Faraday as a Discoverer HTML version

Chapter 13
Speculations: nature of matter: lines of force
The scientific picture of Faraday would not be complete without a reference to his
speculative writings. On Friday, January 19, 1844, he opened the weekly evening-
meetings of the Royal Institution by a discourse entitled 'A speculation touching Electric
Conduction and the nature of Matter.' In this discourse he not only attempts the
overthrow of Dalton's Theory of Atoms, but also the subversion of all ordinary scientific
ideas regarding the nature and relations of Matter and Force. He objected to the use of the
term atom:--'I have not yet found a mind,' he says, 'that did habitually separate it from its
accompanying temptations; and there can be no doubt that the words definite proportions,
equivalent, primes, &c., which did and do fully express all the facts of what is usually
called the atomic theory in chemistry, were dismissed because they were not expressive
enough, and did not say all that was in the mind of him who used the word atom in their
A moment will be granted me to indicate my own view of Faraday's position here. The
word 'atom' was not used in the stead of definite proportions, equivalents, or primes.
These terms represented facts that followed from, but were not equivalent to, the atomic
theory. Facts cannot satisfy the mind: and the law of definite combining proportions
being once established, the question 'why should combination take place according to that
law?' is inevitable. Dalton answered this question by the enunciation of the Atomic
Theory, the fundamental idea of which is, in my opinion, perfectly secure. The objection
of Faraday to Dalton might be urged with the same substantial force against Newton: it
might be stated with regard to the planetary motions that the laws of Kepler revealed the
facts; that the introduction of the principle of gravitation was an addition to the facts. But
this is the essence of all theory. The theory is the backward guess from fact to principle;
the conjecture, or divination regarding something, which lies behind the facts, and from
which they flow in necessary sequence. If Dalton's theory, then, account for the definite
proportions observed in the combinations of chemistry, its justification rests upon the
same basis as that of the principle of gravitation. All that can in strictness be said in either
case is that the facts occur as if the principle existed.
The manner in which Faraday himself habitually deals with his hypotheses is revealed in
this lecture. He incessantly employed them to gain experimental ends, but he incessantly
took them down, as an architect removes the scaffolding when the edifice is complete. 'I
cannot but doubt,' he says, 'that he who as a mere philosopher has most power of
penetrating the secrets of nature, and guessing by hypothesis at her mode of working, will
also be most careful for his own safe progress and that of others, to distinguish the
knowledge which consists of assumption, by which I mean theory and hypothesis, from
that which is the knowledge of facts and laws.' Faraday himself, in fact, was always
'guessing by hypothesis,' and making theoretic divination the stepping-stone to his
experimental results.