History of the Inductive Sciences, From the Earliest to the Present Time

By WILLIAM WHEWELL, D. D., Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Third Edition, with Additions. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1858. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 566, 648.

WE are heartily glad to welcome this reprint of the “History of the Inductive Sciences,” from an improved edition. From an intimate acquaintance with the first edition, we should cordially recommend these volumes to those who wish to take a general survey of this department of human learning. The various subjects are, for the most part, treated in a manner intelligible and agreeable to the unlearned reader. As an authority, Whewell is generally trustworthy, and as a critic usually fair. But in a work going over so much ground it would be unreasonable to expect perfect accuracy, and uniformly just estimates of the labors of all scientific men. Dr. Whewell’s scientific philosophy naturally affects his ability as an historian and critic. In his Bridgewater Treatise, he indulged in a fling at mathematics, for which we have never wholly forgiven him; and in the present volume we see repeated evidence of his underestimate of the value of the sciences of Space and Time. He says, Vol. I. p. 500, that it was an “erroneous assumption” in Plato to hold mathematical truths as “Realities more real than the Phenomena.” But to us it seems impossible to understand any work of Nature aright, except by taking this view of Plato. The study of natural science is deserving of the contempt which Samuel Johnson bestowed upon it, if it be not a study of the thoughts of the Divine Mind. And as phenomena are subject to laws of space and time as their essential condition, they are primarily a revelation of the mathematical thoughts of the Creator. Those mathematical ideas are, in Erigena’s phrase, the created creators of all that can appear.

This false view of the mathematics lies at the foundation of Whewell’s view of a type in organized nature. He conceives a genus to consist of those species which resemble the typical species of the genus more than they resemble the typical species of any other genus. It follows from this view that a species might be created that would not belong to any genus, but resemble equally the types of two or three genera. Thus, our little rueleaved anemone might belong to the meadow rues or to the wind-flowers, at the pleasure of the botanist. We believe that classification is vastly more real than this, real as geometry itself. Another instance of a similar want of idealism in Dr. Whewell may be found in Vol. II. p. 643:— "Nothing is added to the evidence of design by the perception of a unity of plan which in no way tends to promote the design.” Now to one who believes, with us, that a thought is as real as the execution of the thought, the perception of a unity of plan is the highest evidence of design. No more convincing evidence of the existence of an Intelligent Designer is to be found than in the unity of plan, — and his design, thus proved, is the completion of the plan. For what purpose he would complete it, is a secondary question.

In this third edition many valuable additions have been made; and no tales of Oriental fancy could be more wonderful than some of these records of the discoveries in exact science made by our contemporaries. What more magical than the miracles performed every day in our telegraphic offices ?—unless it be the transmission of human speech in that manner under the waves of the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. What more like the dreams of alchemy than taking metallic casts, in cold metal, with infinitely more delicacy and accuracy than by melted metals,—taking them, too, from the most fragile and perishable moulds ? What sounds more purely fanciful than to assert a connection between variations in the direction of the compass-needle and spots on the surface of the sun? or what is more improbable than that the period of solar spots should be ten years ? What would seem to be more completely beyond the reach of human measurement than the relative velocities of light in air and in water, since the velocity in each is probably not less than a hundred thousand miles a second ? Yet two different experimenters arrived, according to Whewell, in the same year, 1850, at the same result,—that the motion is slower in water; thus supplying the last link of experimental proof to establish the undulatory theory of light. While the records of science are strewn on every page with accounts of such triumphs of human skill and intellect, we see no need of resorting to fiction or to necromancy for the gratification of a natural taste for the marvellous.

It is true, Dr. Whewell does not give these discoveries, in the spirit of an alchemist, as marvels,—but in the spirit of a philosopher, as intellectual triumphs. Few men of our times have shown a more active and powerful mind, a more earnest love of truth for truth’s sake, than the author of this History,—and few men have had a wider or more thorough knowledge of the achievements of other scientific men. Yet we are surprised, in reading this improved edition, written scarce a twelvemonth ago, to find how ignorant Dr. Whewell appears to have been of the existence or value of the contributions to knowledge made on this side the Atlantic. The chapter on Electro-Magnetism does not allude to the discoveries of Joseph Henry, in regard to induced currents, and the adaptation of varying batteries to varying circuits,—discoveries second in importance only to those of Faraday,—and which were among the direct means of leading Morse to the invention of the telegraph. The chapters on (Geology do not mention Professor Hall, and only allude in a patronizing way to the labors of American geologists, and to the ease of “reducing their classification to its synonymes and equivalents in the Old World,” as though the historian were not aware that Hall’s nomenclature is adopted on the continent of Europe by the most eminent men in that department of science. In Geological Dynamics Dr. Whewell speaks slightingly of glacial action, and approves of Forbes’s semifluid theory, in utter ignorance, it would seem, of the labors of the Swiss geologists who now honor America with their presence. The chapters on Zoölogy, and on Classifications of Animals, make no allusion to Agassiz's introduction of Embryology as an element in classification, which was published several years before the “close of 1856.” The history of Neptune gives no hint of the fact, that its orbit was first determined through the labors of American astronomers, with all the accuracy that fifty years of observation might otherwise have been required to secure. Nor does Dr. Whewell allude to the fact, that Peirce alone has demonstrated the accuracy of Le Verrier’s and Adams’s computations, and shown that a planet in the place which they erroneously assigned to Neptune would produce the same perturbations of Uranus as those which Neptune produced. Much less does he allude to that wonderful demonstration by Peirce of the younger Bond’s hypothesis, that the rings of Saturn are fluid ; or to Peirce’s remark, that the belt of the asteroids lies in the region in which the sun could most nearly sustain a ring. Yet all these points are more important than many of those which he introduces, and more to the purpose of his chapters.

Notwithstanding these deficiencies in Whewell’s scholarship and in his philosophy, his History is a valuable addition to our modern literature, and gives a better sketch of the whole ground than can be found in any other single work. It is particularly valuable to those whose ordinary pursuits lead them into other fields than those of science, and we have known such to acknowledge their great obligations to these clearly written and most suggestive volumes.