Among the most prodigious of English minds of the nineteenth century, William Whewell (1794-1866) was at various times, and among other things, philosopher, intellectual historian, scientist, educationist, theologian, economist, student of Gothic architecture, classicist. ‘Science is his [Whewell’s] forte and omniscience his foible’, quipped Sidney Smith. Born at Lancaster, son of a master-carpenter, Whewell won in 1812 an exhibition to Cambridge University whose most famous College—Trinity—he went on to serve continuously from 1817, initially as a Fellow then from 1841 as Master, to his untimely death from a riding accident.
Whewell was intellectually eminent in his lifetime, then his reputation went through a long eclipse. Interest in his work has, however, steadily increased over recent decades in an atmosphere more congenial to it, the intellectual shift—displacement of logical empiricism by historically informed philosophy of science—associated with Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and others. Whewell believed, as now so many scholars believe, that the key to understanding the methods of science and the character of its knowledge lies in history, rather than in formal analysis of propositions and arguments.
Whewellian scholarship has tended to concentrate on those texts that Whewell himself took to be his most important, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840 [2.3]) and its more concretely detailed companion, History of the Inductive Sciences (1837 [2.31]). 1 These were works for whose composition Whewell’s extensive interest in science—