The Wisdom of Words with William Whewell


Credit: Tom Murphy VII / Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare remarks somewhere in Romeo and Juliet that “That which we call a rose/ By any other word smells just as sweet”. Granted that this statement was voiced by Juliet under the intoxicating influence of rapacious romance, it should be mentioned that the genus Rosa to where the rose belongs has a membership of over 300 species, and each have their own fragrant quality different from the others: sweet, pungent, and everything in between and beyond. Maybe what Shakespeare was intent at doing was to show that taxonomy is more vital to life than the spell of emotional abandon. Case in point: Romeo and Juliet both killed themselves needlessly. Or take the wisdom of the French: the presence or absence of an S can mean the difference between a sumptuous meal and death – poisson vs poison.

Naming things is important. Especially when one is to do something to something. Imagine your supervisor asking you, “can you please do that thing on that thing? I need it before lunch, thanks.” Under normal circumstances, the only proper response would be to file and submit your resignation letter as soon as possible. But at the behest of needing money, the best course of action would be to ask, “what?” I mean, what could go wrong with ambiguity? Misunderstanding occurs. Confusion sets in. The Big Bang Theory gets a new series. Rodrigo Duterte. Wars are waged. The world ends.

Thus, names are nothing trivial. And words, the form in which names are embodied, are of utmost interest, particularly their arrival in history. So it comes as no surprise that in the case of science, the designation of scientist came as an important demarcation that served to define the boundaries of science as it grew increasingly specialized, rendering ambiguous the former epithet given to its practitioners: natural philosophers.

One man is responsible for that. A wordsmith whose intellectual breadth spanned the domains of history, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, and science. If that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will. But you should also know that he was a fellow of the Royal Society, a competent horseback rider, a prize winning poet, an education reformer,  a translator, founding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and etc.. In short, he was all over the place – and thank god for it. His name, you ask? William Whewell.

Whewell_William_signatureWhewell was born on 24 May 1794 to a large family of seven siblings where he was the eldest. His father was a master carpenter and his mother was a poetess. The path of science wasn’t intended for the young Whewell, as his father wanted him to be apprenticed in carpentry. But fate intervened through the person of Reverend Joseph Rowley who thought it unfortunate that the young Whewell’s intellectual potentials be spent on stupor and manual labor. Rowley made a deal with Whewell’s father: don’t send your son to be apprenticed, I will take him under my wing and supervise his education for free. After a week’s contemplation, the elder Whewell agreed to cancel the carpentry course and gave the go signal for the young Whewell to advance his education under the tutelage of the reverend. Soon, the gates of Lancaster grammar school opened to bid young Whewell welcome.

At the age of 18, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. He would remain affiliated with Trinity until his death in 1866. He became its master in 1841. Let’s rewind a bit to see why he settled there for good: in 1816 Whewell came as Second Wrangler for the Mathematics Tripos. What this means is that he recorded the second highest score in the examinations for that year. This earned him a Trinity fellowship in the year after. With such an achievement you’d be led to believe that he fully focused his attention on mathematics. But that is not the case. For at the age of 21, he won the Chancellor’s Prize of 1814 for his epic poem Boadicea. So you see, the wisdom of words interested Whewell early on (probably a taste and talent inherited from his mother!) and soon became one of his strongest academic forte. For example, he quickly learned and mastered German and became adept in Kantian scholarship, and by 1818 helped form the university Philosophical Society.

With impressive accolades and achievements secured under his belt, news of his name and fame soon crawled their way far and wide across Britain and no sooner was he welcomed to the Royal Society as a fellow in 1820. His placement in the society meant that his reach could only increase, and so it did – letters on his doorstop soon piled up. One of those seeking his counsel was Michael Faraday, whose exemplary experiments on chemical electromagnetism heralded a new age in chemistry. Faraday’s concern was the conceptual stalemate caused by the then limited vocabulary of chemistry, and Faraday could not find the words to best describe his discoveries. This prompted Whewell to send him suggestions such as: electrode, anode, cathode, and etc.. Judging by modern use, it seems like Faraday was feeling quite positive when he received those suggestions. I just read a recently released chemistry textbook and anode this to be true.

