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John Herschel

Toni Vogel Carey on a memorable but forgotten scientist and philosopher.

If the name Herschel rings a bell, you are probably thinking of William (1738-1822), who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, and catapulted to fame. A poor oboist from Hanover, he worked his way to some prominence in the English music world; but for him, the world revolved around his starry avocation. In this he was tirelessly assisted by his remarkable sister Caroline, who doubled as his soprano soloist, and who is credited with discovering at least five comets herself.

William married very late and had only one child, John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), who inherited all the Herschel talents, and their modesty as well. In 1813 John graduated ‘Senior Wrangler’ in mathematics from Cambridge, which made him a figure of awe there, and a natural candidate for the Lucasian professorship, made famous by Isaac Newton, and lately by Stephen Hawking. The Royal Society published his first paper that same year, and elected him a Fellow; in 1821 he received its highest honor, the Copley medal; in 1831 he was knighted. After completing his father’s catalogue of the northern heavens, he spent four years at the Cape of Good Hope cataloguing the southern skies, for which he received a second Copley medal. His Outlines of Astronomy (1849) has been called “perhaps the most completely satisfactory general exposition of a science ever penned.”

Herschel also published in mathematics, optics (his ‘first love’), chemistry, meteorology, physical geography, and philosophy of science. He invented blue-prints, pioneered the use of astronomical photography, and added lavender rays to the spectrum. Despite marrying rather late himself, he and Margaret had twelve children. In between, they created a coffee-table book, Flora Herscheliana, with exquisite wild flower pictures from the Cape, executed in camera lucida drawings by John and finished in watercolor by Margaret. After visiting Herschel at the Cape, Charles Darwin stated the obvious: “He appears to find time for everything.”

‘Independent Amateur’

At Cambridge Herschel had made a pact with George Peacock (Second Wrangler) and Charles Babbage (who quit the ‘wrangling’ rather than lose to Herschel) to “leave the world wiser than they found it;” and they wasted no time keeping their word. By 1820 they had published textbooks that were reforming the teaching of calculus in England. By 1830, with cohorts William Whewell (Second Wrangler 1816) and George Airy (Senior Wrangler 1823), theirs was the dominant scientific voice at Cambridge.

Herschel was and remained the leader of the group, even though he had left Cambridge in 1816 to assist his aging father, and never returned. In 1826 the Lucasian professorship became available, and Whewell urged Herschel to speak for it. Herschel eventually succeeded in securing the chair for Babbage (whom Whewell said had “no chance whatever”), so he could surely have gotten it for himself. But he declined, saying he could “do more for science as an independent amateur than as a Professor of any particular branch or department of it.”

This strikes us today as a professional death-wish; but it did not put a dent in Herschel’s stature and influence. For one thing, the Lucasian came with a small salary and large restrictions, making it a luxury many could not afford. More importantly, though, the universities themselves were just emerging – thanks in part to Herschel’s band of whiz kids – from centuries of counting angels on the heads of pins. Eighteenth- century thinkers had simply abandoned classrooms for coffee houses and informal learned societies. Throughout the nineteenth century too, notables like Herschel and Darwin belonged to every learned society worth joining, and Herschel played a role in bringing the Royal Society through a crisis of leadership between the scientists (yay) and the nobility (boo). In short, Herschel was a child of the Enlightenment.

More to the point, he was the child of William and the nephew of Caroline, ‘independent amateurs’ who created their own science, and the finest telescopes with which to do it. The sale of telescopes had made William wealthy, so John could afford to take a professorship or leave it. Nor did he need the Lucasian title to add luster to his name. Amateur or no, the essayist John Ruskin would report meeting “the leading scientific men of the day, from Herschel downwards.”

With the reticent Herschel a few words sufficed to make a point, and to make the right point. What would cause a firestorm coming from anyone else somehow seemed entirely reasonable coming from him. In 1836 he wrote to Charles Lyell, praising his Principles of Geology and his courage in addressing “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others,” adding his own view that God does not act by a ‘miraculous process,’ but by a ‘natural’ series of ‘intermediate causes.’ Lyell gained “strength and confidence” from this boost, and later wrote to Whewell:

“…you remember what Herschel said in his letter to me. If I had stated as plainly as he has done the possibility of the introduction or origination of fresh species being a natural, in contradistinction to a miraculous process, I should have raised a host of prejudices against me, which are unfortunately opposed at every step to any philosopher who attempts to address the public on these mysterious subjects.”

During the period 1830-60, Walter Cannon tells us, Herschel was “the most famous scientist in England,” and the one all others looked up to. Writing to a mutual friend about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, Whewell remarked, “I do not know what is the good of knowing and admiring such people as Herschel, if one cannot learn this from them.” For the finest of reasons, the way to be ‘scientific,’ Cannon says, was to be “as much like John Herschel as possible.”

