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Tyndall (1820?-1893) as Philosopher

Dictionnaire des Philosophes, Paris; entry by Dr Norman McMillan

(I have done some editing for screen presentation of this essay, which in the original printed version consists of several sections intended to be separate, but without headers, and each section consisting of rather long paragraphs. I have done some surgery on the paragraphs, and added hotlinked headers related to the contents of the sections, preserving their sectional identity. RJ April 2000)

Origins; Education; Science Formation; Philosophy of Science;

Science Popularisation; Public Controversy

Science and Religion; British Association;

The Belfast Address; Tyndall as Philosopher;



John Tyndall physicist, philosopher and evolutionist, was born probably 1820 in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Ireland in a village adjacent to the birthplace of Berkeley, and on the very edge of the "pale" with its cultural clash between families derived from Cromwellian settlers and the indigenous Catholic people proud of their ancient traditions(1).

His formative influences were shaped considerably by this family background. With his fiercely anti-Catholic father schooling him in arguments against transubstantiation and other tenets of papism, in a county that a mere two decades earlier had seen the bloody beginnings of the 1798 Rebellion, and that had brought carnage to the streets of Leighlinbridge.

It is believed that John's mother derived from wealthy Catholic farmers, the Malones and McAsseys, and it is believed that Tyndall in a letter to his mother enquired whether it was true that his great-grandmother had "been cut off with a shilling for marrying out of connexion," that is presumably for marrying into Quaker stock.


Tyndall was educated in Ireland in four schools, but he was most considerably influenced by former "Catholic hedge schoolteacher" John Conwill, who with the ending of the Penal Laws in Ireland and the Catholic Emancipation movement, operated semi-legally from a pay school in Ballyknockan, Leighlinbridge from 1824 and subsequently with the establishment of the first state supported schools from 1833 at the Ballinabranna National School.

Tyndall may have attended his Ballyknockan school, but certainly and despite the vigorous protest from Dean Barnard Boyle, Protestant rector of Leighlinbridge, young John was sent by his father to Conwill, then reputedly the best teacher in Leinater, to finish his education from 1836-1839. The education provided by Conwill remarkably included book-keeping, surveying, mathematics, English and other practical knowledge that marked it out as a technical training of the highest quality.

Equipped with this background Tyndall joined the Ordnance Survey and worked in Carlow and Youghal, Co. Cork before transferring in 1842 to the English Survey. During this time in the Irish Survey he adopted a strict regime of self-improvement and began reading among other things philosophical works of a rather varied kind.

Much to the distress of his parents, he became influenced by radical ideas of the Chartist Movement and the heroic ideas of his age, but particularly those of Thomas Carlyle, with whom he later developed a very close personal friendship. Tyndall warmed to Carlyle's Past and Present with its clarion call for action and new leadership. It is an interesting historical paradox that Tyndall, the man most clearly associated with Victorian materialism, should have intellectually been so closely associated with this man of letters whose work sought a new spiritual meaning in nature.

Tyndall led a struggle against the exploitation of the Irish workers in the English Survey which led to his dismissal. After a period of forced unemployment, he obtained work as a railway surveyor in England and began attending classes in the local Mechanics Institute in Preston from which point he developed a lifelong interest in technical education(2).

His relationship with the Principal of Tulketh Hall School G. Edmondson led to his appointment as Superintendent to the Engineering Laboratory in Queenwood College in 1847. This Quaker school arose like an educational phoenix following upon the failure of Robert Owen's last great communist experiment in establishing Harmony Hall in Hampshire.

Owen had here provided the most lavish educational facilities for vocational training ever seen in England to ensure that the character of those who entered Harmony Hall would be moulded suitably to make them responsible members of the community. In this unique facility Tyndall and his friend Edward Frankland, the Superintendent of the Science Laboratory, carried out probably the first experiment in England in practical engineering and science teaching and developed the "heuristical method" made famous later in the century by Frankland's disciple H.E. Armstrong(3).

Scientific Formation

The ambitious Tyndall and Frankland both travelled seeking a professional training in science to Marburg University in 1848, which was of special significance to this mature Irish student as it was here that the English martyr Tyndale and a supposed ancestor had made the first translation of the bible into the vernacular. Such an education was not available in Britain at this time.

