“A Purely Scientific Temper”: Victorian Expressions of the Ideal of an Autonomous Science

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 155)


In 1874 two very important philosophical books were published in Victorian Britain, Henry Sidgwick’s The methods of ethics, and John Stuart Mill’s Nature, the utility of religion, theism, being three essays on religion. Sidgwick’s book was the first English ethical treatise written in the analytic style that was to dominate British ethical philosophy for fifty years and more. Sidgwick examined the nature of ethical judgments and the characteristics of ethical arguments; he helped to create a philosophical style that would later be called “meta-ethics.” Mill’s essays on religion represented the first sustained empiricist critique of religious argument since Hume’s Dialogues and the Essay on miracles. Superficially regarded, there is nothing in either of these books that tells us much, if anything, about Victorian science. Victorian science, however, is a vastly complex phenomenon, underwritten by an educational pattern and by a variety of philosophical attitudes.


Ethical Judgment Inductive Method Trinity College Inductive Logic Truth Teller 
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  1. 1.
    Most of my references will be to Cambridge intellectuals. I do not think that the dimensions of the cultural phenomena I will be discussing are too much distorted by this selective emphasis. It would be wrong, of course, to identify Cambridge science and Victorian science; but it is true that there could not have been Victorian science without Cambridge science. After all, we owe it all to two Isaacs: Barrow and Newton, both Trinity men. However, the full story would have to include many other Victorian figures, Thomas Huxley among them, and later Trinity College figures like Lord Balfour.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Not, of course, by the Scottish scientists, nor by Sidgwick and Mill. The scientific community at Cambridge, though in many ways the dominant group of British scientists, was marvellously insulated from the tradition of British philosophical empiricism, and gained its empirical strengths from the largely methodological legacy of Bacon and Newton.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    It is not known that Darwin eventually got his revenge on this unkind act of Whewell, at least in some strange measure, and that it was Henry Sidgwick who was—perhaps unwittingly—the instrument of that revenge. In 1969 R.B. Braithwaite, then Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, gave me a gift of Whewell’s Novum organon renovatum. I treasure the book as a gift from a wonderful philosopher and friend; the book is also a historical treasure. For it was Henry Sidgwick’s copy, presented to the Newnham College Library, Sidgwick Hall, some time in the 1880s (the printed date form of “188...” is not filled in). Newnham College Library cancelled the book and put it up for sale in August 1943, still bearing the catalogue numbers appearing on the spine: MS 22! Pencilled price marks abound: 3/6, 5/-, 4/6 cash, 7/-, Braithwaite signed the copy as his own in 1949. How to decide which is worse? Not to get your book into a library in the first place, or to have it cancelled and put up for sale in the used book market. However one decides, the harmonies do seem once again to be established.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For the sake of emphasis I am of course overplaying my hand. Each of the books—with suitable editing—could have been introduced by Charles Dickens, who 30 years earlier had named the phenomenon so closely allied to some forms of positivismGoogle Scholar
  5. Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir— peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind—no, sir! (Dickens, 1854, p. 3).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Another irony: in 1883 Sidgwick assumed the Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy, an appointment that Whewell himself had earlier freed of its pretentious beginnings as the Professorship of Moral Theology or Casuistical Divinity!.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Quoted by James (1970, p. 28). Sidgwick’s language in the Preface to the first edition of Methods (1874, p. vi) is provocativeGoogle Scholar
  8. I have thought that the predominance in the minds of moralists of a desire to edify has impeded the real progress of ethical science: and that this would be benefitted by an application to it of the same disinterested curiosity to which we chiefly owe the great discoveries of physics, (italics supplied)Google Scholar
  9. In the autobiographical fragment added to the Preface of the 6th edition (1901, p. xv) by E. E. Constance Jones, Sidgwick reveals the deeper tension that helped to prompt his positivism in ethical theoryGoogle Scholar
