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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index W > William Whewell Quotes > Law

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William Whewell
(24 May 1794 - 6 Mar 1866)

English scholar and philosopher known for his survey of the scientific method and for creating scientific words, including the word “scientist.”


William Whewell Quotes on Law (13 quotes)

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All palaetiological sciences, all speculations which attempt to ascend from the present to the remote past, by the chain of causation, do also, by an inevitable consequence, urge us to look for the beginning of the state of things which we thus contemplate; but in none of these cases have men been able, by the aid of science, to arrive at a beginning which is homogeneous with the known course of events. The first origin of language, of civilization, of law and government, cannot be clearly made out by reasoning and research; and just as little, we may expect, will a knowledge of the origin of the existing and extinct species of plants and animals, be the result of physiological and geological investigation.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1837), Vol. 3, 581.
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But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this;—we can perceive that events are brought about, not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular ease, but by the establishment of general laws.
— William Whewell
In Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1833), 356. Charles Darwin placed this quote on the title page of his On the Origin of Species, identified as from Whewell's 'Bridgewater Treatise'.
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By science, then, I understand the consideration of all subjects, whether of a pure or mixed nature, capable of being reduced to measurement and calculation. All things comprehended under the categories of space, time and number properly belong to our investigations; and all phenomena capable of being brought under the semblance of a law are legitimate objects of our inquiries.
— William Whewell
In Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1833), xxviii.
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It is a peculiar feature in the fortune of principles of such high elementary generality and simplicity as characterise the laws of motion, that when they are once firmly established, or supposed to be so, men turn with weariness and impatience from all questionings of the grounds and nature of their authority. We often feel disposed to believe that truths so clear and comprehensive are necessary conditions, rather than empirical attributes of their subjects: that they are legible by their own axiomatic light, like the first truths of geometry, rather than discovered by the blind gropings of experience.
— William Whewell
In An Introduction to Dynamics (1832), x.
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Newton’s theory is the circle of generalization which includes all the others [as Kepler’s laws, Ptolemy’s theory, etc.];—the highest point of the inductive ascent;—the catastrophe of the philosophic drama to which Plato had prologized;— the point to which men’s minds had been journeying for two thousand years.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences, Bk. 7, chap. 2, sect. 5.
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The Greeks in the first vigour of their pursuit of mathematical truth, at the time of Plato and soon after, had by no means confined themselves to those propositions which had a visible bearing on the phenomena of nature; but had followed out many beautiful trains of research concerning various kinds of figures, for the sake of their beauty alone; as for instance in their doctrine of Conic Sections, of which curves they had discovered all the principal properties. But it is curious to remark, that these investigations, thus pursued at first as mere matters of curiosity and intellectual gratification, were destined, two thousand years later, to play a very important part in establishing that system of celestial motions which succeeded the Platonic scheme of cycles and epicycles. If the properties of conic sections had not been demonstrated by the Greeks and thus rendered familiar to the mathematicians of succeeding ages, Kepler would probably not have been able to discover those laws respecting the orbits and motions of planets which were the occasion of the greatest revolution that ever happened in the history of science.
— William Whewell
In History of Scientific Ideas, Bk. 9, chap. 14, sect. 3.
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The ideas which these sciences, Geometry, Theoretical Arithmetic and Algebra involve extend to all objects and changes which we observe in the external world; and hence the consideration of mathematical relations forms a large portion of many of the sciences which treat of the phenomena and laws of external nature, as Astronomy, Optics, and Mechanics. Such sciences are hence often termed Mixed Mathematics, the relations of space and number being, in these branches of knowledge, combined with principles collected from special observation; while Geometry, Algebra, and the like subjects, which involve no result of experience, are called Pure Mathematics.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1868), Part 1, Bk. 2, chap. 1, sect. 4.
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The law of gravitation is indisputably and incomparably the greatest scientific discovery ever made, whether we look at the advance which it involved, the extent of truth disclosed, or the fundamental and satisfactory nature of this truth.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences, Bk. 7, chap. 8, sect. 6.
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The persons who have been employed on these problems of applying the properties of matter and the laws of motion to the explanation of the phenomena of the world, and who have brought to them the high and admirable qualities which such an office requires, have justly excited in a very eminent degree the admiration which mankind feels for great intellectual powers. Their names occupy a distinguished place in literary history; and probably there are no scientific reputations of the last century higher, and none more merited, than those earned by great mathematicians who have laboured with such wonderful success in unfolding the mechanism of the heavens; such for instance as D ’Alembert, Clairaut, Euler, Lagrange, Laplace.
— William Whewell
In Astronomy and General Physics (1833), Bk. 3, chap. 4, 327.
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This science, Geometry, is one of indispensable use and constant reference, for every student of the laws of nature; for the relations of space and number are the alphabet in which those laws are written. But besides the interest and importance of this kind which geometry possesses, it has a great and peculiar value for all who wish to understand the foundations of human knowledge, and the methods by which it is acquired. For the student of geometry acquires, with a degree of insight and clearness which the unmathematical reader can but feebly imagine, a conviction that there are necessary truths, many of them of a very complex and striking character; and that a few of the most simple and self-evident truths which it is possible for the mind of man to apprehend, may, by systematic deduction, lead to the most remote and unexpected results.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Part 1, Bk. 2, chap. 4, sect. 8 (1868).
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To discover a Conception of the mind which will justly represent a train of observed facts is, in some measure, a process of conjecture, ... and the business of conjecture is commonly conducted by calling up before our minds several suppositions, selecting that one which most agrees with what we know of the observed facts. Hence he who has to discover the laws of nature may have to invent many suppositions before he hits upon the right one; and among the endowments which lead to his success, we must reckon that fertility of invention which ministers to him such imaginary schemes, till at last he finds the one which conforms to the true order of nature.
— William Whewell
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Vol. 2, 54.
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To discover the laws of operative power in material productions, whether formed by man or brought into being by Nature herself, is the work of a science, and is indeed what we more especially term Science.
— William Whewell
Lecture (26 Nov 1851), to the London Society of Arts, 'The General Bearing of the Great Exhibition on the Progress of Art and Science', collected in Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851' (1852), 7.
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We may see how unexpectedly recondite parts of pure mathematics may bear upon physical science, by calling to mind the circumstance that Fresnel obtained one of the most curious confirmations of the theory (the laws of Circular Polarization by reflection) through an interpretation of an algebraical expression, which, according to the original conventional meaning of the symbols, involved an impossible quantity.
— William Whewell
In History of Scientific Ideas, Bk. 2, chap. 14, sect. 8.
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See also:
  • 24 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Whewell's birth.
  • William Whewell - context of quote “Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • William Whewell - context of quote “Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • William Whewell: Theory of Scientific Method, by William Whewell. - book suggestion.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton


by Ian Ellis
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