Tyndall there studied under the remarkable Robert Bunsen, employing his own savings to support himself, and he duly obtained an impressive education in physics and chemistry, and obtained in 1851 a PhD from a mathematical investigation of screw surfaces.

The philosophical influence of Marburg on Tyndall may have been far greater than heretofore appreciated with regards to his later development of materialism, as Carl Schorlemmer a student of Bunsen who subsequently worked as an industrial chemist in Owens College, Manchester with Roscoe (a student of Frankland) and there was to become a close political collaborator Engels and thereby Marx.

Tyndall published his first regular scientific pieces while a student in Marburg in the local paper the Carlow Sentinel and thus began his career as a populariser of science, an activity that was to characterise his entire career. These articles show him at this time as a liberal with a wide interest in current political affairs and most significantly on the touchstone issue of repression in Ireland.

In Marburg he clearly became very influenced by German materialism and in particular the original reductionist programme of organiephysies of 1847. Tyndall's connection with this movement was through one of the four leaders of the organic physics programme C. F. W. Ludwig, who was at this time professor (extraordinarius) at Marburg.

Philosophy of Science

In a collaborative experimental research with H. Knoblauch in Berlin from 1851 following Tyndall's graduation from Marburg, they established the modern theory of diamagnetism. Tyndall while in Berlin became acquainted with many of the leading figures of German science and in particular Helmholz, Clausius and Kirchoff are of some significance when considering his philosophical development after leaving Marburg when he worked for a period in Berlin at the centre of German science.

Of the philosophical tendencies in Germany which would have clearly influenced Tyndall, it was the reductionists, with whom he would have strongly identified because of their adoption of what was an essentially sceptical empirical position that fitted very closely with Tyndall's own British background.

There can be no doubt that 'l'yndall was also influenced by the materialists and this is shown by his adoption of materialism from the beginning of his creative career as a maxim of his scientific research, together with his German materialist commitment to popularising science.

Tyndall is more properly classified as a reductionist than a materialist in the German sense, for example, doing translation work for both Clausius and Heimholtz who were rivals. Elsewhere Tyndall has been quite wrongly classified as an English Materialist(4) when in fact he should he thought of as an Irish evolutionist, whose philosophical views derive primarily from his German education.

In his period in Germany, Tyndall witnessed revolutionary events and he was also caught in bloody street fighting in Paris in 1848 while travelling to Germany. There is little doubt that these events tempered his later political attitudes.

He was particularly influenced by the German poetic Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Fichte and continued to read widely German material on his return to Queenwood, which he used as a base from which to apply for professional positions, while translating the papers of the leading German physicist of his day for the Philosophical Magazine to earn money for his keep. In this translation work Tyndall not only placed himself at the forefront of science in his day, but also developed significantly his grasp of fundamental philosophical quesfions in science.

This self appointed role of propagandist of German science was continued for many years, and if he could not find the time himself to translate books and papers for his German friends, he arranged for this to be done by others and personally supervised this work. The enormous amount of German publications in Britain at this time due to Tyndall's translation and consultative work considerably shaped the contemporary attitudes of the British scientific community and represent an important philosophical contribution.

Certainly Tyndall saw this work as a contribution to philosophy, which was being continually enriched by the extension of the boundaries of natural science. Tyndall was appointed in 1853 on the recommendation of Michael Faraday to the chair of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution of GB in direct succession to Thomas Young. He had been offered the position after making a sensational debut as a Discourse lecturer at the Royal Institution.

Tyndall immediately became a disciple of Faraday adopting entirely his experimental speculative methods and completely forsaking his mathematical training. Tyndall began his research in London by conducted experiments on water jets and notably for the first time showing light guiding in a water jet in 1854, and he carried forward the glaciological researchs of Faraday on ice and water, and then developed an interest in meteorological questions and the passage of radiation through the atmosphere.

Tyndall invented new methods of analysing gases and vapours after introducing the null- balance double-beam analyser to instrumentation. He eventually delivered four Bakerian Lectures to the Royal Society from 1855 to 1881 "On Radiation" in a continuing series of pioneering studies that founded the sciences of nephelometry, infra-red analysis, and fluorescence analysis. The origin of these sciences are marked by his invention of three new instruments.