  10. I found [in Mill’s utilitarianism] relief from the apparently external and arbitrary pressure of moral rules which I had been educated to obey, and which presented themselves to me as to some extent doubtful and confused; and sometimes, even when clear, as merely dogmatic, unreasoned, incoherent. My antagonism to this was intensified by the study of Whewell’s Elements of morality which was prescribed for the study of undergraduates in Trinity. It was from that book that I derived the impression—which long remained uneffaced —that Intuitional moralists were hopelessly loose (as compared to mathematicians) in their definitions and axioms.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    All material quoted from Mill’s Theism is from the Library of Liberal Arts edition (1957, pp. 62-63).Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Mill, 1965, p. 8.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Cannon, 1964, pp. 487-502.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Whewell’s published criticisms of Mill’s System of logic generated much controversy. What is not so well known is that behind the scenes Whewell was quite naughty, recommending to some of his friends that they not even trouble to read the book!.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Mandelbaum, who was better positioned for an accurate overview than Mill, agrees with him. He says of his (Mandelbaum’s) characterization of positivism: “Taken in this sense, the positivist position was one which was widely espoused in the nineteenth century. And it is worth noting that its interpretation of science... even came to be absorbed into the idealist tradition.” (Mandelbaum, 1974, p. 11 both quotations).Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Spencer’s global philosophy is a good example; Whewell made a grand failed effort.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    As Cannon (1961a, pp. 215-239) has shown, Sir John Herschel, counter of double stars par excellence, was (excuse the intended pun) the superstar of early Victorian science. The image of the astronomer as the most noble of scientists lingers on, taking a contemporary form of exemplification in Saul Bellow’s Minna Corde. How eminently Victorian—and how frightening—is the closing scene of Bellow’s The dean’s December, one is literally chilled by the image of Minna ascending into the cold of the vault of the Palomar telescope wearing a special insulated thermal suit. Astronomy/mathematical precision/high science/the cold light of reason compute into analytic philosophy/logic/scientific philosophy/positivism. One could go on and on in presenting these cosmic analogies. My point is that our contemporary profile, delineated with marvelous drafting skill by Bellow, has its origin in Victorian Gradgrindery.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Perhaps I am lapsing into the portly style. It is true that Victorians, to their very great credit, treasured both cranks (Babbage complaining about the street musicians in London) and amateurs (wild flower collectors, fossil hunters, scientific travellers). But they also created the professional engineer and the international scientific expedition.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    Again my example is Whewell. In matters of inductive logic he accepted, with considerable modification, Newton’s rules of philosophizing. To put his public stamp of approval on all these developments, he purchased the statues of Bacon and Barrow now residing in the Trinity College ante-chapel.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    I quote from Herschel’s interesting review, “Quetelet on probabilities,” The Edinburgh review (1850) reprinted in Herschel (1857, pp. 365-465). The nominalistic tenor of this essay does not necessarily find consistency with Herschel’s position in Preliminary discourse. The matter requires further study. The complete text from which I extract is worth having before us.Google Scholar
  21. ... it must at once be admitted that no conclusion from inductive reasoning, i.e. from the observed to the unobserved, can enjoy more than a provisional security. If the unbroken experience of all observers, in innumerable instances, be really no ground to extending the conclusion to one unobserved instance admittedly parallel, then and in that case inductive argument should have no influence on human belief. But if, on the other hand, such large and uniform experience of the past is irresistibly felt to warrant a conclusion as to the future, we should then confidently adopt that conclusion, though with a distinct perception and admission of a risk of error more or less infinitesimal, which we make up our minds to disregard. And it is thus that we come to rest in practical as distinct from mathematical, certainty, in all physical inquiry, and in all transactions of life. (p. 368).Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    A full examination of major Victorian concepts of natural law has not been undertaken and badly needs to be done. I am selecting concepts of law in Mill, Herschel and Whewell that figure prominently in their accounts of scientific method. The truth is that all three hold ambiguous views on the nature of law. For example, note Herschel emphasizing in one place the prescriptive character of natural lawGoogle Scholar
  23. No chemist can doubt that it is already fixed what they will do when the case [of chemical compounds not yet discovered] occurs. They will obey certain laws, of which we know nothing at present, but which must be already fixed, or they could not be laws... This is the perfection of a law, that it includes all possible contingencies, and ensures implicit obedience,—and of this kind are the laws of nature, (pp. 36-37)Google Scholar
  24. One thing is clear: our three methodologists all accept that there are laws of nature, and that in some senses—here the differences would intrude—each such law is an exceptionless generalization.Google Scholar
  25. 18.
