Bolt (1998)

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Bolt, Marvin P. (1998) John Herschel's Natural Philosophy: On the Knowing of Nature and the Nature of Knowing in Early-Nineteenth-Century Britain. University of Notre Dame.

Title John Herschel's Natural Philosophy: On the Knowing of Nature and the Nature of Knowing in Early-Nineteenth-Century Britain
Resource Type book
Author(s) Marvin P. Bolt
Year 1998
Publisher University of Notre Dame


John Herschel's natural philosophy, as summarized in his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy , has long been considered a continuation of Francis Bacon's New Organon; commentators have frequently interpreted both as promoting a naive, inductivist methodology. I argue rather that Herschel promotes a more warranted and more sophisticated account. A careful reading of the Discourse, as well as of his more specialized essays, shows instead that Herschel explicitly encourages and defends the use of hypothetical reasoning. Such a methodology also describes his own extensive investigations that range over much of the spectrum of the physical sciences in the early nineteenth century. In developing this methodology, Herschel also drew on textual resources of Bacon, Isaac Newton, Roger Boscovich, Dugald Stewart, and others; most importantly, he was especially indebted to the investigations, views, and methods of his astronomer father, William Herschel. In particular, John Herschel applied his synthesis of these ideas to the empirical confirmation of his father's wide-ranging and speculative theories. In both the Discourse and in his other works, such as the Treatise on Astronomy, John Herschel promotes the use of hypotheses and of deductive methods as the tools used by experts, portraying inductive methods as the means by which sciences begin or as the most appropriate approach employed by amateurs. I also show how events of his life, including the socio-political context of early-nineteenth-century Britain, shaped Herschel's expression of his natural philosophy. Herschel's central role in the rise of science and of the philosophy of science in the nineteenth century make it imperative that we obtain a more accurate understanding of the doctrines he disseminated to practitioners of science and to popular audiences of the Victorian era. This volume provides the beginning of this broader task