The Philosophical Breakfast Club

By Brenda S. Cox

Review of The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder

“When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”—Fanny Price in Mansfield Park

During 1812 and 1813 Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park. This novel has more about science, and more about religion, than any of her other novels. In it, Fanny Price talks about astronomy, botany, and human memory.

A Revolution in Science

In those same years, a revolution in the scientific world was beginning. A group of four brilliant students at Cambridge University were meeting for what they called “Philosophical Breakfasts.” The philosophy they were discussing was “natural philosophy,” which was more or less what we now call science.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder explores the history of science from Austen’s time through the Victorian age.

These four men were reading and discussing the works of an earlier Cambridge man, Francis Bacon. Bacon argued that science could not be based on deductive reasoning: a person figuring out what he thought ought to be true, and then making conclusions from that. Bacon called for inductive reasoning: observing and recording data, and making experiments. A hypothesis could be made from those observations, then tested further. Both facts, and theories explaining the facts, were necessary. In short, Bacon introduced what we now call the scientific method.

In Austen’s England, science was advancing, particularly engineering. The harnessing of steam had brought about the Industrial Revolution. (Bingley, of Pride and Prejudice, no doubt got his wealth from factories in northern England.) But much scientific study was done haphazardly and randomly. These four men at Cambridge aimed to make science more methodical and evidence-based. Over the coming decades, they succeeded. They also believed that science was intended to help mankind, to solve the problems facing people. And to some extent they helped others adopt that mindset.

As The Philosophical Breakfast Club  by Laura J. Snyder tells us:

“At the start of the 1800s, the man of science was likely to be a country parson collecting beetles in his spare hours, or a wealthy gentleman performing experiments in his own privately funded laboratory, or a factotum [employee, person with many diverse responsibilities] of a wealthy patron; by the end of the century he was a “scientist”—a member of a professional class of (still mostly) men pursuing a common activity within a certain institutional framework . . .” (4).

These men themselves were examples of generalists, involved in many fields, making many contributions. But by the time of their deaths, the word “scientist” was in use, and specialists focused on specific fields rather than a wide range of fields.

Who were the members of the “philosophical breakfast club”?

  • William Whewell,
  • Charles Babbage,
  • John Herschel, and
  • Richard Jones.

A brief taste of what each one did:

William Whewell

Whewell (pronounced who-well) was a “mathematician-mineralogist-architectural historian-linguist-classicist-physicist-geologist-historian-philosopher-theologian-mountainclimbing-poet” (366). Whewell invented the word “scientist,” as well as other scientific words like “anode” and “cathode.”An ordained clergyman, he advanced to one of the highest positions at Cambridge, master of Trinity College. During Austen’s time a student at Cambridge could not focus on or get a degree in any of the sciences. But Whewell opened the doors to change. He introduced a new final exam focusing on the Natural Sciences (much of the material was based on books Whewell wrote). Beginning in 1860, Cambridge granted degrees in the natural sciences.

Another of Whewell’s accomplishments was mapping the tides. He organized a project to get simultaneous tidal data from a huge swath of the world. He then plotted that data onto maps. His maps provided much better tidal predictions than before; they were an important contribution to world trade and shipping.

Whewell used the simultaneous observations of people in many areas of the world to map the tides, giving more accurate ways to predict the tides for shipping and boating. Lines in the ocean connect places with the same tidal patterns.

Whewell published about 150 books and articles. He wrote about morality, the history and philosophy of science, political economy, mathematics, and much more. A man of deep religious faith as well as wide-ranging scientific ability, Whewell sought to connect faith and science. William Paley had argued that the complexity of creation testifies to the existence of a creator. Whewell agreed with this, and went further. According to Snyder, Whewell believed that “Studying nature and its laws is a way to learn about the workings of the mind that created those laws, the Divine Mind, and thus brings us closer to God. Whewell had no doubt that the study of nature was consistent with religion; indeed, he believed that ‘truth cannot conflict with truth’” (197). Some scientific developments challenged current interpretations of the Bible. Whewell believed that, in that case, the way people understood the Bible needed to be re-examined. The chapter on “A Divine Programmer,” as well as later parts of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, delve deep into these issues.

Charles Babbage

Babbage is known as the designer of the first computer. His protégé Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) is considered the first computer programmer. “Computers” originally were the people who did computations. They of course often made errrors. The errors in tables used at sea caused many accidents and even shipwrecks. Babbage and others set to work to find a mechanical way to make calculations more accurately.

However, the computer Babbage designed was never actually completed. He did build a working model of his first computer, the “difference engine.” But he spent huge amounts of money (granted reluctantly by the government) and spent years trying to build the full-sized machine. It needed very exactly produced parts, which were not easily made in his time period. Partway through he had to give it up. By then, however, he was designing a better computer, an “analytical engine.” It was designed but also never built.

