The Victorian period in Britain was an “age of reform.” It is therefore not surprising that two of the era’s most eminent intellects described themselves as reformers. Both William Whewell and John Stuart Mill believed that by reforming philosophy—including the philosophy of science—they could effect social and political change. But their divergent visions of this societal transformation led to a sustained and spirited controversy that covered morality, politics, science, and economics. Situating their debate within the larger context of Victorian society and its concerns, Reforming Philosophy shows how two very different men captured the intellectual spirit of the day and engaged the attention of other scientists and philosophers, including the young Charles Darwin.
Mill—philosopher, political economist, and Parliamentarian—remains a canonical author of Anglo-American philosophy, while Whewell—Anglican cleric, scientist, and educator—is now often overlooked, though in his day he was renowned as an authority on science. Placing their teachings in their proper intellectual, cultural, and argumentative spheres, Laura Snyder revises the standard views of these two important Victorian figures, showing that both men’s concerns remain relevant today.
A philosophically and historically sensitive account of the engagement of the major protagonists of Victorian British philosophy, Reforming Philosophy is the first book-length examination of the dispute between Mill and Whewell in its entirety. A rich and nuanced understanding of the intellectual spirit of Victorian Britain, it will be welcomed by philosophers and historians of science, scholars of Victorian studies, and students of the history of philosophy and political economy.
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About the Author
Laura J. Snyder is a Fulbright Scholar, professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City, past president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, and author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World.
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A Victorian Debate on Science and Society
By LAURA J. SNYDER THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Whewell and the Reform of Inductive Philosophy
Those who theorize rightly are in the end the lords of the earth. -William Whewell to Richard Jones, 1836
From his days as an undergraduate at Trinity College to his final years spent as Master of that institution, Whewell regarded his project as the reform of the inductive philosophy, a reform meant to apply to all areas of knowledge. Whewell intended that his reformed inductive philosophy would provide the groundwork for the reshaping of more than natural science; morality, politics, and economics would also be transformed. Armed with the proper inductive method, then, philosophers could be the "lords of the earth."
Whewell's desire to reform all of philosophy by the renovation of induction mirrored-and was influenced by-Francis Bacon's project. This influence began early. As undergraduates, Whewell, Richard Jones, and John Herschel were drawn together by their shared interest in the works of Bacon. The three of them agreed with Bacon that proper inductive method must be established for every area of thought. Even after receiving their degrees, when they were no longer gatheredtogether at Cambridge, they all continued to express this as their shared goal. In 1831, Jones claimed to be seeking an "outline of reasoning ... inductively on almost all subjects." While he was engaged in his astronomical observations in the mid-1830s at the Cape of Good Hope, Herschel told Whewell that he was working on "an enquiry into the moral nature of men," which he hoped would culminate in "the inductive construction of a system of Ethicks." Whewell informed Jones that the "hyperphysical branches of knowledge ... art, language, political economy, morals and the like," as well as the natural branches, could be improved by reforming induction. All three set for themselves the task of carrying out this reform. Whewell and Jones were especially serious about this endeavor, and saw it as consisting in two parts. The first was to define a "true idea of induction." In an early notebook entry, Whewell lamented "that the true idea of induction has not been generally fixed and agreed upon must I think be very obvious." Bacon's own view, though a useful starting point, was itself flawed; it needed to be renovated. (Thus, in later years, Whewell gave the title Novum Organon Renovatum to one volume of the third edition of his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded upon Their History.) The second task was "to get the people into a right way of thinking about induction," that is, to publicize the nature and value of induction in all areas of thought. In one of his many letters to Jones, Whewell called induction the "true faith," and wondered how it could "best be propagated." Both the task of defining induction, and that of popularizing it, were seen as part of the project of reforming all of philosophy, and thus as necessary for the reform of society. Jones told Whewell that "systems palpably mischievous and immoral" were attracting adherents, due to an inadequate comprehension of scientific induction and its relevance to morality, politics, and economics. Whewell agreed. Some years later, referring to his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, he informed Julius Charles Hare that he was planning to write "a philosophy such as shall really give a right and wholesome turn to men's minds."