But his greatest word wizardry came during an 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also a member, addressed the group and lamented the fact that the then designation of natural philosopher failed to capture the reality of men doing science. Were these men who toiled day and night tracing fossil clues philosophers? Were these men who risked life and limb by handling volatile chemicals and compounds philosophers? Were these men who divorced themselves from the safety of home to explore the shadows of the natural world philosophers? Coleridge issued a challenge to the attending body to move away from this ambiguous category and come up with a new name that captures the essence of their activities. The person who took up that call was Whewell, who stood up after Coleridge’s speech and suggested the title scientist. Years later, in the preface to his book Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) Whewell explains that:

“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.”

And thus, the word scientist received its baptism and was welcomed in modern lexicon.

Whewell believed that words, names, epithets, and categories carry with them a philosophical baggage measured by the extensions of their acquired meaning. Thus, he saw it important to analyze and investigate the philosophical power of words and their relation to the practice of science.

The curious case of natural philosopher serves to showcase Whewell’s view of words well. He did not ring the alarms for it to be changed because he understood that even if scientists weren’t exactly doing the day to day realities of philosophers, their former designation as philosophers of the natural world carried a history with it that is rooted in science’s earlier distinction as natural philosophy. In his 1840 text, he explained that the meaning of words cannot be automatically associated with the image it immediately represents:

LXXXIV. The names of kinds of things are governed by their use; and that may be a right name in one use which is not so in another. A whale is not a fish in natural history, but it is a fish in commerce and law.

LXXXV. We take for granted that each kind of things has a special character which may be expressed by a Definition. The ground of our assumption is this; – that reasoning is possible.”

Natural philosophers, then, are not really philosophers, but their title as such comes from the use of natural philosophy as a former general description of their activities, before the word science became vogue. The word natural defines the special character of that type of philosophical activity; and meaning is possible in this case because reason is acted upon it.

But even if one recognizes the historical weight of words, Whewell believed it important to set definitions that are clear and respondent to the needs of the time. He argued:

LXXXVIIITerminology must be conventional, precise, constant; copious in words, and minute in distinctions, according to the needs of the science. The student must understand the terms directly according to the convention, not through the medium of explanation or comparison.”

In Whewell’s time, the modern convention was the fast specialization of science away from its natural philosophy roots. Moreover, the birth of various specialized scientific fields meant that science had to develop its own identity that is easily understood on its own without the need for comparison (“How different is this philosophy from that philosophy?”). Perhaps this was the very reason why Whewell took up Coleridge’s challenge (and succeeded!).

Lucky for us that he did.

Who knows what would’ve been had he not? Perhaps my undergraduate laboratory sessions would’ve included discussions in the latest postmodern philosophical text. Ok, I admit, that might be a slight exaggeration, but then again, who knows? Damned if I do. But it’s worth thinking about, just to appreciate Whewell’s prescience. Just imagine: identifying and describing the physical and cellular components of the rose specimen studied under the microscope are not enough to satisfy the laboratory report, but one is also required to explore its symbolic extensions and how it can be used to describe the asymmetrical power relations that exist among beekeepers in the temperate regions of the world. I shudder at the thought.

Let’s just go back to smelling flowers, shall we? Maybe Shakespeare was on to something.




DeYoung, Ursula. A vision of modern science: John Tyndall and the role of the scientist in Victorian culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 2011.

Oesper, Ralph & Speter, Max. (1937). The Faraday-Whewell correspondence concerning electro-chemical terms. The Scientific Monthly. 45(6). 535-546

Whewell, William. The philosophy of the inductive sciences: founded upon their history (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2014.

One comment

  1. This is really well written.


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