and "Dynamics," and brought out his first great work, entitled "Astronomy and General Physics considered in their Relations to Natural Theology." In this work Dr. Whewell breaks connection with the traditions of the experimental school, and abandons Bacon and Locke, to range himself on the side of Kant, to whose philosophy he had become a convert while in Germany. He also endeavored, during this time, to make his countrymen acquainted with German literature and art, of which he was a warm admirer. He translated several gems of German literature, such as Goethe's "Hermann und Dorothea," and "The Professor's Wife," of Auerbach, and published "Notes on the Architecture of German Churches," which met with great success in England. Among other works of less importance published soon after, his "Thoughts on the Study of Mathematics as Part of a Liberal Education," and, particularly, his "Mechanical Euclid," gained considerable note. In 1837 he published his "History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Times."

Dr. Whewell's thinking now seems to enter upon the road of philosophy. During this same year he published "Four Sermons on the Foundation of Morals," and in the following year (1838) he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy in the university. From this time forward he occupied himself almost wholly with moral questions. In 1840 he published a sequel to, or commentary on, his "History of the Inductive Sciences" under the title of "The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences," which was afterward enlarged and published as three separate works under the titles of "History of Scientific Ideas," "Novum Organon Renovatum," and "On the Philosophy of Discovery." We may add to these a fourth, "Indications of the Creator," consisting of extracts bearing upon theology, from the "History" and "Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences." In 1841 he was appointed Master of Trinity, and was President of the British Association at its meeting in Plymouth, The same year he also put out another mathematical work, entitled the "Mechanics of Engineering." In 1845 he published his "Elements of Morality, including Polity," "Lectures on Systematic Morality," "On Liberal Education in General, and with Particular Reference to the Leading Studies of the University of Cambridge." The following year he issued another mathematical work on "Conic Sections; their Principal Properties proved Geometrically." In 1852 he published "Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England," and soon afterward, among others, a translation of Grotius's "Rights in Peace and War," a translation of Plato's "Dialogues," and, anonymously, a work entitled "The Plurality of Worlds," in which he argued that none of the planets, except the earth, are inhabited. This book had a great popularity, and excited much discussion. In 1855 he became Vice-Chancellor of the university, and retired from the professorship of Moral Philosophy, remaining, however. Master of Trinity. Among the last of his works was the editing, in 1861, of the mathematical works of Dr. Isaac Barrow, Master of Trinity in 1672. Dr. Whewell died May 5, 1866, from the effects of injuries received in a fall while riding on horseback. He was one of the most distinguished men that Trinity College has produced, and one of the best of its masters. He was a munificent benefactor to the college, to which he added one new court during his life, and at his death bequeathed his large fortune to the building of another, and to the founding of a professorship of International Law. Dr. Whewell was a large, strong, erect man, of the Johnsonian type, with a red face and a loud voice, an effective preacher, a vigorous controversialist, and a man of extensive and varied attainments, which were always at ready command. His memory was remarkable, but it was rather special, and took chiefly the direction of his studies. He could remember all about books and their contents with the greatest accuracy, but could not recollect the names of the Fellows of his own college. This was of course often wrongly interpreted; and very naturally so, it must be confessed, for Dr. Whewell's manner was marked by no little assumption of superiority. He was naturally aristocratic in feeling, and his pompous bearing among the college officials gave him the reputation of being arrogant. Still, he understood his own strength, and was not without excuse for a considerable degree of self-regard. A story is told of him which illustrates both his varied knowledge and his personal relations to his brother Fellows: He used frequently to so overwhelm the company at the Fellows' table with his learning, that a conspiracy was at length formed to put him down. A number of them, on one occasion, crammed up on Chinese music, from scattered articles in old reviews, which they supposed he would not be acquainted with, and then made the state of music among the Chinese the subject of a seemingly casual conversation at dinner. They were highly gratified with the apparent result; for, contrary to his usual custom, Dr. Whewell remained silent. When, however, they had nearly talked themselves out, he remarked: "I was imperfectly and to some extent incorrectly informed regarding Chinese music when I wrote the articles from which you have drawn your information." The conspiracy was a failure; the Fellows were disgusted, and the dignified doctor remained acknowledged master of the situation.