Science: Empiricism, Skepticism, or Cooperation?

I was recently surprised and delighted to discover a relatively unknown philosopher of science who possesses deep insights. His name is William Whewell (pronounced Hugh-well), a Cambridge professor from the early to mid-1800s. His breadth and depth of knowledge, his insight into the nature of knowledge, and the sheer volume of his writings are truly incredible. In his time, Whewell was one of the foremost scholars in Europe, becoming the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1841. Today, alas, he is completely forgotten.

Whewell’s Science

Whewell’s notoriety in the 1800s was due to his extensive writings in mathematics, science, and philosophy of science. One of his major works focused on the theory of the ocean tides. Prior to Whewell, Newton had put forth a theory of the tides based on the gravitational attraction of the moon. However, the particular tidal variations depended on local shoreline shape and ocean depth, making predictions based on Newton’s theories incomplete. Whewell’s approach was to create a more exact theory based upon extensive tidal measurements. He faced the problem, however, that no such measurements existed, at least none on a broad scale. Undaunted, Whewell created a bold plan to gather such measurements. By drawing upon connections with scientific societies, friends, acquaintances, and seamen, he was able to collect a set of tidal measurements for a specific period of two weeks from many different locales around the world. From these, he produced a detailed mathematical theory accurate enough for maritime navigation. Whewell thus created the first international scientific collaborative project.

This first innovation was one of many for Whewell. He was also involved in the creation of the first scientific society that was open to all interested parties. The existing societies (such as the Royal Society of England) were aristocratic, insular, and catered to the interests of the well-to-do. Whewell’s society allowed the common man to enter the field. Whewell was also the first to promote a new, more modern mathematics curriculum to Cambridge University—a curriculum more suited to the problems of the times. And to top it all off, he was the first to promote the use of the word “scientist,” replacing the older designation “natural philosopher.”

Whewell’s Philosophy

Whewell’s main contribution, however, was to philosophy of science. Whewell argued for an inductive approach to science in which new creative insights are superinduced upon existing facts to organize and make sense of those facts. He elegantly blended creative speculation with adherence to facts, reason with sense experience, and the subjective with the objective. The one without the other was, for Whewell, meaningless. His philosophy, which derived from a study of history, rejected some of the most prominent beliefs about knowledge: skepticism, in which true knowledge is not possible; empiricism, in which knowledge is based solely on experiment; and rationalism, in which only mathematical proofs constituted true knowledge.

He applied his inductive approach broadly. I have already mentioned his fact-gathering methods on the tides. His foray into architectural history began with a careful survey of gothic cathedrals throughout Europe. In economics, he visited a wide variety of different socio-economic groups to learn about their economic conditions, and he also argued that an accurate economic theory could only be developed after a lengthy and careful study of economic history. Whewell even approached the philosophy of science inductively. He first wrote six volumes on the history and development of science before he was ready to show, from history, that science progressed according to his philosophy of science.

Whewell’s Legacy

In the end, Whewell’s ideas in philosophy of science did not become fashionable, despite their merit. Scientists and philosophers of science were starting to become specialists, and those specialists were more enamored of German philosophies that pursued skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism. The irony underlying this developing specialization is striking. Whewell was a true generalist. (One author called him a mathematician-mineralogist-architectural historian-linguist-classicist-physicist-geologist-historian-philosopher-theologian-mountainclimbing-poet.) His lifelong project was to encourage careful inductive science. To do so, however, more measurements, more cooperation, and more specialization were required. Thus, ironically, his efforts as a generalist set the stage for specialists. There was no longer any place for the type of scholar he was, and this slowly created the wedge between the sciences and the humanities that we see today.  Unfortunately, Whewell’s legacy of specialization did not include the best he had to offer: his philosophy of science. Modern education has very little patience with generalists like Whewell. Today, the scholar of quality is necessarily the specialist. For all the benefits that come with specialization, what is lost is the ability to reflect on the nature and value of that specialty, an ability that Whewell had in spades.


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