Science popularisation

Tyndall took over as Superintendent of the Royal Institution of GB on Faraday'E; forced retirement and published a memorable biography of his mentor on his death. Tyndall had in this position onerous educational duties and in due course became the most celebrated public lecturer of his day.

In 1872, he carried out a lecture programme in the United States and helped raise enormous amounts of funds to establish the research facilities in Yale, Haryard, Columbia and Pennsylvania Universities to leave perhaps his most lasting memorial to science.

In Britain, Tyndall was the first Chief Examiner in physics for both the Military (1857) and School Examinations (1859), and in drafting the first syllabus for the new curriculum school subject, he effectively defined the discipline of physics in Britain. Professionalism of science had come earlier in France and Tyndall's physics was derived from the French physique, through the mediation of his experiences in Germany(5).

Tyndall subsequently wrote all the most influential school books on heat, sound and light, while he produced lecture notes on electricity and magnetism based on lectures at the Royal Institution. He thereby shaped fundamentally the thought of English educationists on physics, and through his leading role here in the Examination Reform Movement, greatly shaped the attitudes of British society as they reorganised their state in the second half of the 19th century to meet the new demands of the Empire.

Tyndall began travelling to the Alps in the mid-1850s for his glaciological researches, but within two years was engaged in serious competitive mountaineering and made the first ascent of the Weisshorn and the first traverse of the Matterhorn. His Alpine and mountaineering books popularised the new sport and his public lectures on Alpine phenomena made respectable a sport believed at the time to be recklessly anti-social.

The conscious introduction of the ideas of Carlyle into the domain of practical sporting activity by Tyndall was in itself a significant philosophical contribution, in developing the ideas of the British Romanticists and their view of man against nature. This concept of Carlylian supernaturalism allowed Tyndall to view nature without reference to God but also without removing any of the wonder of nature that was attributed by the clergy to God. His many Alpine and mountaineering writings perhaps the earliest contribution to the philosophy of sport(6).

Tyndall became a role model for Victorian manhood because of his sporting prowess and intellectual achievements. In the philophical development of a new approach to literature and science, Tyndall contributed here in a very significant way by his many popular writings on alpine phenomena in the period from 1857 and through his conflict with Ruskin that developed out of Tyndall's book Forms of Water (1872)(7).

Public Controversy

Tyndall was involved in a series of very acrimonious and public controversies that developed out of his defence of his evolutionary scientific method and its philosophical principles. His career as a controversialist began in the late 1850s and concerned the theory of glacial motion, and brought him into conflict with Edinburgh's J.D. Forbes and the British scientific establishment.

This battle was ostensibly over questions of priority to the theory of glacial motion, but behind this stood the real philosophical battleground over the age of the earth, that was crystallised after the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, into an open battle over the theory of evolution. The retiring Darwin declined to defend his theory and this vacuum was filled by his able lieutenants gathered around the Royal Institution, and led by Huxley, Hooker and Tyndall.

Later controversies in which Tyndall was involved dragged out to his death, and these saw him scientifically ranged against Atkin, Tait, Joule and Ruskin, while politically he had a long acrimonious dispute with Gladstone.

In the complex social developments in the late 1850s and in the face of such unprecedented public and scientific opposition to the theory of evolution, the London based group of professional scientists, Tyndall, T.H. Huxley, H. Spencer, J. Lubbock, E. Frankland, J. Hooker, G. Busk, T. Hirst and W. Spottiswoode joined together in a clandestine organisation known as the X-Club for mutual defence, to advance their professional standing and in other ways to benefit from group support.

Tyndall's contribution to the evolutionary debate came after the initial anatomical debates but was eventually to be profound and very important to the evolutionists. As the German trained physicist, Tyndall fought for the atomicist and progressively refining reductionist description of this theory, and this materialist position made him the principal target for the religious and their many scientific supporters gathered in the established church.

