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Francis Bacon (1561-1626)


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
2003


Sir Francis Bacon (later Lord Verulam and the Viscount St. Albans) was an
English lawyer, statesman, essayist, historian, intellectual reformer,
philosopher, and champion of modern science. Early in his career he claimed all
knowledge as his province and afterwards dedicated himself to a wholesale
revaluation and re-structuring of traditional learning. To take the place of the
established tradition (a miscellany of Scholasticism, humanism, and natural
magic), he proposed an entirely new system based on empirical and inductive
principles and the active development of new arts and inventions, a system whose
ultimate goal would be the production of practical knowledge for the use and
benefit of men and the relief of the human condition.

At the same time that he was founding and promoting this new project for the
advancement of learning, Bacon was also moving up the ladder of state service.
His career aspirations had been largely disappointed under Elizabeth I, but with
the ascension of James his political fortunes rose. Knighted in 1603, he was
then steadily promoted to a series of offices, including Solicitor General
(1607), Attorney General (1613), and eventually Lord Chancellor (1618). While
serving as Chancellor, he was indicted on charges of bribery and forced to leave
public office. He then retired to his estate where he devoted himself full time
to his continuing literary, scientific, and philosophic work. He died in 1626,
leaving behind a cultural legacy that, for better or worse, includes most of the
foundation for the triumph of technology and for the modern world as we
currently know it.


Life and Political Career

Sir Francis Bacon (later Lord Verulam, the Viscount St. Albans, and Lord
Chancellor of England) was born in London in 1561 to a prominent and
well-connected family. His parents were Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of
the Seal, and Lady Anne Cooke, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, a knight and
one-time tutor to the royal family. Lady Anne was a learned woman in her own
right, having acquired Greek and Latin as well as Italian and French. She was a
sister-in-law both to Sir Thomas Hoby, the esteemed English translator of
Castiglione, and to Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), Lord Treasurer,
chief counselor to Elizabeth I, and from 1572-1598 the most powerful man in
England.

Bacon was educated at home at the family estate at Gorhambury in Herfordshire.
In 1573, at the age of just twelve, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where
the stodgy Scholastic curriculum triggered his lifelong opposition to
Aristotelianism (though not to the works of Aristotle himself).
In 1576 Bacon began reading law at Grays Inn. Yet only a year later he
interrupted his studies in order to take a position in the diplomatic service in
France as an assistant to the ambassador. In 1579, while he was still in France,
his father died, leaving him (as the second son of a second marriage and the
youngest of six heirs) virtually without support. With no position, no land, no
income, and no immediate prospects, he returned to England and resumed the study
of law.

Bacon completed his law degree in 1582, and in 1588 he was named lecturer in
legal studies at Grays Inn. In the meantime, he was elected to Parliament in
1584 as a member for Melcombe in Dorsetshire. He would remain in Parliament as a
representative for various constituencies for the next 36 years.
In 1593 his blunt criticism of a new tax levy resulted in an unfortunate setback
to his career expectations, the Queen taking personal offense at his opposition.
Any hopes he had of becoming Attorney General or Solicitor General during her
reign were dashed, though Elizabeth eventually relented to the extent of
appointing Bacon her Extraordinary Counsel in 1596.

It was around this time that Bacon entered the service of Robert Devereux, the
Earl of Essex, a dashing courtier, soldier, plotter of intrigue, and sometime
favorite of the Queen. No doubt Bacon viewed Essex as a rising star and a figure
who could provide a much-needed boost to his own sagging career. Unfortunately,
it was not long before Essexs own fortunes plummeted following a series of
military and political blunders culminating in a disastrous coup attempt. When
the coup plot failed, Devereux was arrested, tried, and eventually executed,
with Bacon, in his capacity as Queens Counsel, playing a vital role in the
prosecution of the case.

In 1603, James I succeeded Elizabeth, and Bacons prospects for advancement
dramatically improved. After being knighted by the king, he swiftly ascended the
ladder of state and from 1604-1618 filled a succession of high-profile advisory
positions:

1604 Appointed Kings Counsel.

1607 Named Solicitor General.

1608 Appointed Clerk of the Star Chamber.

1613 Appointed Attorney General.

1616 Made a member of the Privy Council.

1617 Appointed Lord Keeper of the Royal Seal (his fathers former office).

1618 Made Lord Chancellor.

As Lord Chancellor, Bacon wielded a degree of power and influence that he could
only have imagined as a young lawyer seeking preferment. Yet it was at this
point, while he stood at the very pinnacle of success, that he suffered his
great Fall. In 1621 he was arrested and charged with bribery. After pleading
guilty, he was heavily fined and sentenced to a prison term in the Tower of
London. Although the fine was later waived and Bacon spent only four days in the
Tower, he was never allowed to sit in Parliament or hold political office again.
The entire episode was a terrible disgrace for Bacon personally and a stigma
that would cling to and injure his reputation for years to come. As various
chroniclers of the case have pointed out, the accepting of gifts from suppliants
in a law suit was a common practice in Bacons day, and it is also true that
Bacon ended up judging against the two petitioners who had offered the fateful
bribes. Yet the damage was done, and Bacon to his credit accepted the judgment
against him without excuse. According to his own Essayes, or Counsels, he should
have known and done better. (In this respect it is worth noting that during his
forced retirement, Bacon revised and republished the Essayes, injecting an even
greater degree of shrewdness into a collection already notable for its
worldliness and keen political sense.) Macaulay in a lengthy essay declared
Bacon a great intellect but (borrowing a phrase from Bacons own letters) a
most dishonest man, and more than one writer has characterized him as cold,
calculating, and arrogant. Yet whatever his flaws, even his enemies conceded
that during his trial he accepted his punishment nobly, and moved on.

Bacon spent his remaining years working with renewed determination on his
lifelong project: the reform of learning and the establishment of an
intellectual community dedicated to the discovery of scientific knowledge for
the use and benefit of men. The former Lord Chancellor died on 9 April, 1626,
supposedly of a cold or pneumonia contracted while testing his theory of the
preservative and insulating properties of snow.

Thought and Writings

In a way Bacons descent from political power was a fortunate fall, for it
represented a liberation from the bondage of public life resulting in a
remarkable final burst of literary and scientific activity. As Renaissance
scholar and Bacon expert Brian Vickers has reminded us, Bacons earlier works,
impressive as they are, were essentially products of his spare time. It was
only during his last five years that he was able to concentrate exclusively on
writing and produce, in addition to a handful of minor pieces:

Two substantial volumes of history and biography, The History of the Reign of
King Henry the Seventh and The History of the Reign of King Henry the Eighth.
De Augmentis Scientiarum (an expanded Latin version of his earlier Advancement
of Learning).

The final 1625 edition of his Essayes, or Counsels.

The remarkable Sylva Sylvarum, or A Natural History in Ten Centuries (a
curious hodge-podge of scientific experiments, personal observations,
speculations, ancient teachings, and analytical discussions on topics ranging
from the causes of hiccups to explanations for the shortage of rain in Egypt).
Artificially divided into ten centuries (i.e., ten chapters, each consisting
of one hundred items), the work was apparently intended to be included in Part
Three of the Magna Instauratio.

His utopian science-fiction novel The New Atlantis, which was published in
unfinished form a year after his death.

Various parts of his unfinished magnum opus Magna Instauratio (or Great
Instauration), including a Natural History of Winds and a Natural History
of Life and Death.

These late productions represented the capstone of a writing career that spanned
more than four decades and encompassed virtually an entire curriculum of
literary, scientific, and philosophical studies.

Literary Works

Despite the fanatical claims (and very un-Baconian credulity) of a few admirers,
it is a virtual certainty that Bacon did not write the works traditionally
attributed to William Shakespeare. Even so, the Lord Chancellors high place in
the history of English literature as well as his influential role in the
development of English prose style remain well-established and secure. Indeed
even if Bacon had produced nothing else but his masterful Essayes (first
published in 1597 and then revised and expanded in 1612 and 1625), he would
still rate among the top echelon of 17th-century English authors. And so when we
take into account his other writings, e.g., his histories, letters, and
especially his major philosophical and scientific works, we must surely place
him in the first rank of English literatures great men of letters and among its
finest masters (alongside names like Johnson, Mill, Carlyle, and Ruskin) of
non-fiction prose.

Bacons style, though elegant, is by no means as simple as it seems or as it is
often described. In fact it is actually a fairly complex affair that achieves
its air of ease and clarity more through its balanced cadences, natural
metaphors, and carefully arranged symmetries than through the use of plain
words, commonplace ideas, and straightforward syntax. (In this connection it is
noteworthy that in the revised versions of the essays Bacon seems to have
deliberately disrupted many of his earlier balanced effects to produce a style
that is actually more jagged and, in effect, more challenging to the casual
reader.)

Furthermore, just as Bacons personal style and living habits were prone to
extravagance and never particularly austere, so in his writing he was never
quite able to resist the occasional grand word, magniloquent phrase, or orotund
effect. (As Dr. Johnson observed, A dictionary of the English language might be
compiled from Bacons works alone.) Bishop Sprat in his 1667 History of the
Royal Society honored Bacon and praised the society membership for supposedly
eschewing fine words and fancy metaphors and adhering instead to a natural
lucidity and mathematical plainness. To write in such a way, Sprat suggested,
was to follow true, scientific, Baconian principles. And while Bacon himself
often expressed similar sentiments (praising blunt expression while condemning
the seductions of figurative language), a reader would be hard pressed to find
many examples of such spare technique in Bacons own writings. Of Bacons
contemporary readers, at least one took exception to the view that his writing
represented a perfect model of plain language and transparent meaning. After
perusing the New Organon, King James (to whom Bacon had proudly dedicated the
volume) reportedly pronounced the work like the peace of God, which passeth all
understanding.

