What’s in a name?

Mateusz Stachowski, www.freeimages.com
© Mateusz Stachowski, http://www.freeimages.com

I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers.[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.

Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other scientists, and spent time exploring the sciences for himself. He recognised that – like poetry – science involves great creativity and imagination.

Despite his enthusiasm, Coleridge didn’t see science as the highest authority because it cannot answer questions of meaning or value. In 1804 he complained that “I have met with several genuine Philologists, Philonoists, Physiophilists, keen hunters after knowledge and Science; but Truth and Wisdom are higher names than these – and revering Davey, I am half angry with him for doing that which would make one laugh in another man – I mean, for prostituting and profaning the name of Philosopher, great Philosopher, eminent philosopher etc. etc. etc. to every Fellow, who has made a lucky experiment.”[2]

In 1833, the year before he died, Coleridge attended the annual meeting of the newly-established British Association for the Advancement of Science. During a debate on the proper title for ‘men of science’, he stood up and argued very strongly that experimental work is not philosophy, so these people should not be calling themselves natural philosophers. The term ‘scientist’ was proposed by William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, but it didn’t go down well at the time.

Among those who objected to the new title were (famously) Michael Faraday and apparently also T. H. Huxley. Although these two men were diametrically opposed in their beliefs – Faraday a devout Christian and Huxley an agnostic who wanted science to be established as a separate profession apart from the church – according to the historian Richard Yeo they were unanimous in their preference to “think of their work as part of broader philosophical, theological and moral concerns.”[3]

It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that British natural philosophers began to call themselves scientists. I want to know more about how this shift in thinking occurred, and why. I agree with Coleridge that science itself can’t answer ultimate questions, but it is important to think about how mechanism and meaning relate to one another. These are questions that concern everyone – not just people like Faraday and myself. I wonder if scientists might take the philosophy of science more seriously if they were still called natural philosophers?


[1] Although the word ‘science’ was already in common usage.

[2] Trevor H. Levere, Poetry Realised in Nature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and early nineteenth-century science (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p73

[3] Richard Yeo, Defining Science: William Whewell, natural knowledge, and public debate in early Victorian Britain

(Cambridge University Press, 1993), page 5.



3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. ChuckSigler May 1, 2014 / 12:57 pm

    Interesting and timely. I’m about to co-teach a Sunday school lesson on science and God.


  2. Richard Hosking May 14, 2014 / 4:50 pm

    Hi Ruth, Interesting stuff!

    Did you hear Melvyn Bragg’s series on the Royal Society to mark its 350th anniversary in 2010?* Apparently in the 1820s, there were only around 100 people in the UK who we would recognise as practising scientists.* Cambridge historian Simon Schaffer thought it highly significant that the term ‘scientist’ was coined at a meeting of the less class-conscious British Association, rather than the more esoteric and genteel Royal Society.*

    The 19th century industrial revolution helped drive increasing professionalisation and sub-specialisation within the sciences. In fact, by the 1880s the Royal Society’s own journal was split into different parts, because all the papers could no longer be understood by the whole fellowship.*

    So perhaps it was inevitable that developments in the 1800s would complete the separation of science from philosophy that Bacon had begun two centuries before?

    Richard Holmes also mentions Coleridge’s contribution, and notes that ‘scientist’ had already entered the Oxford English Dictionary by 1840. He quotes Christian and geologist Adam Sedgwick – who initially opposed the term – but later reflected that: “Such a coinage has always taken place at the great epochs of discovery: like the medals that are struck at the beginning of a new reign”*


    R.Holmes ‘The Age of Wonder’ (Harper Press 2008) pp.449-450


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 15, 2014 / 2:00 pm

      Thanks Richard, that’s interesting. Specialisation is inevitable – I still think it would be helpful to have kept at least something of a link with philosophy!


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