Philosophy of Biology: An Historico-Critical Characterization

  • Jean Gayon
Part of the Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science book series (BSPS, volume 276)

Literally speaking, “Philosophy of biology” is a rather old expression. William Whewell coined it in 1840, at the very time he introduced the expression “philosophy of science”. Whewell was fond of creating neologisms, like Auguste Comte, his French counterpart in the field of the philosophical reflection about science. Historians of science know that a few years earlier, in 1834, Whewell had generated a small scandal when he proposed the word “scientist” as a general term by which “the students of the knowledge of the material world” could describe themselves, and distinguish themselves from artists. The term “philosopher”, Whewell argued, was too wide. A new generic term, more or less equivalent to the French term “savant”, was needed in order to prevent the disintegration of science that seemed to flow from its specialization in modern times.1 When Whewell first introduced the terms “philosophy of science” and “philosophy of biology” in his 1840 Philosophy of the inductive sciences, the latter term was merely a special branch of “philosophy of science”. The expression “philosophy of science” itself had two justifications: firstly, this phrase expressed the idea that “science” remained cognitively coherent enough to justify a critical enquiry into its methodological unity and its foundation; secondly, the phrase “philosophy of science” was required in order to distinguish a properly “philosophical” enquiry from a “historical” approach to science. Although Whewell’s 1840 Philosophy of the inductive sciences 2 had approximately the same chapter structure as his 1837 History of the Inductive Sciences 3 (that is, a series of chapters successively devoted to the concept of science in general, and although there was considerable overlap between the contents of the two books, then to particular sciences), its theoretical purpose was different. Clearly, Whewell was not willing to confuse the genres of history and philosophy as Auguste Comte had done in his 1830 Cours de philosophie positive.4 Note also that the word “biology” was still extremely rare in English when Whewell used it in 1840. In fact, Whewell’s 1837 History of the Inductive Sciences does not make use of the word “biology”: Whewell successively examines “botany”, “zoology”, “physiology” and “comparative antomy” as special branches of “analytico-classificatory science”, then discusses palaeontology as a special case of the “palaeo-etiological sciences”. Three years later, in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Whewell does use “biology” as a generic term for all the sciences dealing with life. The various sciences which were separately examined in the previous book are now collectively considered. Furthermore, the main philosophical problem raised by biology is its dual nature: biology is both nomological and a historical science. Modern philosophers of biology are generally unaware of the story of the origins of the expression “philosophy of biology”, but Whewell’s dual theoretical nature of biology is still a major concern for modern “philosophy of biology”.


Life Science Modern Philosophy Special Branch Philosophical Reflection Regionalist Turn 
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jean Gayon
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences et des techniquesUniversité Paris I-Panthéon SorbonneParis

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