Whewell-Coleridge debate

William WhewellSamuel Coleridge s
William Whewell
Samuel Coleridge
In 1833, English science historian William Whewell intered into a debate with English romantic philosopher Samuel Coleridge on the issue that not all "natural philosophers" are people who work in the "real sciences", hence the latter needs a new occupational "label", similar to artist, economist, or atheist, after which, the following year, the term "scientist" was coined.
In debates, Whewell-Coleridge debate was a debated launched in 1833 between English science historian William Whewell and English romantic philosopher Samuel Coleridge revolving around the question of what exactly someone who works ‘in the real sciences’, as Coleridge had phrased it, should be called, and what exactly are the real sciences, in the context of the tree of knowledge? A result of this debate is that the term "scientist" was coined (1834).

It is said that in the early 1830s, there was a growing tension concerning the growing proliferation of the subjects of the natural philosopher and concordant lack of subject name to categorize this new area of investigation. The debated peaked at an 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), chaired by William Whewell, in which English romantic philosopher Samuel Coleridge was drawn into a passionate discussion of semantics, revolving around the question of what exactly someone who works ‘in the real sciences’, as Coleridge had phrased it, should be called? Whewell reported the British Association debate in the Quarterly Review of 1834 as follows: [4]

“Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp of all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians and well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past. This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.

‘Philosophers’ was felt too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity and philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentlemen [Whewell] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’—and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’—but this was not generally palatable.”

This Quarterly Review interjection, was written in the context of a review of Mary Somerville’s 1834 On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences; Whewell then again in his 1840 Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences advocated the use of the term:

“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.”

This, to note, was also the first coining of the term ‘physicist’. In 1840, the term ‘scientist’ made its way into the OED. Whewell used the term scientist again in his 1851 “Inaugural Lecture” to the Great Exhibition. [2] The term ‘scientist’, however, was not immediately adopted, as is evidenced by that fact that twenty-years into its coining Whewell was still tentative in its use; this was partly because important of science, such as Michael Faraday and Thomas Huxley, preferred the term ‘natural philosopher’, which embraced the broader philosophical, theological, and moral concerns. [3]

Moral world
See main: Tyndall-Stewart-Tait debate
Indeed, it seems that from the outset Whewell had in his mind, as did others, the view that the ‘material world’, was the field of the scientist (e.g. mathematician, physicist, or naturalist), was distinct from that of the ‘moral world’, which was thought to be the work or realm of god. [1]

The mere association of the term ‘scientist’ with ‘atheist’, by Whewell in his 1834 discussion, came under attack from the get-go, Adam Sedgwick explosively commenting, for example, ‘better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism.’

In the early 1870s, a new controversy was boiling over the proposed teaching of science at the Catholic University in Ireland, and to rectify the situation, at the 1874 meeting, at Belfast, the new BAAS president John Tyndall summarized the position of the two, i.e. science vs religion, as follows:

“All religious theories, schemes and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.”

Many were, supposedly, offended by Tyndall's call for reason over revelation, which was seen as an attack on religion. In protesting reaction to Tyndall's speech, Balfour Stewart and Peter Tait wrote the 1875 The Unseen Universe: or Physical Speculations of a Future State, in which they argued that religious miracles and the immortality of the soul are compatible with modern science and that God is hidden because human thought is 'conditioned' (an Immanuel Kant and later William Hamilton concept). This led to the followup sequel Paradoxical Philosophy, both of which resulted in harsh ridiculing objection review by James Maxwell, written on his deathbed, in which he summarized that Stewart and Tait were the examples of the paradoxical philosopher, i.e. those natural philosophers who lock up their science books and theories in the cabinet, when it comes to speculating and theorizing about the death, morality, and purpose, and go out into the blissful country field to contrive 'viewless fancies' to save face with religion. [6]

The gist of the debate-tension, which still exists today, according to science historian Richard Holmes, is whether the new proliferations of branches on the tree of knowledge ‘would promote safe religious belief or a dangerous secular materialism.’

This unwritten divide, in the minds of many, curious, seems to exist even in the modern 21st century, as evidenced by inability of American high school teachers to discuss human origins, in their biology lectures on evolution, for fear that it might tread on the dangerous toes of religion, and hence their own job security. [5]

1. Fisch, Menachem and Schaffer, Simon. (1991). William Whewell: a Composite Portrait (coined scientist, pg. 178, 212; ‘material world’ vs ‘moral world’, pg. 275). Clarendon Press.
2. Rozwadowski, Helen M. and Keuren, David K. (2004). The Machine in Neptune’s Garden (pg. 37). Science History Publications.
3. Yeo, Richard R. (2003). Defining Science: William Whewell, Natural Knowledge and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britian (pg. 5). Cambridge University Press.
4. Holmes, Richard. (2010).The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (pg. 449). Vintage.
5. Humes, Edward. (2008). Monkey Girl. Publisher.
6. Silver, Daniel S. (2007). “My Soul’s an Amphicheircal Knot: the Last Poem of James Clerk Maxwell”, SouthAlabama.edu.

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