The New Atlantis

As a work of narrative fiction, Bacons novel New Atlantis may be classified as
a literary rather than a scientific (or philosophical) work, though it
effectively belongs to both categories. According to Bacons amanuensis and
first biographer William Rawley, the novel represents the first part (showing
the design of a great college or institute devoted to the interpretation of
nature) of what was to have been a longer and more detailed project (depicting
the entire legal structure and political organization of an ideal commonwealth).
The work thus stands in the great tradition of the utopian-philosophic novel
that stretches from Plato and More to Huxley and Skinner.

The thin plot or fable is little more than a fictional shell to contain the real
meat of Bacons story: the elaborate description of Salomons House (also known
as the College of the Six Days Works), a centrally organized research facility
where specially trained teams of investigators collect data, conduct
experiments, and (most importantly from Bacons point of view) apply the
knowledge they gain to produce things of use and practice for mans life.
These new arts and inventions they eventually share with the outside world.
In terms of its sci-fi adventure elements, the New Atlantis is about as exciting
as a government or university re-organization plan. But in terms of its
historical impact, the novel has proven to be nothing less than revolutionary,
having served not only as an effective inspiration and model for the British
Royal Society, but also as an early blueprint and prophecy of the modern
research center and international scientific community.

Scientific and Philosophical Works

It is never easy to summarize the thought of a prolific and wide-ranging
philosopher. Yet Bacon somewhat simplifies the task by his own helpful habits of
systematic classification and catchy mnemonic labeling. (Thus, for example,
there are three distempers or diseases of learning, eleven errors or
peccant humours, four Idols, three primary mental faculties and categories
of knowledge, etc.) In effect, by following Bacons own methods it is possible
to produce a convenient outline or overview of his main scientific and
philosophical ideas.

The Great Instauration

As early as 1592, in a famous letter to his uncle, Lord Burghley, Bacon declared
all knowledge to be his province and vowed his personal commitment to a plan
for the full-scale rehabilitation and reorganization of learning. In effect, he
dedicated himself to a long-term project of intellectual reform, and the balance
of his career can be viewed as a continuing effort to make good on that pledge.
In 1620, while he was still at the peak of his political success, he published
the preliminary description and plan for an enormous work that would fully
answer to his earlier declared ambitions. The work, dedicated to James, was to
be called Magna Instauratio (i.e., the grand edifice or Great Instauration),
and it would represent a kind of summa or culmination of all Bacons thought on
subjects ranging from logic and epistemology to practical science (or what in
Bacons day was called natural philosophy, the word science being then but a
general synonym for wisdom or learning).

Like several of Bacons projects, the Instauratio in its contemplated form was
never finished. Of the intended six parts, only the first two were completed,
while the other portions were only partly finished or barely begun.
Consequently, the work as we have it is less like the vast but well-sculpted
monument that Bacon envisioned than a kind of philosophical miscellany or
grab-bag. Part I of the project, De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum (Nine
Books of the Dignity and Advancement of Learning), was published in 1623. It is
basically an enlarged version of the earlier Proficience and Advancement of
Learning, which Bacon had presented to James in 1605. Part II, the Novum Organum
(or New Organon) provides the authors detailed explanation and demonstration
of the correct procedure for interpreting nature. It first appeared in 1620.
Together these two works present the essential elements of Bacons philosophy,
including most of the major ideas and principles that we have come to associate
with the terms Baconian and Baconianism.

The Advancement of Learning

Relatively early in his career Bacon judged that, owing mainly to an undue
reverence for the past (as well as to an excessive absorption in cultural
vanities and frivolities), the intellectual life of Europe had reached a kind of
impasse or standstill. Yet he believed there was a way beyond this stagnation if
persons of learning, armed with new methods and insights, would simply open
their eyes and minds to the world around them. This at any rate was the basic
argument of his seminal 1605 treatise The Proficience and Advancement of
Learning, arguably the first important philosophical work to be published in
English.

It is in this work that Bacon sketched out the main themes and ideas that he
continued to refine and develop throughout his career, beginning with the notion
that there are clear obstacles to or diseases of learning that must be avoided
or purged before further progress is possible.