Science and Philosophy

By 1772, Newtonian mathematics and physics at Cambridge had so usurped the territory of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics that the four branches of ‘philosophy’ included in its examinations were now: mechanics, hydrostatics, astronomy and optics! Cambridge paid relatively little attention to outlanders like David Hume, taking its cue mostly from its own – Francis Bacon, and Newton’s scattered remarks on scientific method. But as for Newton’s most famous methodological remark, “Hypotheses non fingo” (I fashion no hypotheses), who believes it? One of his father William’s favorite mutterings, according to John, was “Hypotheses fingo.”

What Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) set forth was not an analysis of modern science, since there was virtually no modern science, but rather guidelines for a science of the future. Two hundred years later, however, modern science was in full bloom, and it was time for philosophy of science to come into its own. Herschel saw and seized the moment – without, of course, creating a ripple of controversy. His Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830) was squarely in the Baconian empiricist tradition, and his writing captivated experts and novices alike:

“To blow a large, regular, and durable soap-bubble may become the serious and praiseworthy endeavour of a sage, while children stand round and scoff, or children of a larger growth hold up their hands in astonishment at such waste of time and trouble. To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling. From the least of nature’s works he may learn the greatest lessons. The fall of an apple to the ground may raise his thoughts to the laws which govern the revolutions of the planets in their orbits…”

Following Herschel’s lead, Whewell became the pivotal figure in reviving the traditional philosophical canon at Cambridge. An ordained minister, he was best known for his ‘Bridgewater Treatise’ on astronomy from the standpoint of natural theology (to wit, the argument from design advanced by William Paley, Senior Wrangler 1763). During the 1830s, his interest in science diminished, and he took up a long-silent chair in moral philosophy. Whewell was anything but silent, and through his lectures, and later as Master of Trinity College, he exerted considerable influence on the makeup of the ‘tripos’ exams, which determined what courses counted.

Whewell’s scientific period culminated in his two-volume History (1837) and Philosophy (1840) of the Inductive Sciences. The History was dedicated to Herschel, and the Philosophy was initially inspired by the Discourse. But Whewell had a strong Kantian bent, and as Herschel’s book review noted, while his own philosophy “refers all our knowledge to experience,” Whewell’s “assumes the presence of innate conceptions.” Then too, Whewell was a believer in developmental leaps, even revolutionary ones, whereas Herschel, like Lyell and then Darwin, was a gradualist.

In 1843 John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic appeared, and it soon eclipsed both Herschel’s work and Whewell’s – as it still does. Whewell wrote to alert Herschel:

“[There is] a new book by young Mill about the philosophy of science, suggested in a great degree by your book on the same subject and by mine. There is in new books of this kind a satisfaction… that notions and expressions, which were new and strange when we began to write, are now familiarly referred to as part of the uncontested truth of the matter.”

Herschel had probably already seen the Logic, since Mill acknowledged, in the book and to Herschel directly, that its “most important chapter…on the four Experimental Methods is little more than an expansion and a more scientific statement” of what Herschel had “previously stated” in the Discourse.

Of the three, Mill was the most strongly empiricist, Whewell the least, and these two carried on a well-known controversy. Herschel took a middle ground, although as Whewell noted, “Mill agrees with you more than with me in the parts where we differ.” There are parts, however, where Herschel and Whewell do not differ. For both, natural laws have the certainty of mathematical propositions. And they shared an important criterion of confirmation that Whewell dubbed a ‘consilience of inductions.’ As Herschel states it:

“The surest and best characteristic of a well-founded and extensive induction… 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.”

Surprise is essential to consilient confirmation. Indeed, like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ principle, consilience is doubly surprising, in being more powerful than anything we might come up with by conscious design. E.O. Wilson has revived this criterion in his 1998 book Consilience, something long overdue. But unlike Herschel and Whewell, Wilson has in mind a deliberate search for domain-crossing connections, which tends to spoil the surprise. Karl Popper’s requirement that prospective theories pass the ‘severe’ test of predicting as-yet undiscovered phenomena, Larry Laudan points out, resembles the idea of consilience. A good case in point is the deductive prediction of the planet Neptune; and interestingly, in 1830 Herschel spotted what later turned out to be Neptune, just as his father had spotted what turned out to be Uranus. John did not report his finding, so he was not credited; but with characteristic high-mindedness, he welcomed the later deductive discovery as the more “noble triumph for science.”

Whewell made more of consilience than Herschel, as he made more of everything. Herschel’s criterion claims only psychological irresistibility; Whewell leaned toward the bolder and more dubious claim that a consilient induction cannot be false. At times, though, Whewell’s thinking was more incisive and innovative than Herschel’s. Whewell considered the falsity of a theory less important than its failure to generate consilience, for example, since virtually any theory can be rescued from falsity if we make enough ad hoc adjustments to it.


In the very first paragraph of his Origin of Species Darwin introduces this “mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.” He is referring, of course, to Herschel, and the letter to Lyell. The Discourse had instilled in young Darwin “a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.” He re-read this work in 1838, Michael Ruse says, and adopted the Herschel/Whewell criterion as a heuristic during his twenty-year honing of the theory of natural selection. “The difficulties and objections are terrific,” he confessed; “but I cannot believe that a false theory would explain…so many classes of facts.”