Tyndall developed his arguments on several fronts, and in the early period while Huxley was engaged in the headline gathering anatomical debate, Tyndall was working patiently to establish the experimental description of solar transmission through the atmosphere, in work which pinpointed the importance of water vapour, ozone and carbon compounds in the atmosphere. These studies ultimately provided the meteorological data that determined the physics that lay behind life on this planet. Tyndall in fact developed a new philosophical description of experimental atomism through these studies.

Science and Religion

In 1868 at the British Association in Norwich, Tyndall delivered an Address "On the Limit of the Imagination in Science" and this marked the beginning of his real contribution to evolutionary materialism. He here puts forward the view that the formation of a crystal, a plant, or an animal, is a purely mechanical problem that differs only from the other mechanical problems in the smallness of scale.

Tyndall links this with the problem of consciousness and he states that materialism will be able to maintain its scientific position, but that descriptions of molecular groupings do not explain everything and the problem of joining body and soul is insoluble. He looked forward however to the time when ultra-scientific regions may unfold and resolve themselves ai some future day into knowledge.

As the evolutionary debate progressed and became more vicious, Tyndall became bolder. The need for the evolutionist to ensure publication, and other diverse reasons, led to the foundation of the journal Nature. Tyndall became probably the leading organiser of the X-Club which through its activities did much to professionalise British science.

In the ongoing struggle the religious position of the London based professional scientists had to be defined. The actual innovation of the agnostic creed is usually attributed to Huxley and Spencer. In fact Tyndall's contribution here in many ways was the principal one. It was he who in Britain fought to extend the battle of Fichte to debunk Kant "things-in-themselves" and to take on headlong religion in a critique of religious revelation and the efficacy of prayer by his "prayer test".

Tyndall introduced into the evolutionist sceptical world view a subtle distinction inherited from the German reductionists of the problem of consciousness. In his famous lecture delivered at the British Association in 1870 the "On the Scientific Use of the Imagination", and which notably presaged DuBois-Reymond's 1872 lecture on this topic, Tyndall developed this point. Here he enlarged substantially his earlier position on imagination and its role in science.

He began his Address immediately by defending powerfully the evolutionary position by reference to his own original researches in particulate physics and his discoveries in Radiation, pointing to the role of the imagination in science as an active force of matter. He gave some very famous examples of the use of imagination in science such as the discovery of conical refraction in his native country, and then presented in an easily understood way, his own discoveries on scattering and the colours series which we now call the "Tyndall Scattering Series of Colours".

He was here embellishing a philosophical discourse with gems of original research and explaining the use of imagination in discovery in science. He then explained that the Darwinian theory was in no way different from the other scientific theories that were accepted by the body of science without any fuss. He stated that many who hold the evolutionary hypothesis assent to the position that at this present moment all our philosophy, science and art are potential in the fires of the sun. He pleaded for these who rationally hold this view to be allowed to bring this hypothesis before the bar of disciplined reason and for science to confront this challenge with courage and without prejudice.

He concluded his address by adopting a Fichtian (modified Kantian) position in accepting a separation of science, which significantly he defined as containing within it the speculative theory of evolution, and a world that is, from the world that might be, and God, that Tyndall placed outside and beyond the province of science. Since this province was unknowable in a scientific way it could never be part of science.

Tyndall in his 1870 Address was however crossing the threshold of Victorian sensibility in refusing to accept the division of matter that inhabited the real world into the categories of inanimate and spiritually animated, despite accepting the Kantian dominion of God in the world outside of science. His sophistry on this point did not escape many in the various Christian churches who rightly saw this as a veiled attack on religion that if accepted would deny religion the right to any say in science.

British Association

Tyndall arranged for both the British Association Addresses of 1868 and 1870 to be published in 1870 under the title, "Essays on the Use and Limit of the Imagination in Science" which included reviews of supporters and detractors of these contributions. The religious reviewer for the Record, Sept. 23, 1870 linked Tyndall specifically with the "avowed atheist Louis Buchner, and his work "Force and Matter", from which it had drawn.

In 1872 Tyndall published his "Contributions to Molecular Physics", which provided a substantial research platform from which he could draw philosophical conclusions and support in a fundamental way the theory of evolution with an impressive array of new and focussed scientific fact, all of which had been gathered for the support of the Darwinian theory. In this marvellously readable study, Tyndall establishes the basis of scientific meteorology, but in addition describes what was orobably the first studies on environmental monitoring with his notable researches on both atmospheric and water pollution in London. It is probable that Tyndall was the first Environmental Scientist.