The Distempers of Learning

There be therefore chiefly three vanities in studies, whereby learning hath
been most traduced. Thus Bacon, in the first book of the Advancement. He goes
on to refer to these vanities as the three distempers of learning and
identifies them (in his characteristically memorable fashion) as fantastical
learning, contentious learning, and delicate learning (alternatively
identified as vain imaginations, vain altercations, and vain
affectations).

By fantastical learning (vain imaginations) Bacon had in mind what we would
today call pseudo-science: i.e., a collection of ideas that lack any real or
substantial foundation, that are professed mainly by occultists and charlatans,
that are carefully shielded from outside criticism, and that are offered largely
to an audience of credulous true believers. In Bacons day such imaginative
science was familiar in the form of astrology, natural magic, and alchemy.
By contentious learning (vain altercations) Bacon was referring mainly to
Aristotelian philosophy and theology and especially to the Scholastic tradition
of logical hair-splitting and metaphysical quibbling. But the phrase applies to
any intellectual endeavor in which the principal aim is not new knowledge or
deeper understanding but endless debate cherished for its own sake.
Delicate learning (vain affectations) was Bacons label for the new humanism
insofar as (in his view) it seemed concerned not with the actual recovery of
ancient texts or the retrieval of past knowledge but merely with the revival of
Ciceronian rhetorical embellishments and the reproduction of classical prose
style. Such preoccupation with words more than matter, with choiceness of
phrase and the sweet falling of clauses in short, with style over substance
seemed to Bacon (a careful stylist in his own right) the most seductive and
decadent literary vice of his age.

Here we may note that from Bacons point of view the distempers of learning
share two main faults:

Prodigal ingenuity i.e., each distemper represents a lavish and regrettable
waste of talent, as inventive minds that might be employed in more productive
pursuits exhaust their energy on trivial or puerile enterprises instead.
Sterile results i.e., instead of contributing to the discovery of new
knowledge (and thus to a practical advancement of learning and eventually to
a better life for all), the distempers of learning are essentially exercises
in personal vainglory that aim at little more than idle theorizing or the
preservation of older forms of knowledge.

In short, in Bacons view the distempers impede genuine intellectual progress by
beguiling talented thinkers into fruitless, illusory, or purely self-serving
ventures. What is needed and this is a theme reiterated in all his later
writings on learning and human progress is a program to re-channel that same
creative energy into socially useful new discoveries.

The Idea of Progress

Though it is hard to pinpoint the birth of an idea, for all intents and purposes
the modern idea of technological progress (in the sense of a steady,
cumulative, historical advance in applied scientific knowledge) began with
Bacons The Advancement of Learning and became fully articulated in his later
works.

Knowledge is power, and when embodied in the form of new technical inventions
and mechanical discoveries it is the force that drives history this was
Bacons key insight. In many respects this idea was his single greatest
invention, and it is all the more remarkable for its having been conceived and
promoted at a time when most English and European intellectuals were either
reverencing the literary and philosophical achievements of the past or deploring
the numerous signs of modern degradation and decline. Indeed, while Bacon was
preaching progress and declaring a brave new dawn of scientific advance, many of
his colleagues were persuaded that the world was at best creaking along towards
a state of senile immobility and eventual darkness. Our age is iron, and rusty
too, wrote John Donne, contemplating the signs of universal decay in a poem
published six years after Bacons Advancement.

That history might in fact be progressive, i.e., an onward and upward ascent
and not, as Aristotle had taught, merely cyclical or, as cultural pessimists
from Hesiod to Spengler have supposed, a descending or retrograde movement,
became for Bacon an article of secular faith which he propounded with
evangelical force and a sense of mission. In the Advancement, the idea is
offered tentatively, as a kind of hopeful hypothesis. But in later works such as
the New Organon, it becomes almost a promised destiny: Enlightenment and a
better world, Bacon insists, lie within our power; they require only the
cooperation of learned citizens and the active development of the arts and
sciences.

The Reclassification of Knowledge

In Book II of De Dignitate (his expanded version of the Advancement) Bacon
outlines his scheme for a new division of human knowledge into three primary
categories: History, Poesy, and Philosophy (which he associates respectively
with the three fundamental faculties of mind memory, imagination, and
reason). Although the exact motive behind this reclassification remains unclear,
one of its main consequences seems unmistakable: it effectively promotes
philosophy and especially Baconian science above the other two branches of
knowledge, in essence defining history as the mere accumulation of brute facts,
while reducing art and imaginative literature to the even more marginal status
of feigned history.