Built by Charles Babbage, this model of his “difference engine” is in the London Science Museum.

Babbage gave demonstrations where he had programmed his model machine to do a certain calculation for some time, then to do a different calculation. (Essentially he was counting by ones, then counting by twos.) He explained to his guests that what people called “miracles” were actually events that God had programmed into nature. Babbage believed that God programmed the laws of nature so that certain things would happen; God didn’t need to intervene to make things happen each time (192-6). Such ideas began to open the way for more separation between faith and science.

Like the others, Babbage was multi-talented. He was also a mathematician and an engineer, an inventor and a code-breaker.

John Herschel

John Herschel was a “trilingual-mathematician-chemist-physicist-astronomer-photographer-musician-translator” (366). He was the son of William Herschel, the musician-astronomer-telescope builder who discovered the planet Uranus from the backyard of his home in Bath. (Caroline Herschel, who discovered many comets, was of course John Herschel’s aunt.) John Herschel followed in his father’s and aunt’s footsteps and expanded their maps of the skies. He spent some years in South Africa mapping the skies of the southern hemisphere. Herschel was also involved in developing the new field of photography. Throughout his life, he also loved doing chemical experiments in his laboratory.

Photograph of the Copernicus Crater on the moon, made by astronomer-photographer John Herschel in 1842
Richard Jones

Richard Jones was a clergyman, an economist, and a statistician. Jones also worked as a tithes commissioner, reorganizing the system of church tithes in England. He attempted to apply the scientific method to economics. Jones gathered information about the economic practices of many countries, and drew conclusions from those about economics. Other economists of the time used a deductive approach, based on “hypothetical truth” (123). Jones attempted to address problems of poverty and population growth. Babbage was involved in these studies, too, examining the results of industrialization in various countries.

Connections and Divisions

The Philosophical Breakfast Club intertwines the stories of these four men. Snyder shows their successes and failures, their conflicts and cameraderie, their dreams and achievements. Along the way, we see the scientific challenges and changes of the nineteenth century. Snyder clearly explains the difficult concepts involved, and gives extensive background on each area of study. The book is about 400 pages, giving plenty of space to expand on many topics.

It stretches from the early 1800s to the 1870s; most of it takes place during the Victorian period, after Jane Austen’s death. However, it’s very helpful to see what the issues were during her lifetime, and how progress was made afterwards. Faith-science conflicts are also examined, including Charles Darwin’s beliefs, as one of the major contributors to science of the time.

Partly due to these four men’s efforts, science became a regular field of study, with government funding, recognition for achievements, and full-time jobs in different fields. The author laments the fact that with these changes came separation and specialization. No longer are scientists “natural philosophers” who can equally enjoy and participate in discussions of geology, chemistry, and astronomy. The sciences have separated, not only from each other, but also from the arts and humanities. Whewell invented the word “scientist” by analogy with the word “artist.” Snyder concludes, “What we have lost, in a sense, is the romantic image of the man of science, the sense that nature should be grasped by men and women who are artists as well as scientists” (367). Whewell, for example, when he was traveling in the Lake District in 1821, would sketch a mountain, then measure its height with a barometer, then knock off a piece of rock to see what it was made of, then adapt a quote from the poet William Wordsworth to describe what he was experiencing. Herschel, an astronomer who developed methods of photography, also considered himself both an artist and a scientist.

Whewell and Jane Austen

You and I have at least one thing in common with Whewell: a love for Jane Austen! When Whewell was on his death bed, Snyder tells us:

“He chattered on about the novels of ‘Miss Austen’—one of his favorite authors—asking Janet to read to him, which seemed to calm him. When she made a mistake he would murmur the correct word, as he knew Austen’s books so well, especially his preferred ones: Emma, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park” (348). This man who both loved God, and loved God’s “book” of the natural world, also appreciated Jane Austen.

I recommend The Philosophical Breakfast Club for those who love to learn about science, its history, and men and women who made an impact on their world and ours. It is not difficult to read, though it is fairly long and in-depth.

This blog may seem rather unusual, addressing faith, and science, and literature (Jane Austen)—topics that in our world we tend to keep quite separate. But those are all areas that I love. How about you? Are there areas of your life that our culture would separate, but your life and interests connect them? God has made us each with many different facets of our personalities and interests and gifts. How can you appreciate and use them all?

4 thoughts on “The Philosophical Breakfast Club

  1. This was fascinating reading – thank you!


    On Mon, Dec 7, 2020 at 12:35 AM Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen wrote:

    > Brenda S Cox posted: “By Brenda S. Cox Review of The Philosophical > Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder “When I look out on such a night as this, > I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and > there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity o” >


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