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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 Science (25 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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As we cannot use physician for a cultivator of physics, I have called him a physicist. We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.
— William Whewell
The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. I, cxiii.
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Astronomy is … the only progressive Science which the ancient world produced.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Times (1837), Vol 1, 90.
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Astronomy, as the science of cyclical motions, has nothing in common with Geology. But look at Astronomy where she has an analogy with Geology; consider our knowledge of the heavens as a palaetiological science;—as the study of a past condition, from which the present is derived by causes acting in time. Is there no evidence of a beginning, or of a progress?
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Vol. 3, 516.
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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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Facts are the materials of science, but all Facts involve Ideas. … we must, for the purposes of science, take care that the Ideas are clear and rigorously applied.
— William Whewell
Aphorism 4, 'Aphorisms Concerning Science', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xxxvii.
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I am persuaded that there is not in the nature of science anything unfavourable to religious feelings, and if I were not so persuaded I should be much puzzled to account for our being invested, as we so amply are, with the facilities that lead us to the discovery of scientific truth. It would be strange if our Creator should be found to be urging us on in a career which tended to be a forgetfulness of him.
— William Whewell
Letter to H. J. Rose (19 Nov 1826). Quoted in I. Todhunter (ed.), William Whewell: An Account of His Writings with Selections From His Literary and Scientific Correspondence (1876), Vol. 2, 76.
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In general, art has preceded science. Men have executed great, and curious, and beautiful works before they had a scientific insight into the principles on which the success of their labours was founded. There were good artificers in brass and iron before the principles of the chemistry of metals were known; there was wine among men before there was a philosophy of vinous fermentation; there were mighty masses raised into the air, cyclopean walls and cromlechs, obelisks and pyramids—probably gigantic Doric pillars and entablatures—before there was a theory of the mechanical powers. … Art was the mother of 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), 7-8.
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In this manner the whole substance of our geometry is reduced to the definitions and axioms which we employ in our elementary reasonings; and in like manner we reduce the demonstrative truths of any other science to the definitions and axioms which we there employ.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences: Founded Upon Their History (1840), Vol. 1, 67.
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It is a wrong business when the younger cultivators of science put out of sight and deprecate what their predecessors have done; but obviously that is the tendency of Huxley and his friends … It is very true that Huxley was bitter against the Bishop of Oxford, but I was not present at the debate. Perhaps the Bishop was not prudent to venture into a field where no eloquence can supersede the need for precise knowledge. The young naturalists declared themselves in favour of Darwin’s views which tendency I saw already at Leeds two years ago. I am sorry for it, for I reckon Darwin’s book to be an utterly unphilosophical one.
— William Whewell
Letter to James D, Forbes (24 Jul 1860). Trinity College Cambridge, Whewell Manuscripts.
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Man is the Interpreter of Nature, Science the right interpretation.
— William Whewell
Aphorism 1, 'Aphorisms Concerning Ideas', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xvii.
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The doctrine that logical reasoning produces no new truths, but only unfolds and brings into view those truths which were, in effect, contained in the first principles of the reasoning, is assented to by almost all who, in modern times, have attended to the science of logic.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences: Founded Upon Their History (1840), Vol. 1, 67.
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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 object of science is knowledge; the objects of art are works. In art, truth is the means to an end; in science, it is the only end. Hence the practical arts are not to be classed among the sciences
— William Whewell
Aphorism 25, 'Aphorisms Respecting Knowledge', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xli.
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The principles which constituted the triumph of the preceding stages of the science, may appear to be subverted and ejected by the later discoveries, but in fact they are, (so far as they were true), taken up into the subsequent doctrines and included in them. They continue to be an essential part of the science. The earlier truths are not expelled but absorbed, not contradicted but extended; and the history of each science, which may thus appear like a succession of revolutions, is, in reality, a series of developments.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) Vol. 1, 10.
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The tendency of the sciences has long been an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment … The mathematician turns away from the chemist; the chemist from the naturalist; the mathematician, left to himself divides himself into a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician, who soon part company … And thus science, even mere physical science, loses all traces of unity. A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford and Cambridge, in the last three summers. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits … some ingenious gentleman [William Whewell] proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form Scientist, and added that there could be no scruple … when we have words such as sciolist, economist, and atheist—but this was not generally palatable.
— William Whewell
In Review of Mrs Somerville, 'On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences', The Quarterly Review (1834), 51, 58-61.
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The two processes by which Science is constructed are the Explication of Conceptions and the Colligation of Facts.
— William Whewell
Aphorism 1, 'Aphorisms Concerning Science', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xxxvii.
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These sciences, Geometry, Theoretical Arithmetic and Algebra, have no principles besides definitions and axioms, and no process of proof but deduction; this process, however, assuming a most remarkable character; and exhibiting a combination of simplicity and complexity, of rigour and generality, quite unparalleled in other subjects.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1858), Part 1, Bk. 2, chap. 1, sect. 2.
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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 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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We pass with admiration along the great series of mathematicians, by whom the science of theoretical mechanics has been cultivated, from the time of Newton to our own. There is no group of men of science whose fame is higher or brighter. The great discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, had fixed all eyes on those portions of human knowledge on which their successors employed their labors. The certainty belonging to this line of speculation seemed to elevate mathematicians above the students of other subjects; and the beauty of mathematical relations and the subtlety of intellect which may be shown in dealing with them, were fitted to win unbounded applause. The successors of Newton and the Bernoullis, as Euler, Clairaut, D’Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, not to introduce living names, have been some of the most remarkable men of talent which the world has seen.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences, Vol. 1, Bk. 4, chap. 6, sect. 6.
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While the unique crystal stands on its shelf unmeasured by the goniometer, unslit by the optical lapidary, unanalysed by the chemist,—it is merely a piece of furniture, and has no more right to be considered as anything pertaining to science, than a curious china tea-cup on a chimney-piece.
— William Whewell
In 'Report on the Progress and Present State of Mineralogy', Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831 -32), 364-365.
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[Astronomy was] the only progressive science produced by the ancient world.
— William Whewell
In Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses At Truth, By Two Brothers (3rd Ed., 1855)
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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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