Richard Melson

September 2006

William Whewel

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William Whewell, 1794-1866.

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

His surname is pronounced "H-you-el."

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 at Trinity College, Cambridge (1812). 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. 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.

What is most often remarked about Whewell is the breadth of his endeavors. At a time when men of science were becoming increasingly specialized, 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. For all these pursuits, it comes to 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 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: 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.

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.

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 terms scientist (before they were known as "men of science"), physicist, anode, cathode, consilience, catastrophism, and uniformitarianism -- among others.

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.

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.

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 3rd 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 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 ac pacis (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).


See also

Earl of Bridgewater for other Bridgewater Treatise

Lectures from Archive for the History of Economic Thought

External links

There is a long essay on Whewell as philosopher by Laura J. Snyder

The omnicompetent Whewell wrote several papers on

mathematical economics as well as a set of introductory lectures

The New School entry has some useful links, as well as several that do not work!

William Whewell from History of Economic Thought


Cambridge mineralogist, moral philosopher, mystic, educator and polymath. As one contemporary put it, "science is his forte, omniscience is his foible". Although a close friend of the English historicist Richard Jones, William Whewell nonetheless set himself the task of translating a lot of given economic theory into mathematics (1829, 1830, 1850) -- an endeavor that was not warmly welcomed by many contemporaries. However, he did support Jones's inductive methodology in principle. His attempts to fit mathematical demand curves to data and his derivation of an equilibrium in trade in a 1850 article have led some to consider him a proto-Marginalist.

Whewell is also widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy of science. He was the most renowned of the writers of the Bridgewater Treatises in the 1830s, a Royal Society-organized collection of essays connecting religion/mysticism and science -- what was then known as "natural theology". Loosely, Whewell's basic argument was that knowledge of the world is acquired because there are "fundamental" and uniform laws of science which we are able to discover. Whewell took this as evidence of the existence of a divinity to provide such uniformity. These underlying scientific laws of the world are precisely the "Ideas" that God used in his creation of it. Taking it a step further, Whewell went on to argue that science, by "discovering" these laws, was itself a providential task as it brought men closer to understanding the majesty of God's design.

In less religious moments, Whewell is best known for his theory of induction (which led up to a sharp debate with the more empirically-minded John Stuart Mill). The "sharing" of human mind and physical phenomena was used by Whewell to argue that a priori ideas were necessarily "true" in an empirical sense. Because mind and world are synchronized by the same principle, human intuition and empirical evidence tend to achieve the same results. To use a famous example, Whewell did not accept that 2 + 1 = 3 on the grounds that it was a tautology (i.e. "2 + 1 is the definition of 3", as argued by Condillac and James Mill) nor because it was an empirical fact ("experience shows that a triple of things can be divided into a double and a single", as argued by John Stuart Mill). Instead, Whewell argued that because it is inconceivable to think that 2 + 1 is not equal to 3, therefore 2 + 1 = 3. Empirical evidence merely confirms this natural intuition, but it is not the cause of it.

Whewell was also an able pedagogue with an important role in reorganizing Trinity College, Cambridge. Whewell was critical in introducing the "moral sciences" and "natural sciences" examinations at Cambridge in 1848.

He was also notable wordsmith, e.g. the positive/negative charge language for electochemistry used since Faraday and even the terms "scientist" and "physicist" in their modern meaning are originally due to Whewell.

Major works of William Whewell

Resources on William Whewell


Six Lectures on Political Economy

Delivered at Cambridge in Michaelmas Term, 1861 by

William Whewell, D.D.

Master of Trinity College Cambridge 1862

  1. Preface

  2. Lecture One

  3. Lecture Two

  4. Lecture Three

  5. Lecture Four

  6. Lecture Five

  7. Lecture Six

William Whewell: "scientist" &"consilience"

September 6, 2006