    Herschel Preliminary discourse, p. 42. For the greatest scientist of the mid-Victorian period science was a simple task!.Google Scholar
  26. 19.
    Augustus De Morgan took emphatic exception to Whewell’s adoption of the term “logic” to include his own method of induction. I have discussed this exchange in (Butts, 1968, pp. 24-26).Google Scholar
  27. 20.
    Mill, System of logic, p. 211.Google Scholar
  28. 21.
    Mill, System of logic, Bk. III, Ch. IV, Sect. 1.Google Scholar
  29. 22.
    Cannon, 1961b, p. 109.Google Scholar
  30. 23.
    Garland, 1980, pp. 107-112.Google Scholar
  31. 24.
    The range of Whewell’s scholarly interests is often remarked. His astonishingly full career includes work in at least the following fields: history and philosophy of science; science education; physical astronomy (empirical work on the tides); mineralogy (his work on classifying crystals is especially fine); theology; scientific terminology (he contributed “ion,” “anode,” and “cathode,” among other terms, to the work of Michael Faraday; to geology he contributed “Eocene,” “Miocene,” and “Pliocene”; he also first used “physicist” and “scientist” in our modern senses of these terms); architecture; translation of German literary works and the dialogues of Plato; experimental physics; physics textbook writing; scientific instruments (he invented a self-registering anemometer to measure the direction, velocity and temporal duration of the movements of wind)!.Google Scholar
  32. The surest and best characteristic of a well-founded and extensive induction, however, is when verifications of it spring up, as it were, spontaneously, into notice, from quarters where they might be least expected, or even among instances of that very kind which were at first considered hostile to them. Evidence of this kind is irresistible, and compels assent with a weight which scarcely any other possesses. (p. 170).Google Scholar
  33. 26.
    Whewell, 1858, pp. 70-71.Google Scholar
  34. 27.
    Elsewhere I have characterized such theories as followsGoogle Scholar
  35. Consilience is thought to be a property of those systems having the following characteristics: (1) the theories must be so general that they have almost reached the point of unity; this for Whewell is equivalent to saying that the theories must be simple, (2) the theories must provide the best explanation of the large range of objects involved [which amounts to saying that the theories have passed all other local inductive tests]; and (3) the theories must have achieved that historical situation where further testing of the laws is seen to be irrelevant to acceptance of the theories; the theories must have attained the position where negative results will be taken as calls for refinement of the systems, rather than as disconfirmations. (Butts, 1977, p. 74).Google Scholar
  36. 28.
    Whewell, Novum organon renovatum, p. 88; compare Whewell (1860, Ch. XVIII), for Whewell’s thoughts on Newton.Google Scholar
  37. 29.
    This is a very complicated issue, and I have been scolded by David Wilson for not understanding what is involved. See our discussion papers (Wilson, 1973, pp. 121-24; Butts, 1973a, pp. 125-28).Google Scholar
  38. 30.
    I discuss this reading of Whewell in a number of my earlier essays. The question of Whewell’s Platonism is discussed in Butts (1967).Google Scholar
  39. 31.
    Or so says Michael Ruse (1979). Jonathan Hodge (1980) thinks, to the contrary, that Darwin’s empirical methodology was derived almost exclusively from a reading of Herschel’s Preliminary discourse.Google Scholar
  40. 32.