Whewell and Jones felt that they were engaged in a "battle" against the "downwards mad," those who preferred a deductive approach in the natural and moral sciences. One of these "deductive savages" was Richard Whately, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, who became archbishop of Dublin in 1831. Early that year Jones wrote to Whewell after seeing the third edition of Whately's Elements of Logic, objecting to Whately's "strange notion" that induction was a type of deductive reasoning. Indeed, Whately had claimed that all forms of reasoning could be assimilated to the syllogism. Induction, for example, was said to be reasoning in which the major premise, which is generally suppressed, can be expressed as "what belongs to the individual or individuals we have examined, belongs to the whole class under which they come." Thus, to take Whately's example, if we find, from an examination of the history of several tyrannies, that each of them lasted a short time, we conclude that "all tyrannies are likely to be of short duration." In coming to this conclusion we make use of a suppressed major premise, namely, "what belongs to the tyrannies in question is likely to belong to all." Whately admitted that some would complain that his notion of induction was too narrow in that it did not account for how the minor premises are obtained, that is, for how it was ascertained that each of the examined tyrannies were "short-lived." But he distinguished between "Logical Discoveries," which occur when syllogistic reasoning alone is used to deduce a conclusion from known premises, and "Physical Discoveries," which involve more than syllogistic reasoning because various methods are used for ascertaining the premises-including observation, experiment, the selection and combination of facts, abstraction of principles, and others. On Whately's view logic was only concerned with reasoning from premises, not with ascertaining the premises. Thus inductive logic was also only concerned with reasoning from premises, or with Logical-not Physical-discovery.
Whewell and Jones saw Whately's characterization of induction as more than just a point of logic. Rather, it presented a potential obstacle for the reform of philosophy they sought. Many people associated induction with scientific method, even though they were unclear about the precise meaning of the term. If people accepted Whately's definition of induction, they might be led to the erroneous conclusion that science is essentially deductive, concerned only with deducing conclusions from assumed "first principles." Whewell and Jones linked this deductive view of science with that of the Scholastic Aristotelians; indeed, Whately had explicitly framed his work as a defense of Aristotelian logic against the "confused" views of induction that resulted from its connection with Bacon. Because of their emphasis on the syllogism, Whewell complained, the Scholastics "talked of experiment" but "showed little disposition to discover the truths of nature by observation of facts." In a notebook from 1830, Whewell wrote of the Aristotelian method in terms reminiscent of Bacon's criticisms: such a method "could lead to no such truths, and in the development of physical science especially was entirely barren.... The business of speculative men became, not discovery, but argumentation." Later, in his History of the Inductive Sciences, he would refer to the Middle Ages as a "stationary period" in science. Whewell and Jones believed that the correct view of induction needed to be brought before the public in order to prevail against sterile deductive approaches to scientific knowledge. Whewell expressed his "confidence" to Jones that "by and by the whole world will think [the deductive definition of science] as nonsensical as we do." But before this could happen, he and Jones would need to spread the "true faith."
Whewell's Antithetical Epistemology
We have seen that the early influence of Bacon strongly inclined Whewell to inductive, empirical views of epistemology. At the same time, however, he had a deep appreciation for a priori, deductive forms of reasoning, due to his interest in mathematical sciences. His work in mechanics exposed him to a physical science which seemed to incorporate both empirical and a priori elements. But it was his experience studying mineralogy abroad that struck Whewell with the need to combine empirical and a priori elements in an epistemology and scientific methodology. In 1825, when John Henslow vacated the chair of Mineralogy at Cambridge to take up the Botany Professorship, Whewell announced himself a candidate for the position. Although he had published mathematical papers on crystallography, Whewell did not have much empirical knowledge of mineralogy; thus he went abroad to study with experts such as Friedrich Mohs. He was strongly impressed with the "German school" in mineralogy, especially with the elegant mathematical treatment given by Mohs of a science that Whewell had previously considered purely empirical. He wrote to his friend Hugh James Rose that "I am afraid ... that I may not bring back my faith as untainted as you have done: for I find my mineralogical supernaturalismus giving way in some respects. It may be possible to bring about a union between the two creeds [that is, the a priori and the empirical], which I hope will not be such a thing in science as you hold it to be in faith."
Whewell eventually reconciled the empirical and a priori elements of science in an epistemology that is "antithetical" in that it expresses what Whewell called the Fundamental Antithesis, or dual nature, of knowledge. According to Whewell's mature epistemology, all knowledge involves an ideal, or subjective, element as well as an empirical, or objective, element. Although his experience with mineralogy had sparked Whewell's desire to "bring about a union between the two creeds" of empiricism and a priorism, his notebook writings on induction prior to 1831 present induction as a purely empirical process, consisting in enumerative induction of observed instances. He had not, up to this point, found a way to synthesize the a priori elements of scientific knowledge with the empirical epistemology he wished to follow Bacon in endorsing. By February of 1831, while working on his review of Herschel's Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, Whewell for the first time used a metaphor that indicates his initial attempt to combine these empirical and a priori or purely rational elements of science. He explained,
Induction agrees with mere Observation in accumulating facts, and with Pure Reason in stating general propositions; but she does more than Observation, inasmuch as she not only collects facts, but catches some connexion or relation among them; and less than pure Reason ... because she only declares that there are connecting properties, without asserting that they must exist of necessity and in all cases. If we consider the facts of external nature to lie before us like a heap of pearls of various forms and sizes, mere Observation takes up an indiscriminate handful of them; Induction seizes some thread on which a portion of the heap are strung, and binds such threads together.