Evidently Bacon believed that in order for a genuine advancement of learning to
occur, the prestige of philosophy (and particularly natural philosophy) had to
be elevated, while that of history and literature (in a word, humanism) needed
to be reduced. Bacons scheme effectively accomplishes this by making history
(the domain of fact, i.e., of everything that has happened) a virtual
sub-species of philosophy (the domain of realistic possibility, i.e., of
everything that can theoretically or actually occur). Meanwhile, poesy (the
domain of everything that is imaginable or conceivable) is set off to the side
as a mere illustrative vehicle. In essence, it becomes simply a means of
recreating actual scenes or events from the past (as in history plays or heroic
poetry) or of allegorizing or dramatizing new ideas or future possibilities (as
in Bacons own interesting example of parabolic poesy, the New Atlantis.)


The New Organon

To the second part of his Great Instauration Bacon gave the title New Organon
(or True Directions concerning the Interpretation of Nature). The Greek word
organon means instrument or tool, and Bacon clearly felt he was supplying a
new instrument for guiding and correcting the mind in its quest for a true
understanding of nature. The title also glances at Aristotles Organon (a
collection that includes his Categories and his Prior and Posterior Analytics)
and thus suggests a new instrument destined to transcend or replace the older,
no longer serviceable one. (This notion of surpassing ancient authority is aptly
illustrated on the frontispiece of the 1620 volume containing the New Organon by
a ship boldly sailing beyond the mythical pillars of Hercules, which supposedly
marked the end of the known world.)

The New Organon is presented not in the form of a treatise or methodical
demonstration but as a series of aphorisms, a technique that Bacon came to favor
as less legislative and dogmatic and more in the true spirit of scientific
experiment and critical inquiry. Combined with his gift for illustrative
metaphor and symbol, the aphoristic style makes the New Organon in many places
the most readable and literary of all Bacons scientific and philosophical
works.


The Idols

In Book I of the New Organon (Aphorisms 39-68), Bacon introduces his famous
doctrine of the idols. These are characteristic errors, natural tendencies, or
defects that beset the mind and prevent it from achieving a full and accurate
understanding of nature. Bacon points out that recognizing and counteracting the
idols is as important to the study of nature as the recognition and refutation
of bad arguments is to logic. Incidentally, he uses the word idol from the
Greek eidolon (image or phantom) not in the sense of a false god or
heathen deity but rather in the sense employed in Epicurean physics. Thus a
Baconian idol is a potential deception or source of misunderstanding, especially
one that clouds or confuses our knowledge of external reality.

Bacon identifies four different classes of idol. Each arises from a different
source, and each presents its own special hazards and difficulties.

1. The Idols of the Tribe. These are the natural weaknesses and tendencies
common to human nature. Because they are innate, they cannot be completely
eliminated, but only recognized and compensated for. Some of Bacons examples
are:

Our senses which are inherently dull and easily deceivable. (Which is why
Bacon prescribes instruments and strict investigative methods to correct
them.)

Our tendency to discern (or even impose) more order in phenomena than is
actually there. As Bacon points out, we are apt to find similitude where
there is actually singularity, regularity where there is actually
randomness, etc.

Our tendency towards wishful thinking. According to Bacon, we have a
natural inclination to accept, believe, and even prove what we would prefer
to be true.

Our tendency to rush to conclusions and make premature judgments (instead of
gradually and painstakingly accumulating evidence).

2. The Idols of the Cave. Unlike the idols of the tribe, which are common to
all human beings, those of the cave vary from individual to individual. They
arise, that is to say, not from nature but from culture and thus reflect the
peculiar distortions, prejudices, and beliefs that we are all subject to owing
to our different family backgrounds, childhood experiences, education,
training, gender, religion, social class, etc. Examples include:

Special allegiance to a particular discipline or theory.
High esteem for a few select authorities.

A cookie-cutter mentality that is, a tendency to reduce or confine
phenomena within the terms of our own narrow training or discipline.
3. The Idols of the Market Place. These are hindrances to clear thinking that
arise, Bacon says, from the intercourse and association of men with each
other. The main culprit here is language, though not just common speech, but
also (and perhaps particularly) the special discourses, vocabularies, and
jargons of various academic communities and disciplines. He points out that
the idols imposed by words on the understanding are of two kinds: they are
either names of things that do not exist (e.g., the crystalline spheres of
Aristotelian cosmology) or faulty, vague, or misleading names for things that
do exist (according to Bacon, abstract qualities and value terms e.g.,
moist, useful, etc. can be a particular source of confusion).

4. The Idols of the Theatre. Like the idols of the cave, those of the theatre
are culturally acquired rather than innate. And although the metaphor of a
theatre suggests an artificial imitation of truth, as in drama or fiction,
Bacon makes it clear that these idols derive mainly from grand schemes or
systems of philosophy and especially from three particular types of
philosophy:

Sophistical Philosophy that is, philosophical systems based only on a few
casually observed instances (or on no experimental evidence at all) and thus
constructed mainly out of abstract argument and speculation. Bacon cites
Scholasticism as a conspicuous example.

