Dr Kent Brooks recounts the life of Heversham Grammar School boy and polymath William Whewell (1794–1866)
William Whewell’s writings covered mechanics, mineralogy, geology, astronomy, political economy, theology, educational reform, international law, and architecture, as well as the works that remain the most well-known today in philosophy of science, history of science, and moral philosophy.
He was one of the founding members and a president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Geological Society, and longtime Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
He coined the term ‘scientist’ to describe an expert in the study of nature, previously called ‘natural philosophers’. Whewell was the eldest child of a master-carpenter in Lancaster.
He attended the Heversham Grammar School, where he would be able to qualify for a closed exhibition (scholarship for working class children) to Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1814 and1816 he won high prizes for his epic poem ‘Boadicea’, and for mathematics and became a college fellow.
He was elected to the Royal Society in 1820 and ordained a priest (as required for Trinity Fellows) in 1825. Shortly after he became Professor of Mineralogy, but later resigned the chair to became Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1838.
Almost immediately after his marriage 1841, he was named Master of Trinity College upon the recommendation of the then Prime Minister Robert Peel.
He was Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1842 and 1855. His first wife died in 1855 and he married Lady Affleck, who died in 1865.
Whewell was thrown from his horse and died on March 6, 1866, leaving no descendents.
Whewell is best known today for his huge works on the history and philosophy of science.
John Stuart Mill attacked his views on the philosophy of science in his System of Logic and this led to an important debate concerning the nature of inductive reasoning in science, moral philosophy, and political economy.
Mill’s work on the philosophy of science led to the rediscovery of Whewell in the 20th century.
The most important philosophical aspects of Whewell's works were his views of induction, confirmation, and necessary truth; his view of the relation between scientific practice, history of science, and philosophy of science; and his moral philosophy.
His view of induction was the most important part of his philosophy, as well as the most misinterpreted.
He is known to have influenced John Herschel, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell and Michael Faraday, leading thinkers of the day.
There is a mineral (whewellite) called after him.