The moment the Origin came out (1859), Darwin wanted to know Herschel’s opinion, “for, of course, he will not write, and I should excessively like to hear whether I produce any effect on such a mind.” On learning that Herschel had called natural selection “the law of higgledy-piggledy,” he wrote to Lyell in dismay, “What exactly this means I do not know, but evidently it is very contemptuous. If true this is a great blow and discouragement.”

Why would Herschel, who believed in a natural origin of species, belittle Darwin’s version of it, which followed his criterion of confirmation, and even satisfied his gradualism? Did he envy Darwin’s new celebrity? His friends would never have believed it of him. David Hull gives a nicer explanation, based on a note in Herschel’s Physical Geography monograph (1861):

“We can no more accept the principle of arbitrary and casual variation of natural selection as a sufficient condition, per se, of the past and present organic world, than we can receive the Laputan method of composing books (pushed à outrance) as a sufficient account of Shakespeare and the Principia.”

As Hull glosses this remark, Darwin’s theory suggested “a God who would compose a book by randomly striking the keys of a typewriter [update to a computer] until something turned out. Herschel did not want to deny that evolution might occur by law, but it had to be a law worthy of God.”

The trouble is that this put Herschel in the impossible position of trying contortedly to withhold from Darwin what he had long since given to Lyell:

“We do not believe that Mr Darwin means to deny the necessity of …intelligent direction. But it does not, so far as we can see, enter into the formula of this law; and without it we are unable to conceive how far the law can have led to the results. On the other hand, we do not mean to deny that such intelligence may act according to a law (that is to say, on a preconceived and definite plan)…But the one law is a necessary supplement to the other, and ought…to form a part of its enunciation. Granting this, and with some demur as to the genesis of man, we are far from disposed to repudiate the view taken of this mysterious subject in Mr Darwin’s book.”

The religious issue was at least as crucial for Rev. Whewell, who sent Darwin an uncharacteristically brief and chilly note about the Origin. According to Darwin’s son Francis, Whewell refused to have a copy of the Origin placed in the Trinity College library, but that sounds even less characteristic of Whewell. Thanks to the librarian there, Jonathan Smith, I have learned that the issue apparently arose in April 1861, and Whewell had three options: to approve (initial), refuse (‘no’), or defer (‘wait’). Whewell wrote ‘wait’.

For Herschel, natural selection did not pass muster either religiously or empirically, and Darwin, who felt vulnerable on both counts, admitted to the empirical sin of “induction from too few facts.” Herschel sent Darwin a copy of his Physical Geography, to which Darwin’s response is, well, revealing. “I am pleased with your note on my book on species,” he says, “though apparently you go but a little way with me.” ‘Little’ was putting it mildly. Moreover Darwin surely did mean “to deny the necessity of intelligent direction,” although he wrestled with this issue here, as elsewhere:

“The point which you raise on intelligent Design has perplexed me beyond measure… I am in a complete jumble… One cannot look at this Universe…without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this…”

After apologizing for ‘troubling’ Herschel with these ruminations, Darwin continues:

“You will think me very conceited when I say I feel quite easy about the ultimate success of my views, (with much error, as yet unseen by me, to be no doubt eliminated); & I feel this confidence, because…so many…find that they can thus group & understand many scattered facts, [in] morphology, geographical Distribution, systematic Botany, simple geology & palaeontology. Forgive me boasting, if you can; I do so because I should value your partial acquiescence in my view, more than that of almost any other human being.”

Darwin’s pleading tone could hardly have made points with Herschel, who was now sixty-nine, and worn out from finding time for everything (including a final post as Master of the Mint, like Newton before him). Besides, we could hardly expect this Senior Wrangler to abandon the pristine Newtonian mathematical model of science, so late in life, for an untidy revolutionary biological paradigm – so revolutionary that in some religious and educational circles it is still anathema. Even so, for the good of science, and out of natural circumspection, Herschel left the door ajar for natural selection to enter the pantheon of great ideas.

The mantle now passed to Darwin as “the most famous scientist in England,” and mentor to up-and-coming scientists like Francis Galton. But that hardly explains why Herschel has become as neglected in our day as philosophy was in his. At his death, even the lay public recognized his contribution to science and scientists, and knew he had left the world wiser than he found it. In tribute to him, and to the stellar Herschelian century (1781-1871), England laid Sir John Herschel to rest in Westminster Abbey, near Newton, and soon Lyell, and Darwin.

© Dr Toni Vogel Carey 2004

Toni Vogel Carey, PhD, is an independent philosopher and a regular contributor to Philosophy Now, as well as one of its US Editorial Advisors.

Finding Out More

• Walter Cannon, ‘John Herschel,’ Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards (1967), v.3.
• David Hull, Darwin and His Critics (Harvard University Press, 1973)
• Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm (Routledge, 1989), ch.1.
• Henry Sidgwick, ‘Philosophy at Cambridge’, Mind I (1876), 235-46.

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