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  • Fundamental Questions and Some New Answers on Philosophical, Contextual and Scientific WhewellSome Reflections on Recent Whewell Scholarship and the Progress made therein
  • Steffen Ducheyne (bio)

What is the philosophical lesson to be derived from this progress, and from the new provinces thus added to Whewell studies? (author's free adaptation of Whewell [1860] 2001, VII, p. 353).


William Whewell's philosophical, historical and scientific endeavors have in recent years regained scholarly interest: a new facsimile edition of his collected work, edited by Richard Yeo, appeared in 2001 and between 2005 and 2008 three monographs on Whewell were published– in chronological order: John Wettersten's Whewell's Critics: Have They Prevented Him from Doing Good? (2005); Laura J. Snyder's Reforming Philosophy, A Victorian Debate on Science and Society (2006a), and Michael S. Reidy's Tides of History, Ocean Science and Her Majesty's Navy (2008). In this review essay I take stock of these and some other recent additions to Whewell scholarship [End Page 242] and suggest some topics which deserve attention in future Whewell scholarship.1


In his Whewell's Critics: Have They Prevented Him from Doing Good?, John Wettersten explicitly approaches Whewell from the history of the philosophy of science. Wettersten's main goal is to point to the significance and present-day relevance of Whewell's historical-philosophical project for contemporary philosophy of science. Ab initio, Wettersten confesses his sympathy for the Whewellian project, for he seeks to "defend his [Whewell's] view with a new interpretation of his philosophy which shows it to be much more powerful, progressive and interesting than it has taken to be" and to show that "Whewell has been misinterpreted, misread and rejected too quickly" (2005, p. 14). Oddly, Wettersten seeks to establish this by rebutting the many criticisms, ordered chronologically, that Whewell's project has evoked, without providing a proper positive characterization of Whewell's project. Formally, Wettersten has addressed the issue "the criticism on x" without systematically discussing x—where x stands for "Whewell's philosophy (of science)."

A strength of Wettersten's book surely is that he convincingly shows that Whewell's antithetical epistemology derives not only from his modified Kantianism and his investigations in the history of science, but also from contemporary psychological theories of perception, e.g., Charles Bell (2005, pp. 40, 54, 56–57, 69). This is an interesting topic which certainly deserves more attention than it hitherto has received.

Wettersten begins by pointing out the culprits of Whewell's "immediate rejection": John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Augustus de Morgan, David Brewster, and Henry Longueville Mansel. The reasons for Herschel's and Mill's rejection of Whewell's non-empiricist philosophy are common knowledge. Perhaps less known to some readers are de Morgan's methodological criticism of Whewell's approach on induction (namely, de Morgan's call for a careful delineation between discovery, induction and logic), Brewster's criticism of Whewell's history of science and the psychological foundations of his epistemology, and Mansel's accusation that Whewell corrupted Kantianism by introducing Platonist ideas into it. The focal point of Wettersten 2005 is to show how Whewell was criticized and not so much how he was adapted or appropriated. By doing so, Whewell's project is curtailed to the issues raised by his critics. Wettersten, however, does make a complete inventory of the references made by Charles S. [End Page 243] Peirce to Whewell and adequately highlights Peirce's appreciative opinion of him (2005, pp. 100–107).

The diverse material discussed on pp. 108–171 contains many provocative elements that can easily be transformed into interesting and potentially useful research hypotheses for historians of science and historians of philosophy. It is simply littérature obligée for them. Let me back up this claim. According to Wettersten's suggestion, Claude Bernard taciturnly accepted Whewell's methodology, which he cleansed from its metaphysical underpinnings in order to avoid philosophical controversy. The evidence for this claim is rather slender as Bernard did not explicitly refer to Whewell (Wettersen 2005, p. 109). Nevertheless, this is a topic deserving further research. It obviously begs the further question: why did Bernard choose to avoid such apparent controversy? No...


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