Inventing the Scientist

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By Laura J. Snyder

William Whewell

William Whewell right around the time he invented the word scientist

It was June 24, 1833, at the meeting of the recently-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. William Whewell (pronounced “who-ell”), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former professor of Mineralogy, had just finished a speech opening the conference. When the applause died down, the members were shocked to see a frail, grizzled man rise slowly to his feet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated Romantic poet, had written a treatise on scientific method decades before. Coleridge had hardly left his home in Highgate for the past thirty years, yet he had felt obliged to make the journey to attend this meeting.

At that time, the practitioners of science were known primarily as “natural philosophers.” Coleridge remarked acidly that the members of the association should no longer refer to themselves this way. Men digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus, hardly fit the definition. They were not, he meant, “armchair philosophers,” pondering the mysteries of the universe, but practical men – with dirty hands, at that. As a “real metaphysician,” he forbade them the use of this honorific.

The hall erupted in a tumultuous din, as the assembled group took offense at the insult Coleridge clearly intended. Then Whewell rose again, quieting the crowd. He courteously agreed with the “distinguished gentleman” that a satisfactory term with which to describe the members of the association was wanting. If “philosophers” is taken to be “too wide and lofty a term,” then, Whewell suggested, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

It was fitting that the term was invented by Whewell who, along with three of his friends, transformed the natural philosopher into the modern scientist.

About the author: An expert on Victorian science and culture, Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder was the President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science in 2009 and 2010. She is associate professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, and the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society (University of Chicago, 2006) and The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World (Broadway, February 22, 2011). Follow Laura on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/authorLauraJSnyder.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World

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  • http://febrilemuse-infectious-disease.blogspot.com CM Doran

    This book sounds great. Of course art and science go together!!

  • Katya Maz

    Really interesting in re: to the increased professionalizaton of the science of government going on at the same time.

  • http://www.mark-patton.co.uk Mark Patton

    Yet, as late as 1895, T.H. Huxley could write, in Science Gossip, “…to anyone who respects the English language, I would think ‘scientist’ must be about as pleasing a word as ‘electrocution.’ I sincerely trust that you will not allow [your] pages…to be defiled by it.” Sir John Lubbock concurred with Huxley, preferring to “…retain the old word, ‘philosopher.’ Alfred Russel Wallace, however, disagreed, considering the word to be “a very useful American term” (an entirely wrong attribution, as shown above!).

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  • http://mattersofproportion.wordpress.com/about/ s g sterrett

    Thanks for this story. It is odd to think of the word “scientist” ever being regarded with disrespect, much less arising this way.

  • librarypat

    How interesting. I hadn’t considered when the term scientist had come into use. when thinking of the “field” sciences or those involving extensive lab work, philosopher really doesn’t seem to apply. I’d have to agree that Coleridge was right in his feelings that studying the theoretical base of a science is much different from getting your hands dirty working it in the trenches as it were. I have always been interested in science, especially the “early days” when so much was being discovered and so many paths for exploration were being opened. THE PHILOSOPHICAL BREAKFAST CLUB sounds like it will be an interesting book about an exciting time in the scientific world.

  • Kitty

    Sounds great! I almost majored in Geology so I have put this on my TBR/Wish List.

  • http://ImpracticalProposals.blogspot.com John Gabree

    It seems remarkable, approaching two centuries after the events described, to find science so much on the defensive. As religion has come to dominate political debate in this country, politics has had a corrosive effect on science. In areas as diverse as stem cell research, birth control, global warming, endangered species, HIV prevention, and a host of other policy matters, decisions are being made by politicians and bureaucrats who reject scientific evidence in favor of religious prejudice, superstition and myth. I doubt that in matters of public welfare even Coleridge would be pleased to see his “practical men” shoved aside in favor of people whose conduct is guided by fear of imaginary beings, spirits and ghosts.

  • http://www.punctualityrules.com –Deb

    I never knew the origin of the word “Scientist” before–love it!

  • Carol Wong

    I never thought about the word scientist being born before. This must be such a fascinating book.

    CarolNWong(at)aol(dot)com

  • David

    This sounds like a fascinating book. I had assumed man of science pre-dated the term scientist.

  • Rose

    This books sounds really interesting! I recently read a book that discussed Charles Babbage a bit (The Code Book by Simon Singh), and I’d love to learn more about him and this group.

  • Mike S

    Yep, this sounds really good, and it’s clearly been written by a scholar. I’d love to be included in the drawing. Thanks, and keep up the good work here.

  • Heather

    would love to read this – thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  • Raymond

    This book sounds very interesting would enjoy reading it
    . Thank you for the chance to win it.

  • http://resobscura.blogspot.com Ben B.

    Looks neat – count me in.

  • Jen

    Sounds like a fascinating read–our whole family would enjoy it.

  • Cathie

    Looks very interesting.

  • http://brokenteepee.com Patty

    This sound like a fascinating book.
    Please enter me

  • Kelli

    I can’t wait to read this!

  • Glenn Harder

    Thanks Laura. Your concise essay is very helpful in my research. You have fact and drama.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dgharder Glenn Harder

    Thanks Laura! Your concise essay is very helpful in my research. You have fact and drama!

  • Pingback: The “Scientist” 178 Years Old Today « Laura J. Snyder

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