Empirical Philosophy that is, a philosophical system ultimately based on a
single key insight (or on a very narrow base of research), which is then
erected into a model or paradigm to explain phenomena of all kinds. Bacon
cites the example of William Gilbert, whose experiments with the lodestone
persuaded him that magnetism operated as the hidden force behind virtually
all earthly phenomena.

Superstitious Philosophy this is Bacons phrase for any system of thought
that mixes theology and philosophy. He cites Pythagoras and Plato as guilty
of this practice, but also points his finger at pious contemporary efforts,
similar to those of Creationists today, to found systems of natural
philosophy on Genesis or the book of Job.

Induction

At the beginning of the Magna Instauratio and in Book II of the New Organon,
Bacon introduces his system of true and perfect Induction, which he proposes
as the essential foundation of scientific method and a necessary tool for the
proper interpretation of nature. (This system was to have been more fully
explained and demonstrated in Part IV of the Instauratio in a section titled
The Ladder of the Intellect, but unfortunately the work never got beyond an
introduction.)

According to Bacon, his system differs not only from the deductive logic and
mania for syllogisms of the Schoolmen, but also from the classic induction of
Aristotle and other logicians. As Bacon explains it, classic induction proceeds
at once from . . . sense and particulars up to the most general propositions
and then works backward (via deduction) to arrive at intermediate propositions.
Thus, for example, from a few observations one might conclude (via induction)
that all new cars are shiny. One would then be entitled to proceed backward
from this general axiom to deduce such middle-level axioms as all new Lexuses
are shiny, all new Jeeps are shiny, etc. axioms that presumably would not
need to be verified empirically since their truth would be logically guaranteed
as long as the original generalization (all new cars are shiny) is true.
As Bacon rightly points out, one problem with this procedure is that if the
general axioms prove false, all the intermediate axioms may be false as well.
All it takes is one contradictory instance (in this case one new car with a dull
finish) and the whole edifice tumbles. For this reason Bacon prescribes a
different path. His method is to proceed regularly and gradually from one axiom
to another, so that the most general are not reached till the last. In other
words, each axiom i.e., each step up the ladder of intellect is thoroughly
tested by observation and experimentation before the next step is taken. In
effect, each confirmed axiom becomes a foothold to a higher truth, with the most
general axioms representing the last stage of the process.

Thus, in the example described, the Baconian investigator would be obliged to
examine a full inventory of new Chevrolets, Lexuses, Jeeps, etc., before
reaching any conclusions about new cars in general. And while Bacon admits that
such a method can be laborious, he argues that it eventually produces a stable
edifice of knowledge instead of a rickety structure that collapses with the
appearance of a single disconfirming instance. (Indeed, according to Bacon, when
one follows his inductive procedure, a negative instance actually becomes
something to be welcomed rather than feared. For instead of threatening an
entire assembly, the discovery of a false generalization actually saves the
investigator the trouble of having to proceed further in a particular direction
or line of inquiry. Meanwhile the structure of truth that he has already built
remains intact.)

Is Bacons system, then, a sound and reliable procedure, a strong ladder leading
from carefully observed particulars to true and inevitable conclusions?
Although he himself firmly believed in the utility and overall superiority of
his method, many of his commentators and critics have had doubts. For one thing,
it is not clear that the Baconian procedure, taken by itself, leads conclusively
to any general propositions, much less to scientific principles or theoretical
statements that we can accept as universally true. For at what point is the
Baconian investigator willing to make the leap from observed particulars to
abstract generalizations? After a dozen instances? A thousand? The fact is,
Bacons method provides nothing to guide the investigator in this determination
other than sheer instinct or professional judgment, and thus the tendency is for
the investigation of particulars the steady observation and collection of data
to go on continuously, and in effect endlessly.