He asked Jones to look over his draft. Jones's assessment proved to be valuable for Whewell:
I go along with you in your use of the word induction only I fear to a certain extent-I do not myself like to oppose it to or contrast it with either observation or pure reason-Induction according to me and Aristotle (admire my modesty) is the whole process by which the intellect gets a general principle from observing particulars or individuals and in that process both observation and pure reason have a part-when observation has collected the facts abstraction ... seizes on the law or principle and then the inductive process is compleat in all its parts.
In this passage Jones suggested to Whewell a way to synthesize the empirical and the ideal in his epistemology: namely, by seeing induction as an act that includes both observation and pure reason. Whewell seems to have been inspired by this characterization of induction. He soon began to describe induction as a process involving observation and reason. The rational element of induction was provided by certain "conceptions of the mind." In a notebook dated 1831-32, Whewell for the first time characterized induction as involving such conceptions: "Induction supposes a power of clearly representing phenomena by the mind as subordinate to the conceptions of space, number, etc." In another notebook of this period he described the importance of distinctly conceiving conceptions in order to make proper inductions, and added what appears to be his first list of conceptions regulating different sciences.
In the summer of 1832 Whewell was reading the Exposition de la Doctrine de Saint-Simon upon the suggestion of Jones. In his reading notes he commented that "there is in the view of the nature of science here given a good deal which ... falls in with my views," including a passage reading "the arrangement of facts suppose general conceptions." Whewell elaborated on this point of agreement in a letter to Jones: "There are as you say several right notions about the character of science-one in which they have hit on in the same way which I have used for nearly the same thing. The conceptions which must exist in the mind in order to get by induction a law from a collection of facts; and the impossibility of inducting or even of collecting without this." By 1833 Whewell had come to believe that, as he explained in a notebook entry, "knowledge implies passive sense [that is, observation] and active thought [that is, reason]." In an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in that same year, he claimed that "a combination of theory with facts ... is requisite" in order to discover new truths. And in a letter to Jones of 1834 Whewell described his "Philosophy of Induction," claiming that "you will see that a main feature is the assertion of ideas and facts as equally and conjointly necessary to science."
By 1837, Whewell was ready to formulate more systematically this position, and to express it publicly. He did so in his "Remarks on the Logic of Induction," which was appended to his textbook Mechanical Euclid. In this essay Whewell explained that induction requires both an idea provided by the mind and facts provided by the world. A "general idea," which is not given by the phenomena but "by the mind," is "superinduced upon the observed facts." In his History of the Inductive Sciences, published that same year, Whewell similarly noted that both facts and ideas are requisite for the "formation of science." "Real speculative knowledge," he claimed, "demands the combination of the two ingredients." By the time he published the first edition of The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in 1840, he had worked out more details of the position, and developed an argument situating his epistemological view as a "middle way" between stark empiricism and full-blown rationalism.
Because of the dual or antithetical nature of knowledge, Whewell claimed, gaining knowledge requires attention to both Ideas and Sensations: "without our ideas, our sensations could have no connexion; without external impressions, our ideas would have no reality; and thus both ingredients of our knowledge must exist." An exclusive focus on one or the other side of the antithesis is to be avoided. Whewell criticized both Kant and the German Idealists for their exclusive focus on the ideal or subjective element, and Locke and his followers of the "Sensationalist school," for their exclusive focus on the empirical, objective element.
What exactly are these "ideas," which comprise the ideal or subjective element in Whewell's antithetical epistemology? He generally referred to them as "Fundamental Ideas," explaining that "I call them Ideas, as being something not derived from sensation, but governing sensation, and consequently giving form to our experience;-Fundamental, as being the foundation of knowledge, or at least of Science." They are supplied by our minds in the course of our experience of the external world; they are not simply received from our observation of the world. This is why Whewell claimed that the mind is an active participant in our attempts to gain knowledge of the world, not merely a passive recipient.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: “Reforming the Philosophy of the Age”
1. Whewell and the Reform of Inductive Philosophy
2. Mill’s Radicalization of Induction
3. Reforming Science
4. Reforming Culture: Morality and Politics
5. Reforming Political Economy
Conclusion: The Debate’s Legacy