William Whewell

William Whewell . British logician. Professor of mineralogy ( 1828 ) and moral philosophy ( 1838 ), he presided over the British Association ( 1841 ) and was vice chancellor of Cambridge ( 1842 ). He recovered the notion of induction and is the author of a History of scientific ideas ( 1858 ). He was one of the most important and influential figures of the 19th century in Great Britain .


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  • 1 Biographical synthesis
    • 1 Studies
    • 2 Investigations
    • 3 Charges
    • 4 Writer
    • 5 Death
  • 2 Ideas
  • 3 Works
  • 4 Sources

Biographical synthesis

He was born in Lancaster in 1794 to a modest middle-class family. His father, a wealthy carpenter, who was able to support his son’s education, thought of dedicating him to trade, but young William’s extraordinary aptitudes in the natural sciences, who studied at the Lancaster and Heversham schools, persuaded him that it was preferable. to carve out a future as a teacher.


He began his studies at the Haversham School in Westmoreland , where he qualified for a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1812 , from which he graduated four years later. He studied mathematics , physics , astronomy, and geology , but also Greek and Latin classics and philosophy , and he even won first prize with a poem .

In 1820 he entered the exclusive Royal Society for his studies on geology and mineralogy, the latter discipline of which he was a professor and lecturer. In 1825 he was ordained a priest, a requirement of Trinity College.

Between the years 1826 and 1828 he was commissioned to measure the density of the earth, an undertaking in which he engaged with Airy and which he carried out in the Dolcoath mines, in Cornwall. The failure of his efforts made him abandon the experimental practice of science when he was already a professor.


He went on to increase his knowledge in Vienna and Freiburg , where he took an interest in chemistry , especially electrochemistry. It was Whewell who named the ions , the anode and the cathode . Upon returning to the United Kingdom in 1832, he resigned his chair, convinced that his knowledge was far inferior to that required for that position.

From then on, he dealt with science only from an epistemological point of view in his research, while at the same time he exercised a much greater political role in the university world.


In 1841 he was elected president of the British Academy and director of Trinity College, positions from which he undertook the reform of mathematics education, in collaboration with Peacock and Herschel . Around 1850 he reorganized and expanded the university subjects of science and philosophy.

He was founder and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, member of the Royal Society, president of the Geological Society and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.


He is known primarily for his writings on philosophy of science, history of science, and moral philosophy, but he was a prolific writer on many other topics such as mechanics, mineralogy, geology, astronomy, theology , political economy , educational reform, architecture, and international law.


He died in Cambridge in 1866 when he was thrown from his horse.


His investigations in epistemology and in philosophy of science started from the study of the exact sciences and their importance for the development of philosophy; His works Astronomy and general physics, considered in reference to natural theology ( 1833 ) and Euclid’s Mechanics ( 1837 ) respond to this interest , followed by History of the inductive sciences and Science and philosophy of inductive sciences ( 1840 ).

According to Whewell, induction cannot be a simple sum of unrelated facts, since the simple observation of these could never lead to the formulation of a law; For this formulation to be possible, it is necessary that said observation is previously guided by a universal form of thought, which bases the possibility of scientific knowledge. Another area of ​​interest to Whewell was moral philosophy.

The gist of his theory in this regard is the attempt to build a complete system of practical conduct on self-evident moral principles. The main works on ethics of this philosopher are: Elements of Morality, including Polity ( 1846 ), Lectures on systematic morality (1846) and Lectures on the history of moral philosophy in England ( 1852 ).


Whewell published some 150 books, scientific and popular articles, reports to scientific societies, reviews, and translations. Among them are:

  • 1831 . Review on the “Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy”* 1840 . The Philosophy of Inductive Sciences , based on its History
  • 1849 . On Induction, with Special Reference to the Logic System
  • 1857 . History of Inductive Sciences, from the Most Remote Times to the Present.
  • 1858 . The History of Scientific Ideas.
  • Novum Organon Renovatum
  • 1860 . On the Philosophy of Discovery: Historical and Critical Chapters
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