William Whewell in Action: Continuity and Discontinuity in the British Physical Sciences

By Jaume Navarro

Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte and the University of Cambridge


In his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, used a geographical metaphor to describe the different physical sciences. The land was portrayed as divided into different “provinces of knowledge”, the chart of which had already been depicted in his previous work of 1837, The History of the Inductive Sciences. These “provinces” or “departments” were metaphorically depicted as territories which had undergone different degrees of colonisation. The first, and the most developed, were Astronomy and the Mechanical Sciences, which had achieved the highest degree of perfection to which a physical science could aspire: to be based on fundamental and well-established principles. That meant that the inductive process had reached its final goal and all that what was left was the deductive process, using highly sophisticated mathematical tools. The analytico-mechanical sciences — Electricity, Magnetism and Galvanism — were, in Whewell’s map, territories that were on the verge of achieving that goal, while chemistry was still the analytical science par excellence, meaning that the inductive process was about to yield up its first fruits in the form of general laws. Such division of the sciences not only depicted a hierarchical distribution but also implied that the existence of the different departments of science had strong metaphysical grounds. The different provinces were not the result of the specialisation and division of knowledge, but were the manifestation of different metaphysical regions.

In this paper I want to explore the ways in which this territorial metaphor of knowledge was embodied in the British scientific milieu, particularly in the relationship between an established — "adult" — science like physics, (particularly mechanics, astronomy, dynamics, optics and, increasingly, electricity and magnetism) and an “under-aged” but promising science like chemistry. I want to suggest that Whewell’s metaphor contained a scientific reductionism to which physicists are often attracted, one that assumes that physics should be the paradigm of all sciences. I will argue that this reductionism permeated discussions to enlarge the (metaphysical and institutional) dominions of the physical sciences in British universities at a time when, following Iwan Rhys Morus' expression, "physics became king".