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William Whewell and Palaetiology

The Darwin-L discussion group was established to promote the reintegration of the palaetiological sciences. The term “palaetiology” was coined in 1837 by English philosopher, historian, and educator William Whewell (1794–1866) to refer to those sciences which have as their object the reconstruction of the past based on the evidence of the present. Whewell’s two exemplary palaetiological sciences were geology and comparative philology, but he recognized that many different disciplines had palaetiological divisions. The term “palaetiology” never became popular (probably because it is almost unpronounceable), but Whewell’s recognition of the unity of the palaetiological sciences was one of his most important contributions to the philosophy of science.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us these details on the word:

palaetiology. rare. Also palaitio-. [(for *palae-aetiology), f. Gr. palaios ancient + aetiology; after palaeontology.] Used by Whewell for the application of existing principles of cause and effect to the explanation of past phenomena.

1837 Whewell Hist. Induct. Sc. XVIII. III. 481 The sciences which treat of causes have sometimes been termed aetiological..; a portion of that science on which we are about to enter, geology, has..been termed paleontology, since it treats of beings which formerly existed. Hence combining these two notions, the term palaetiology appears to be not inappropriate, to describe those speculations which thus refer to actual past events, but attempt to explain them by laws of causation.

So palaetiological a., of, belonging to, or using the methods of palaetiology; palaetiologist, one who investigates or treats of a subject in a palaetiological way.

1837 Whewell Hist. Induct. Sc. XVIII. III. 486 Palaetiological sciences..undertake to refer changes to their causes. Ibid. 487 The tendencies [etc.]..which direct man to architecture and sculpture, to civil government, to rational and grammatical speech..must be in a great degree known to the palaetiologist of art, of society, and of language, respectively. 1840Philos. Induct. Sc. (1847) II. 464. 1859 Max Mueller Sc. Lang. Ser. I. ii. (1864) 29 Dr. Whewell classes the sciences of language as one of the palaitiological sciences.

Whewell wrote extensively about the nature and scope of palaetiology in both his History of the Inductive Sciences and his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Here is a short extract:

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 the animal and vegetable kingdoms: and thus 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, 1847. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, second edition. London: John W. Parker. Volume 1, pp. 639–640.]

He also argued that the palaetiological sciences were particularly suitable for undergraduates to study as a component of a general liberal curriculum:

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.

There has been a good deal of historiographic work on Whewell, some of which mentions in passing his concept of palaetiology. One particularly noteworthy paper is M.J.S. Hodge’s “The history of the earth, life, and man: Whewell and palaetiological science” which appeared in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait (Menachem Fisch and Simon Schaffer, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 255–288).

A number of writers following Whewell adopted the term “palaetiology,” but it never became widespread. The English philologist William Winning used it enthusiastically in his Manual of Comparative Philology (1838), quoting extensively from Whewell’s original text:

I have called this work “A Manual of Comparative Philology, in which (1) the affinity of the Indo-European languages is illustrated; and (2) applied to the early history of Europe, Italy, and Rome.” To denote the object pointed out in the first division of my title-page, the term Comparative Philology, which is now getting into common use, is a suitable and happy expression: it is not so, however, with respect to the second division. In entering upon the early history of Italy, it becomes quite necessary, besides the affinity of languages, to take into consideration monuments of art, customs, government, religion, and the general style of civilization. The name, therefore, 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.

“By the class of sciences here referred to,” says Mr. Whewell, who introduced the term Palaetiological, “I mean to point out those researches in which the object is, to ascend from the present state of things to a more ancient condition, from which the present is derived by intelligible causes. The sciences which treat of causes have sometimes been termed aetiological, from [Gr. aitia], a cause: but this term would not sufficiently describe the speculations of which we now speak; since it might include sciences which treat of permanent causality, like mechanics, as well as inquiries concerning progressive causation. The investigations which we now wish to group together, deal, not only with the possible, but with the actual past; and a portion of Geology has properly been termed palaeontology ([Gr. palai, onta]), since it treats of beings which formerly existed. Hence, combining these two notions ([Gr. palai, aitia]), the term palaetiology appears to be not inappropriate, to describe those speculations which thus refer to actual past events, but attempt to explain them by laws of causation. Such speculations are not confined to the world of inert matter: we have examples of them in inquiries concerning the monuments of the art and labour of distant ages; in examinations into the origin and early progress of states and cities, customs and languages; as well as in researches concerning the causes and formations of mountains and rocks, the imbedding of fossils in strata, and their elevation from the bottom of the ocean. All these speculations are connected by this bond, that they endeavour to ascend to a past state of things, by the aid of the evidence of the present.—Again, we may notice another common circumstance in the studies which we are grouping together as palaetiological, diverse as they are in their subjects. In all of them we have the same kind of manifestations of a number of successive changes, each springing out of a preceeding state; and in all, the phenomena at each step become more and more complicated, by involving the results of all that has preceeded, modified by supervening agencies. The general aspect of all these trains of change is similar, and offers the same features for description. The relics and ruins of the earlier states are preserved, mutilated and dead, in the products of later times. The analogical figures by which we are tempted to express this relation, are philosophically just. It is more than a mere fanciful description, to say, that in languages, customs, forms of society, political institutions, we see a number of formations superimposed upon one another, each of which is, for the most part, an assemblage of fragments and results of the preceeding condition. Though our comparison might be bold, it would be just if we were to say, that the English language is a conglomerate of Latin words, bound together in Saxon cement; the fragments of the Latin being partly portions introduced directly from the parent quarry, with all their sharp edges; and partly pebbles of the same material, obscured and shaped by long rolling in a Norman or other channel. Thus the study of palaetiology in the materials of the earth, is only a type of similar studies with respect to all the elements, which, in the history of the earth’s inhabitants, have been constantly undergoing a series of connected changes.” [Winning’s footnote 8: “Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences, vol. iii. p. 481.”]

