More Whewell

When we have thus obtained, with reference to any such subject as those we have here spoken of, these two portions of science, a systematic description of the facts, and a rigorous analysis of the causes, — the Phenomenology and the Ætiology of the subject, — we are prepared for the third member which completes the science, the Theory of the actual facts. [William Whewell, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, vol 2: 121]

Given that much modern philosophy of science is theory-centric, I find this rather refreshing.

9 thoughts on “More Whewell

  1. Hm. How did Whewell distinguish Ætiology from Theory? It’s not clear to me that they’re different, I guess because I’m too modern.

    I agree, though, that Phenomenology deserves greater attention – if only as a method of bomb disposal.


    1. This is the, as it were, series of local efficient causes (like chemical affinity, gravity, energy transfer, and the like). The theory is an explanation in terms of phenomenal and etiological facts, joined together in some general account.


  2. Hmmm. Not so sure it’s refreshing, rather much of the same old if you’ve kept an eye on ID….

    What is this “rigorous analysis of the causes”?

    pp. 657–8 “Other species of animal, once brought into existence, continue the same through all ages; man is changing… It may be found, that such occurrences as these are quite inexplicable by the aid of any natural causes with which we are acquainted; and thus, the result of our investigations, conducted with strict regard to scientific principles, may be, that we must contemplate supernatural influences as part of the past series of events, or declare ourselves unable to form this series into a connected chain.”

    OK, the last alternative of accepting ignorance is spurned by our modern antievolutionists, but my understanding is that Whewell considered that science should have as a basis that God is the first cause. Not sure where that bit comes in…


    1. Whewell of course writes in 1840, before evolution was accepted widely (and he never did accept Darwin’s view), but his reasons are not those of ID. He has the view that a theory must be founded in what he called unformitarian principles of actualism. He rejected Darwin’s view because, like many others, he did not see that Darwin had given a uniformitarian account, ironically since Darwin relied in part on his, and Lyell’s, principles. Whewell’s employment of those principles was not good, but the principles themselves were.


  3. Thanks, John, from the bit I read Whewell does seem to have put the search for natural explanations first before resorting to the supernatural. However, Bowler’s “Evolution, The History of an Idea” p. 198 describes Whewell’s idealist view as being that investigation could begin with intuitive truths about nature, such as the legitimate intuition that species were fixed objects created by design.

    Idealists were also certain that the First Cause, God, existed and influenced observable events. Those that accepted a law-like creation process of evolution still held that there was purposeful design.

    So far, on Bowler’s account, it bears some resemblance to the more reasonable musings of ID, but lacks the virulent denial of evolution. My understanding is that it was near the end of the 19th century before all accepted that supernatural intervention could not be usefully incorporated as a scientific explanation.

    Some source I’ve misplaced gave the idea that from the outset of his theorising, Darwin tried to meet Whewell’s standards of consilience, leading to a debate on methodology in the 1860s. That would seem to explain Darwin’s insistence on finding a wide array of facts explained by natural selection, and presumably ties in with what you say about uniformitarian principles.


    1. Whewell did write one of the Bridgewater Treatises, so he was definitely in what would now be called the ID camp, but at the time this was hardly controversial, and naturalistic accounts were given within a framework in which supernatural actions were explanatory. But let’s not forget that he also argued in favour of Lyell’s actualism, because this was how science should be done, he thought.

      I do not think that Whewell was an idealist. His views of species were based, as most were, of a view I call the Generative Conception of Species; that species are similarities propagated by generation, something Cuvier explicitly defined in the early years of the century.

      I’m not sure I’d call that idealism. Bowler probably has his reasons.


  4. In fairness, Bowler was contrasting the reaction to On the Origin of Species from opponents who “aligned themselves with the rival idealist school of thought represented by William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences” in contrast to Darwin’s supporters who tended to favour the empiricism of John Stuart Mill’s Sytem of Logic . Probably a huge oversimplification.

    Thanks for your help and writings on this. I find it very hard to get my mind into the various frames of view of the early 19th century, and had tended to think of Whewell as siding with those he called catastropists rather than Lyell’s uniformitarianism. However there does seem to have been a convergence in these views of geology in the 1830s, despite the popularity of Lyell’s propagandist depiction of his opponents. Such a complex area!


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