One can thus easily imagine a scenario in which the piling up of instances
becomes not just the initial stage in a process, but the very essence of the
process itself; in effect, a zealous foraging after facts (in the New Organon
Bacon famously compares the ideal Baconian researcher to a busy bee) becomes not
only a means to knowledge, but an activity vigorously pursued for its own sake.
Every scientist and academic person knows how tempting it is to put off the hard
work of imaginative thinking in order to continue doing some form of rote
research. Every investigator knows how easy it is to become wrapped up in data
with the unhappy result that ones intended ascent up the Baconian ladder gets
stuck in mundane matters of fact and never quite gets off the ground.
It was no doubt considerations like these that prompted the English physician
(and neo-Aristotelian) William Harvey, of circulation-of-the-blood fame, to quip
that Bacon wrote of natural philosophy like a Lord Chancellor indeed like a
politician or legislator rather than a practitioner. The assessment is just to
the extent that Bacon in the New Organon does indeed prescribe a new and
extremely rigid procedure for the investigation of nature rather than describe
the more or less instinctive and improvisational and by no means exclusively
empirical method that Kepler, Galileo, Harvey himself, and other working
scientists were actually employing. In fact, other than Tycho Brahe, the Danish
astronomer who, overseeing a team of assistants, faithfully observed and then
painstakingly recorded entire volumes of astronomical data in tidy,
systematically arranged tables, it is doubtful that there is another major
figure in the history of science who can be legitimately termed an authentic,
true-blooded Baconian. (Darwin, it is true, claimed that The Origin of Species
was based on Baconian principles. However, it is one thing to collect
instances in order to compare species and show a relationship among them; it is
quite another to theorize a mechanism, namely evolution by mutation and natural
selection, that elegantly and powerfully explains their entire history and
variety.)

Science, that is to say, does not, and has probably never advanced according to
the strict, gradual, ever-plodding method of Baconian observation and induction.
It proceeds instead by unpredictable and often intuitive and even (though
Bacon would cringe at the word) imaginative leaps and bounds. Kepler used
Tychos scrupulously gathered data to support his own heart-felt and even occult
belief that the movements of celestial bodies are regular and symmetrical,
composing a true harmony of the spheres. Galileo tossed unequal weights from the
Leaning Tower as a mere public demonstration of the fact (contrary to Aristotle)
that they would fall at the same rate. He had long before satisfied himself that
this would happen via the very un-Bacon-like method of mathematical reasoning
and deductive thought-experiment. Harvey, by a similar process of quantitative
analysis and deductive logic, knew that the blood must circulate, and it was
only to provide proof of this fact that he set himself the secondary task of
amassing empirical evidence and establishing the actual method by which it did
so.

One could enumerate in true Baconian fashion a host of further instances.
But the point is already made: advances in scientific knowledge have not been
achieved for the most part via Baconian induction (which amounts to a kind of
systematic and exhaustive survey of nature supposedly leading to ultimate
insights) but rather by shrewd hints and guesses in a word by hypotheses
that are then either corroborated or (in Karl Poppers important term) falsified
by subsequent research.

In summary, then, it can be said that Bacon underestimated the role of
imagination and hypothesis (and overestimated the value of minute observation
and bee-like data collection) in the production of new scientific knowledge. And
in this respect it is true that he wrote of science like a Lord Chancellor,
regally proclaiming the benefits of his own new and supposedly foolproof
technique instead of recognizing and adapting procedures that had already been
tested and approved. On the other hand, it must be added that Bacon did not
present himself (or his method) as the final authority on the investigation of
nature or, for that matter, on any other topic or issue relating to the advance
of knowledge. By his own admission, he was but the Buccinator, or trumpeter,
of such a revolutionary advance not the founder or builder of a vast new
system, but only the herald or announcing messenger of a new world to come.

Reputation and Cultural Legacy

If anyone deserves the title universal genius or Renaissance man (accolades
traditionally reserved for those who make significant, original contributions to
more than one professional discipline or area of learning), Bacon clearly merits
the designation. Like Leonardo and Goethe, he produced important work in both
the arts and sciences. Like Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Benjamin Franklin, and
Thomas Jefferson, he combined wide and ample intellectual and literary interests
(from practical rhetoric and the study of nature to moral philosophy and
educational reform) with a substantial political career. Like his near
contemporary Machiavelli, he excelled in a variety of literary genres from
learned treatises to light entertainments though, also like the great
Florentine writer, he thought of himself mainly as a political statesman and
practical visionary: a man whose primary goal was less to obtain literary
laurels for himself than to mold the agendas and guide the policy decisions of
powerful nobles and heads of state.

In our own era Bacon would be acclaimed as a public intellectual, though his
personal record of service and authorship would certainly dwarf the achievements
of most academic and political leaders today. Like nearly all public figures, he
was controversial. His chaplain and first biographer William Rawley declared him
the glory of his age and nation and portrayed him as an angel of enlightenment
and social vision. His admirers in the Royal Society (an organization that
traced its own inspiration and lineage to the Lord Chancellors writings) viewed
him as nothing less than the daring originator of a new intellectual era. The
poet Abraham Cowley called him a Moses and portrayed him as an exalted leader
who virtually all by himself had set learning on a bold, firm, and entirely new
path:

Bacon at last, a mighty Man, arose

Whom a wise King and Nature chose

Lord Chancellour of both their Lawes. . . .
The barren Wilderness he past,

Did on the very Border stand

Of the great promisd Land,

And from the Mountains Top of his Exalted Wit,

Saw it himself and shewd us it. . . .

