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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 Truth (18 quotes)

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Every detection of what is false directs us towards what is true: every trial exhausts some tempting form of error.
— William Whewell
In 'Lecture 7', Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England (1852), 101.
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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 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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In truth, we know causes only by their effects; and in order to learn the nature of the causes which modify the earth, we must study them through all ages of their action, and not select arbitrarily the period in which we live as the standard for all other epochs.
— William Whewell
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Vol. 3, 514.
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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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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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Scarcely any attempt is entirely a failure; scarcely any theory, the result of steady thought, is altogether false; no tempting form of Error is without some latent charm derived from Truth.
— William Whewell
In 'Lecture 7', Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England (1852), 101.
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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 framing of hypotheses is, for the enquirer after truth, not the end, but the beginning of his work. Each of his systems is invented, not that he may admire it and follow it into all its consistent consequences, but that he may make it the occasion of a course of active experiment and observation. And if the results of this process contradict his fundamental assumptions, however ingenious, however symmetrical, however elegant his system may be, he rejects it without hesitation. He allows no natural yearning for the offspring of his own mind to draw him aside from the higher duty of loyalty to his sovereign, Truth, to her he not only gives his affections and his wishes, but strenuous labour and scrupulous minuteness of attention.
— William Whewell
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Vol. 2, 57.
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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 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 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 peculiar character of mathematical truth is, that it is necessarily and inevitably true; and one of the most important lessons which we learn from our mathematical studies is a knowledge that there are such truths, and a familiarity with their form and character.
This lesson is not only lost, but read backward, if the student is taught that there is no such difference, and that mathematical truths themselves are learned by experience.
— William Whewell
In Thoughts on the Study of Mathematics. Principles of English University Education (1838).
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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 results of systematic symbolical reasoning must always express general truths, by their nature; and do not, for their justification, require each of the steps of the process to represent some definite operation upon quantity. The absolute universality of the interpretation of symbols is the fundamental principle of their use.
— William Whewell
In 'The Foundations of Higher Mathematics', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Part I, Bk. 2, 149.
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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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We have here spoken of the prediction of facts of the same kind as those from which our rule was collected. But the evidence in favour of our induction is of a much higher and more forcible character when it enables us to explain and determine cases of a kind different from those which were contemplated in the formation of our hypothesis. The instances in which this has occurred, indeed, impress us with a conviction that the truth of our hypothesis is certain. No accident could give rise to such an extraordinary coincidence. No false supposition could, after being adjusted to one class of phenomena, so exactly represent a different class, when the agreement was unforeseen and contemplated. That rules springing from remote and unconnected quarters should thus leap to the same point, can only arise from that being where truth resides.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 2, 230.
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We may best hope to understand the nature and conditions of real knowledge, by studying the nature and conditions of the most certain and stable portions of knowledge which we already possess: and we are most likely to learn the best methods of discovering truth, by examining how truths, now universally recognised, have really been discovered.
— William Whewell
In The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. I, 3-4.
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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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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
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


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