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Darwin-L Message Log 2:160 (October 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<2:160>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sat Oct 30 22:33:52 1993

Date: Sat, 30 Oct 1993 23:40:03 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: "Palaetiology"
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

I'm very grateful to Michael Kenny for the reference to the "palaetiological
sciences" -- the sciences of historical causation -- in the writings of Andrew
Jackson Davis, which I hadn't seen before.  I will add it to my short list of
appearances of the word, and would very much like to hear from anyone else who
sees or has seen it in print.  The palaetiological sciences are the very
subject of Darwin-L.

"Palaetiology" was coined by the English polymath William Whewell (1794-1866).
Early in his career Whewell did work in mineralogy, but he is best known for
his two major works _The History of the Inductive Sciences_ (1st ed. 1837,
three vols.), and _The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences_ (1st ed. 1840,
two vols.).  "Palaetiology" appears first in _The History of the Inductive
Sciences_ in 1837, I believe.  Whewell became Master of Trinity College,
Cambridge, and President of the British Association for the Advancement of
Science in 1841, and was one of the highest-ranking academic personages of his
day.  He also wrote on education and educational reform.  Hodge (1991:255)
says: "Only by grafting Cassirer, the historical philosopher, on to Conant,
the scientific educator, could we have in our day a comparable combination of
intellectual stride and institutional clout, of polymathic savant and academic
supremo."  Whewell's brand of philosophy of science was out of fashion for
much of the twentieth century, but he has in recent years been attracting a
lot of new attention, and a few books have begun to appear on his work,
including Fisch (1991), Fisch and Schaffer (1991), and Yeo (1993).  Next year
will be the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Whewell was one of the great neologists of the nineteenth-century, bequeathing
to us the words "physicist", "scientist", "anode", "cathode", and the names
"catastrophism" and "uniformitarianism" for the two competing schools of
geology of the day.  He also brought us "palaetiology", which unfortunately
never caught on, I think largely because it was unpronounceable.  (I certainly
have a very hard time pronouncing it.)  What Whewell was trying to do in
coining this term was to recognize a class of sciences of which geology was
the exemplar, sciences concerned with the causation of singular sequences of
past events. Whewell included comparative philology among the palaetiological
sciences, and recognized palaetiological portions of astronomy, zoo- and
phytogeography, ethnography, etc.

Apart from the reference that Michael Kenny just supplied the only other
substantive use of the term by Whewell's contemporaries I have seen comes from
William Willing (1838:12), a comparative philologist:

"The name...of Comparative Philology, is not sufficiently comprehensive for
the science treated of in this work; the subject, in its whole extent, belongs
rather to the class of sciences which have lately been called Palaetiological;
and of which Geology is, at present, the best representative."

I'm sure there were others, however, and as I mentioned above I'd be pleased
to hear about them.  We may well have some real historians of science in our
audience who know a good deal more about the history of the word than I do.
The OED lists one other appearance of palaetiology (spelled "palaitiology") in
the work of Max Muller, an historical linguist; this appears to be just a
passing reference to how various authors had treated linguistics in the past.

Here are a couple of extracts from Whewell himself on the scope of
palaetiology and on its value in liberal eductaion; both his _History_ and
_Philosophy_ have whole chapters on the palaetiological sciences that go into
more detail:

"As we may look back towards the first condition of our planet, we may in like
manner turn our thoughts towards the first condition of the solar system, and
try whether we can discern any traces of an order of things antecedent to that
which is now established; and if we find, as some great mathematicians have
conceived, indications of an earlier state in which the planets were not yet
gathered into their present forms, we have, in pursuit of this train of
research, a palaetiological portion of Astronomy.  Again, as we may inquire
how languages, and how man, have been diffused over the earth's surface from
place to place, we may make the like inquiry with regard to the races of
plants and animals, founding our inferences upon the existing geographical
distribution of animal and vegetable kingdoms: and this the Geography of
Plants and of Animals also becomes a portion of Palaetiology.  Again, as we
can in some measure trace the progress of Arts from nation to nation and from
age | to age, we can also pursue a similar investigation with respect to the
progress of Mythology, of Poetry, of Government, of Law....It is not an
arbitrary and useless proceeding to construct such a Class of sciences.  For
wide and various as their subjects are, it will be found that they have all
certain principles, maxims, and rules of procedure in common; and thus may
reflect light upon each other by being treated together."  (William Whewell,
The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1:639-640, second edition, 1847,
London: John W. Parker.)

"I have ventured to give reasons why the chemical sciences (chemistry,
mineralogy, electrochemistry) are not at the present time in a condition which
makes them important general elements of a liberal education.  But there is
another class of sciences, the palaetiological sciences, which from the
largeness of their views and the exactness of the best portions of their
reasonings are well fitted to form part of that philosophical discipline which
a liberal education ought to include.  Of these sciences, I have mentioned
two, one depending mainly upon the study of language and the other upon the
sciences which deal with the material world.  These two sciences, ethnography,
or comparative philology, and geology, are among those progressive sciences
which may be most properly taken into a liberal education as instructive
instances of the wide and rich field of facts and reasonings with which modern
science deals, still retaining, in many of its steps, great rigour of proof;
and as an animating display also of the large and grand vistas of time,
succession, and causation, which are open to the speculative powers of man."
(William Whewell on liberal education, in _Great Ideas Today_, 1991:388-9.)

References cited above:

Fisch, Menachem.  1991.  _William Whewell: Philosopher of Science_.  Oxford:
Clarendon Press.

Fisch, Menachem, & Simon Schaffer, eds.  1991.  _William Whewell: A Composite
Portrait_.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hodge, M. J. S.  1991.  The history of the earth, life, and man: Whewell and
palaetiological science.  In Fisch & Schaffer, 1991:255-288.

Winning, William Balfour.  1838.  _A Manual of Comparative Philology, in which
the Affinity of the Indo-European Languages is Illustrated, and Applied to the
Primeval History of Europe, Italy, and Rome_.  London: J. G. & F. Rivington.

Yeo, Richard.  1993.  _Defining Science: William Whewell, Natural Knowledge,
and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain_.  Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.


Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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