Saturday, June 04, 2005

Whewell on System and Nomenclature

The inconveniences arising from the want of a good Nomenclature were long felt in Botany, and are still felt in Mineralogy. The attempts to rememdy them by Synonymies are very ineffective, for such comparisons of synonymes do not supply a systematic nomenclature; and such a one alone can enable us to state general truths respecting the objects of which the classificatory sciences treat. The System and the Names ought to be introduced together; for the former is a collection of asserted analogies and resemblances, for which the latter provide simple and permanent expressions. Hence it has repeatedly occurred in the progress of Natural History, that good Systems did not take root, or produce any lasting effect among naturalists, because they were not accompanied by a corresponding Nomenclature....

After giving some examples of this from studies with fish, fossil plants, and geology, he goes on to say,

Thus System and Nomenclature are each essential to the other. Without Nomenclature, the system is not permanently incorporated into the general body of knowledge, and made an instrument of future progress. Without System, the names cannot express general truths, and contain no reason why they should be employed in preference to any other names.

[Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, vol. 2, pp. 512-513.]

He finishes by noting that this truth is generally recognized by naturalists of his day, and by indicating the sort of questions that would have to be answered to give a good system and nomenclature for mineralogy (Whewell was writing in the 1840s). The above passages are from Aphorism IX in the "Aphorisms Concerning the Language of Science". Aphorism IX reads: In the Classificatory Sciences, a Systematic Nomenclature is necessary; and the System and the Nomenclature are each essential to the utility of the other.

As I've briefly pointed out before, when we are considering how science progresses, names are no small matter.

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