Perhaps Philology, and the connected archaeological subjects, are not yet sufficiently advanced to constitute collectively, under an appropriate name, a complete and uniform member of the Palaetiological class of sciences; and I have therefore retained the more common and intelligible phrase, Comparative Philology, though in a more extended sense than exactly belongs to it. From want of some general title, Fr. Schlegel has named his treatise, which is one of the earliest works in this department of Palaetiology, ‘An Essay on the Language and Philosophy of the Hindoos;’ which he has divided into three books, on Language, Religion, and Polity. My object in the present Work is to perform for Italy and the West, the same kind of task which he has executed for India and the East; and to induce others to enter upon the same path. May Palaetiology, on the higher theme of Man, obtain as numerous and scientific inquirers as she already possesses on the subject of the earth! [William B. Winning, 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. Pp. 12–15.]

Michael Kenney on Darwin-L (30 October 1993) pointed out a use of the term by Andrew Jackson Davis in The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind (1847). Kenney described Davis as “an American progressivist mystic who delivered his so-called revelations while in magnetic trance; later he became one of the major philosophical figures in the Spiritualist movement. The ‘Revelations’ is a cogmogony based on a teleological reading of contemporary physical and biological science which attempts to establish that the ultimate goal of the Universe is indefinite progress toward total harmony in the human and natural worlds. It reads like an odd melange of Lyell, Herbert Spencer (‘matter and motion’ get great play), and popular knowledge of electromagnetism.” Indeed it does:

It is the office of palaetiological sciences to set forth general truths in the departments of astronomy, geology, anatomy, physiology, &c., all as in perfect harmony with each other, and as forming a general and undeniable proof of the united chain of existences, and binding the whole together as one grand BOOK.… From this Book properly interpreted, should be derived the text of every sermon. In this, true theology has its foundation; and the teachings of this should constitute the only study of the theologian. By collecting palaetiological facts, then these things are gradually developed; and thus is unfolded the actual demonstration of original design, uniformity of motion and progression, and the consequent adaptation of means, to produce ultimates.—And thus is displayed the principle of Cause, Effect, and End, commencing at the foundation of, and operating through, Nature. [Andrew Jackson Davis, 1847. The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. New York: S.S. Lyon and W. Fishbough.]

Chauncey Wright, a nineteenth-century American philosopher of science, spoke about common interpretive problems in the palaetiological sciences in a negative review of Herbert Spencer’s writings on evolution:

It was Mr. Spencer’s aim to free the law of evolution from all teleological implications, and to add such elements and limitations to its definition as should make it universally applicable to the movement of nature. Having done this, as he thinks, he arrives at the following definition: “Evolution is a change from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity through continuous differentiations and integrations.” But teleology is a subtile poison, and lurks where least suspected. The facts of the sciences which Dr. Whewell calls palaetiological, like the various branches of geology, and every actual concrete series of events which together form an object of interest to us, are apt, unless we are fully acquainted with the actual details through observation or by actual particular deductions from well-known particular facts and general laws, to fall into a dramatic procession in our imaginations. The mythic instinct slips into the place of the chronicles at every opportunity. All history is written on dramatic principles. All cosmological speculations are strictly teleological. We never can comprehend the whole of a concrete series of events. What arrests our attention in it is what constitutes the parts of an order either real or imaginary, and all merely imaginary orders are dramatic, or are determined by interests which are spontaneous in human life. Our speculations about what we have not really observed, to which we supply the order and most of the facts, are necessarily determined by some principle of order in our minds. Now the most general principle which we can have is this: that the concrete series shall be an intelligible series in its entirety; thus alone can it interest and attract our thoughts and arouse a rational curiosity. [Chauncey Wright, North American Review, April 1865; reprinted in Philosophical Discussions, 1877, pp. 70–71.]


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