It is perhaps no accident that Tyndall's greatest philosophical contribution came the year after the publication of this work in what has become known as The Belfast Address. This address was delivered immediately on his return from his triumphant American Tour when he addressed the British Association as its President. Tyndall's earlier battle over glacial theory unfortunately came back to the fore, as he had just reprinted his "Glaciers of the Alps", in which he repeated once again all Huxley's allegations concerning Forbes' plagiarism and this above all apparently determined his enemies Tait, Thompson and others, to prepare an outcry to the predictable indiscretions of Tyndall in the address. Despite the warnings of his collaborator Huxley, Tyndall proceeded to give a full exposition of the materialists' basis of the evolutionary theory.

The Belfast Address

The Belfast Address began with a cursory description of Greek atomism, and then in a review of Bishop Butler's "Analogy of Religion" which Tyndall discussed by the Berkelian artifice of a supposed debate between the Bishop and a Lueretian, the basic argument of the agnostic of the impossibility of comprehending the connection between psychic and physical events.

However, he then in a survey of the Darwinian theory "rejected the notion of creative power" and refers the "choicest material of the teleologist" to natural causes. Tyndall drew on Spencer's theory of the evolutionary development of the senses and intelligence through the interaction between the organism and its environment. The evolutionary moulding of the organism by "heredity experience" in which experience relation become automatic in thought and are then inherited.

Tyndall pointed out that the creation theory of a single, or a few living forms, was as anthropomorphic, as the creation of many. He argued that on the basis of the continuity of nature it is 'necessary to proceed with "vision of mind" which sees life, and therefore mind, as latent in the cosmos. He accepted the inability of science to provide experimental justification of the theory of evolution, but required that imagination was a necessary and essential component of science. He warned however of the dangers of religious sentiment being "mischievous if permitted to intrude on the region of objective knowledge, over which it holds no command". Science had to be free to investigate cosmological questions untrammeled.

The response was to put the theory of evolution on the front pages of Newspapers around the world and to produce a massive and orchestrated protest from the scientific establishment, the churches and the general public, little of which was to prove too damaging to any of Tyndall's vital interests. In Ireland however, the Bishops' 1875 Pastoral Letter stated "that under the name of Science, obtruded blasphemy upon the Catholic nation" and this Pastoral did succeed in making Tyndall a non-person in his home country amongst the predominantly nationalist population.

Tyndall in The Belfast Address raised the fundamental philosophical question of spontaneous generation, having perhaps been encouraged to think of this problem by his 1871 rneeting with Pasteur in Paris. Tyndall had at the time the experimental skills to assist Pasteur, whose own efforts to prove his germ theory had been unsuccessful.

Tyndall used all his experimental knowledge of heat, detecting particles of dust, atmospheric monitoring, and microscopy to establish the science of bacteriology by devising the experimental methods of rigorous sterilisation that had eluded Pasteur. These researches were published in his book Floating Matter in the Air in Relation to Putrefaction and Disease in 1881 and this work proved the Pasteur germ theory and conclusively demonstrated the fallacy of the theory of spontaneous generation.

Tyndall with Lister and Huxley in collaborative research on germs and infectious processes also demonstrated in 1876 the attenuating effect of penicillium some fifty years before Fleming made this discovery. Tyndall also there reports the invention of the respirator. Huxicy and Tyndall worked closely with Lister from this point to promote Pasteur's infectious theory and carried forward a campaign for sterile medical practice.

Tyndall as Philosopher

Tyndall's clinching argument in The Belfast Address was based on the principle of the conservation of energy, which was a discovery whose priority had involved him in a major public controversy in which he had championed the claims of the German Mayer, against that of the English scientist Joule.

Tyndall claimed that "bringing vital as well as physical phenomena under the dominion of that law of casual connection which, so far as human understanding has yet perceived, asserts itself everywhere in nature." Those mechanistic connections within a hermetically scaled system left no place for supernatural intervention in the real world.

