Who is Who in Terminology: William Whewell (1794 – 1866)

William Whewell was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian and historian of science. He was the author of a major philosophy book entitled “The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History”, published in two volumes in 1840.

On Chapter VIII “Of Technical Terms”, Whewell wrote:

  1. “It has already been stated that we gather knowledge from the external world, when we are able to apply, to the facts which we observe, some ideal conception, which gives unity and connection to multiplied and separate perceptions. We have also shown that our conceptions, thus verified by facts, may themselves be united and connected by a new bond of the same nature; and that man may thus have to pursue his way from truth to truth through a long progression of discoveries, each resting on the preceding, and rising above it.
  2. It is now further to be noticed that each of these steps, in succession, is recorded, fixed, and made available, by some peculiar form of words; and such words, thus rendered precise in their meaning, and appropriated to the service of science, we may call Technical Terms. It is in a great measure by inventing such Terms that men not only best express the discoveries they have made, but also enable their followers to become so familiar with these discoveries, and to possess them so thoroughly, that they can readily use them in advancing to ulterior generalizations.”

Whewell was a co-founder and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a Master of Trinity College (Cambridge) and wrote two important studies on the history and philosophy of science. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stated in his biography that:

“In his own time his influence was acknowledged by the major scientists of the day, such as John Herschel, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell and Michael Faraday, who frequently turned to Whewell for philosophical and scientific advice, and, interestingly, for terminological assistance. Whewell invented the terms “anode,” “cathode,” and “ion” for Faraday. In response to a challenge by the poet S.T. Coleridge in 1833, Whewell invented the English word “scientist;” before this time the only terms in use were “natural philosopher” and “man of science”.”

In a blog post called “Scientific Terms We Owe to William Whewell”, the author provides a list of terms coined by Whewell: “Good terminology, according to William Whewell, summarizes scientific progress, facilitates classification, and aids in accurate reasoning. It is perhaps fitting, then, that we owe a number of common terms, both in the sciences and about the sciences, to him.Read the list by clicking here.

Sources and further reading:

William Whewell. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

William Whewell. Wikiquote [consulted on May 30, 2017]

Massion, François. The practice of terminology work.

Read similar biographies of famous terminologists in my section “Who is Who“.

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