Similarly adulatory if more prosaic assessments were offered by learned
contemporaries or near contemporaries from Descartes and Gassendi to Robert
Hooke and Robert Boyle. Leibniz was particularly generous and observed that,
compared to Bacons philosophical range and lofty vision, even a great genius
like Descartes creeps on the ground. On the other hand, Spinoza, another close
contemporary, dismissed Bacons work (especially his inductive theories)
completely and in effect denied that the supposedly grand philosophical
revolution decreed by Bacon, and welcomed by his partisans, had ever occurred.
The response of the later Enlightenment was similarly divided, with a majority
of thinkers lavishly praising Bacon while a dissenting minority castigated or
even ridiculed him. The French encyclopedists Jean dAlembert and Denis Diderot
sounded the keynote of this 18th-century re-assessment, essentially hailing
Bacon as a founding father of the modern era and emblazoning his name on the
front page of the Encyclopedia. In a similar gesture, Kant dedicated his
Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon and likewise saluted him as an early architect
of modernity. Hegel, on the other hand, took a dimmer view. In his Lectures on
the History of Philosophy he congratulated Bacon on his worldly sophistication
and shrewdness of mind, but ultimately judged him to be a person of depraved
character and a mere coiner of mottoes. In his view, the Lord Chancellor was a
decidedly low-minded (read typically English and utilitarian) philosopher whose
instruction was fit mainly for civil servants and shopkeepers.

Probably the fullest and most perceptive Enlightenment account of Bacons
achievement and place in history was Voltaires laudatory essay in his Letters
on the English. After referring to Bacon as the father of experimental
philosophy, he went on to assess his literary merits, judging him to be an
elegant, instructive, and witty writer, though too much given to fustian.
Bacons reputation and legacy remain controversial even today. While no
historian of science or philosophy doubts his immense importance both as a
proselytizer on behalf of the empirical method and as an advocate of sweeping
intellectual reform, opinion varies widely as to the actual social value and
moral significance of the ideas that he represented and effectively bequeathed
to us. The issue basically comes down to ones estimate of or sympathy for the
entire Enlightenment/Utilitarian project. Those who for the most part share
Bacons view that nature exists mainly for human use and benefit, and who
furthermore endorse his opinion that scientific inquiry should aim first and
foremost at the amelioration of the human condition and the relief of mans
estate, generally applaud him as a great social visionary. On the other hand,
those who view nature as an entity in its own right, a higher-order estate of
which the human community is only a part, tend to perceive him as a kind of
arch-villain the evil originator of the idea of science as the instrument of
global imperialism and technological conquest.

On the one side, then, we have figures like the anthropologist and science
writer Loren Eiseley, who portrays Bacon (whom he calls the man who saw through
time) as a kind of Promethean culture hero. He praises Bacon as the great
inventor of the idea of science as both a communal enterprise and a practical
discipline in the service of humanity. On the other side, we have writers, from
Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Lewis Mumford to, more recently, Jeremy
Rifkin and eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant, who have represented him as one of the
main culprits behind what they perceive as western sciences continuing legacy
of alienation, exploitation, and ecological oppression.

Clearly somewhere in between this ardent Baconolotry on the one hand and
strident demonization of Bacon on the other lies the real Lord Chancellor: a
Colossus with feet of clay. He was by no means a great system-builder (indeed
his Magna Instauratio turned out to be less of a grand edifice than a
magnificent heap) but rather, as he more modestly portrayed himself, a great
spokesman for the reform of learning and a champion of modern science. In the
end we can say that he was one of the giant figures of intellectual history
and as brilliant, and flawed, a philosopher as he was a statesman.

Bibliography

Note: The standard edition of Bacons Works and Letters and Life is still that
of James Spedding, et. al., (14 volumes, London, 1857- 1874), also available in
a facsimile reprint (Stuttgart, 1989).
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944.
Anderson, F. H. Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles:
University of Southern California Press, 1962.
Bury, J.B. The Idea of Progress. London: MacMillan, 1920.
Eiseley, Loren. The Man Who Saw Through Time. New York: Scribners, 1973.
Fish, Stanley E. The Experience of Bacons Essays. In Self-Consuming
Artifacts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1972.
Gaukroger, Stephen. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-modern
Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific
Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. 1934.
Lampert, Laurence. Nietzsche and Modern Times : A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and
Nietzsche. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
Rifkin, Jeremy. Biosphere Politics. New York: Crown, 1991.
Rossi, Paolo. Francis Bacon: from Magic to Science. Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Vickers, Brian. Francis Bacon. Harlow, UK: Longman Group, 1978.
Vickers, Brian, Ed. Francis Bacon. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996.
Whitney, Charles. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, CN: Yale University
Press, 1986.




 

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