Tyndall's philosophical contributions must be seen in the combined context of his collaborators, and in particular those of Huxley whose philosophical work and critique of Hume, Mill and others is important, and of course Herbort Spencer who drew heavily on Tyndall for his monumental philosophical works. Details of these collaborations can be found in the Life and Letters of both men. Later in his life he published in his book of collected essays "Fragments of Science" (Volume 11) no less than three essays on the mind body relationship, and the compatibility of science and religion which bluntly confronted these questions that he had first hedged around in 1868.

In addition this volume contains The Belfast Address and "An Apology for The Belfast Address" which is a defence of the Address, and a piece from the Fortnightly Review entitled "The Rev James Martineau and the Belfast Address", both of which underline in more specific detail the points covered in the Address. This collection of popular essays, together with his "New Fragments", constitute the important philosophical writing of Tyndall in a popular and easily comprehensible form.

Both Fragments of Science and New Fragments were widely distributed after Tyndall's death by the Rationalist Press and others, and these contributed significantly to his philosophical importance in both Europe and America, which has lasted up to the present time despite the fact that official science has for some considerable time given little attention to his researches.

Politically this Irishman's contribution was focussed on the need to develop a rationalist philosophy for the British Empire, but following the First Great War Tyndall's philosophical legacy was hijacked by the rationalists and socialists. Tyndall's influence for example was promoted by G.B. Shaw, whose family roots are in Tyndall's native Carlow, and in Back to Methuselah, a metabiological pentateuch by Bernard Shaw (1921), in particular in an extensive 87 page discourse on evolution and materialism, which makes it possible to gauge Tyndall's importance to both socialist and freethinkers movements in the 20th century.

Tyndall's work in combating obscurantism is even today of considerable importance and in some very surprising places, such as Japan(8). In the 19th century his textbooks on physics were translated into Japanese and used in schools in that country. In addition his philosophical articles "The constitution of nature", "Scientific materialism" and others were translated in the 1880s.

In the 1930s his mountaineering books were translated and became a focus of a new genre of science-literature to help promote the popular view that science was not hostile to literature and humanity. However after the end of the second Great War, Tyndall's philosophical and mountaineering works were published in an attempt to annihilate irrational, militaristic spiritualism. In this context it was Tyndall's fervent fight against those who opposed scientific reasoning that was of central importance.

Today with the rise of the Environmental Movement and a more critical attitude to the history of science, Tyndall's contributions are again gaining recognition. It is clear that Tyndall's work on radiation led directly to the discovery by Planck of the quantum theory and that Tyndall's philosophical stance was in accord with modem views and was very much against the materialism of the Positivistists.

Tyndall's philosophical contributions bear testimony to the power of a major philosophical idea, in his case, evolutionary theory, to drive the research of a practising scientist and through this philosophical basis at the heart of the research to enable its relevance to endure that is the real object lesson to others.


The standard text on Tyndall is A.S. Eve and C.H. Creasey, Life and Work of John Tyndall, MacMillan,1945.

1. John Tyndall. Essays on a Natural Philosopher, Ed. W.H. Brock, N.D. McMWan, C. Mollan, Dublin, 1981.

2. N.D. McMillan and J. Meehan, Tyndall the Xemplar of Scientific and Technological Education, Dublin, 1981 (Printed but withdrawn by author).

3. E.Frankland, Personal Reminiscences in The Life and Work of JohnTyndall, Westminster Gazette "Popular" no 6 Dec 1993.

4. F. Gregory, Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Gemany, D. Reidel, Holland and USA (1976?), p155.

5. N.D. McMillan, British physics - The Irish role in its origin, differentiation and organisation of a profession, Phys. Educ. (1988), pp273-278.

6. N.D. McMilllan, Tyndall in the Mountains, Tyndall Mountain Club History, Kilkenny, Ireland (1991).

7. P. Sawyer, "Ruzkin and Tyndall" in J. Paradis and T. Postlewait (eds.) Victorian science and Victorian values: literary perspectives. Rutgers University Press, 1985.

8. S. Sugiyama. John Tyndall and Japan, contribution offered in forthcoming Centenary Volume, to he edited by FAJL James and ND McMillan.

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