    As David Hull (1973) and others have shown, perceived methodological weaknesses in Darwin’s theory were not the only issues. Darwin’s theory failed to satisfy certain requirements of orthodox scientificality (if I can be excused this awful word). The laws were not quantitative: not much of the evidence was obtained by carefully controlled experiment; the theories lacked the kind of precision that made accurate prediction possible; and so on. In short, evolutionary biology is no mathematical physics. These were serious matters, because during the nineteenth century positivists and non-positivists alike seemed agreed that the paradigm science is mathematical physics. It must have been quite comforting to know exactly what a science has to be.Google Scholar
  41. 33.
    I have not been able here to tell all of the story. Mill thought that induction properly executed could prove necessary conclusions. For different reasons, Whewell agreed. Although Herschel found difficulties with his view, Whewell held resolutely to the position that the results of good induction are necessary truths. If Whewell is correct, then another argument for the cognitive autonomy of science is available: what would one seek for beyond that which is necessary? That which is necessarily necessary?! Sometimes Whewell seemed to want to go that far—in the pulpit of the Trinity College Chapel and in the Master’s Lodge.Google Scholar
  42. 34.
    I am of course referring to Bas van Fraassen’s (1980) much discussed anti-realism.Google Scholar
  43. 35.
    Mill, System of logic, Bk. III, Ch. XIV, Sect. 6.Google Scholar
  44. 36.
    If I find occasion to write about the next episodes in the history of Victorian attitudes towards science I will seek to eliminate some of the bias introduced by focusing attention primarily upon champions of induction associated with Cambridge. After the 1850s Cambridge becomes the main center of positive work in science, and its centrality as the home of orthodox philosophy of science is lost. A balanced history of Victorian ideas about science must note that the influence of Herschel and Whewell as methodologists came to an abrupt end, and that philosophers of science writing in Britain after 1860 seldom even mention the great Cambridge methodological works of the 1840s. For example, Karl Pearson’s positivist study of science, The grammar of science, (London, 1892), makes no mention of Whewell, and this in spite of the fact that Pearson’s constructivist idealism with its emphasis upon creative imagination in science contains ideas similar to Whewell’s idea of the aspect of mental construction (imposition of ideas) in induction. Pearson was himself a Cambridge man (King’s College). Why the work of Herschel and especially Whewell was ignored by scholars of the next generation has yet to be explained. The philosophical emphasis upon induction during 1840–60 is later replaced by a diversified set of attitudes towards science represented by the work of Pearson, William Stanley Jevons, Arthur James Balfour, and others. My tentative explanation is that these later figures were themselves not engaged in work in science to the extent typical of figures in the period 1840–60 and thus were disposed to think of induction as a part of a sterile logic, rather than as a part of actual scientific technical work. Pearson accords a place for discussion of Mill’s methods of induction roughly like that found in today’s general logic texts. Serious discussion of probability theory and statistics (in which work Pearson himself engaged) began to replace informal inductive logic, and the work of Boole and De Morgan was recognized as an important breakthrough in studies of deductive logic. Jevons and Pearson were logicians, Balfour, a theologian and politician. They prompted a reaction against unnamed inductivists that was partly philosophically naive (the sensationalism of Pearson) partly romantic (Jevons and Balfour), and which for the most part lacked the rich concern for philosophical aspects of science emphasized by Herschel and Whewell. That they perceived that there is a problem at the heart of social reception of science testifies, I think, to the correctness of the thesis I have been developing. A major study of the lines of reaction against Victorian inductivism is by Donald R. Benson (1981, pp. 299-318). I am very grateful to John C. Greene for calling this study to my attention, and for some useful conversation on later Victorian philosophy of science.Google Scholar
  45. 37.
    I dedicate this study to Larry Laudan, a good friend who has taught me much philosophy. In Laudan (1977), he writes: “Yet virtually no one has asked why it is the case that most nineteenth-century philosophers, unlike their eighteenth-century predecessors, thought it appropriate or important to stress the speculative nature of science. We have, as yet, not even the outlines of an explanatory history of epistemology and inductive logic for this period. “(p. 179) I hope he will regard the present essay as a chapter in that history. An earlier version of the paper was presented at the Baylor University Victorian conference: “The tempestuous Victorians”.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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