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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


BACON (Francis)

(1561 — 1628)

 

EMPIRICISM

Philosopher, essayist, statesman, Bacon was born in London. He was educated by private tutors there and in his father's country house at Gorhambury, St Albans, and from the age of ten possibly also at the recently refounded St Albans Abbey School (of which his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon was the prime benefactor) before he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1573. He studied law and in 1582 became a barrister of Gray's Inn. He sat in Parliament for a number of constituencies. Knighted in 1603, he was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1618, and created Baron Verulam and then Viscount St Albans in 1621. In that same year he fell from grace and, having been found guilty of bribery (not uncommon in his day), was imprisoned briefly in the Tower. He spent his remaining years researching and writing at Gorhambury. He died of bronchitis allegedly as a result of exposure to wintry conditions when carrying out an investigation into the preservative properties of snow.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ SCIENCE

[1] [gen. 1] At the age of thirty, in a letter to his uncle, Lord Burleigh, Bacon declared that he had taken all knowledge to be his province; and in his De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum (Part I of the Instauratio Magna or Great Renewal) he set out a complete scheme of classification of human knowledge.

[See Advancement of Science.] The world of learning is divided into history, poetry, and philosophy — corresponding respectively to the three faculties of the soul, memory, imagination, and reason. Philosophy, the "one universal science" [sec. 1], as "first philosophy" concerned with fundamental axioms and 'transcendental' concepts (for example, being, possibility) is subdivided into three classes: (1) the study of the nature and existence of God as known indirectly through his creatures (this is natural or rational theology, as contrasted with revelation and divine theology, which is not a science); (2) Nature — known directly; and (3) Man — known through self-reflection. The philosophy of Nature in turn is split into (a) speculative or theoretical and (b) 'operative' or philosophy. The former deals with (i) efficient and material causes (physics), and (ii) formal causes (metaphysics). Operative natural philosophy (in effect applied or practical speculative philosophy) involves mechanics and 'natural magic' — by which Bacon means the science of 'latent' (hidden or underlying) forms or laws, and is an enquiry into the production of effects. The philosophy of Man is divided into 'anthropology' (of body and soul) and political philosophy (relating to man in society, and concepts such as prudence, justice, and government). Examination of the soul leads to logic and ethics — the latter being concerned with private and common good and with the 'cultivation' of the soul. Logic is itself divided into (a) ars inveniendi — interpretation of Nature by means of explanations and axioms (examined in Part II of the Instauratio Magna, called the Novum Organum); (b) ars judicandi — investigation of syllogisms and errors, and of induction (the method to be used for the ars inveniendi); (c) ars retinendi et tradendi, which is concerned mainly with education.

Bacon rejects traditional (that is, scholastic) metaphysics. For him the quest for final causes leads nowhere and to nothing [a]. No knowledge is possible of either man's soul or of God, though the philosopher may be able to prove the existence of the latter as the first cause [b]. Bacon thus makes a clear separation between 'natural' philosophy (or science) and theology/ metaphysics [c]. The aim of 'natural philosophy' is "to make latent things sensible" [as the eighteenth century philosopher and scientist, Georg Lichtenberg put it, referring to Bacon]. The natural philosopher starts out by investigating 'concrete bodies' with a view to (1) discovering (making visible) efficient and material causes — the latent processes of change [New Organon II, 6]; (2) investigating the "latent schematism" or inner structure of bodies [ibid. 7]. He may then move towards greater generality and discover latent forms [d] (non-Platonic and non-Aristotelian formal causes or laws which give a thing its peculiar features or inmost 'nature'), and general principles [9] [d]. This is acceptable metaphysics. In this way the natural philosopher will gain greater control of Nature; and it is this which Bacon regards as the primary purpose of both natural philosophy and (proper) metaphysics. To have knowledge is to have power over Nature [e].

 

LOGIC AND METHODOLOGY

[2] In our reasonings we are, says Bacon, prone to errors. Many of these, which he calls 'idols and false notions', cause us to be prejudiced and must therefore be avoided if true science is to be attained. He divides these into four kinds [ibid. I, 38-68].

(1) Idols of the tribe (idola tribus). These arise from uncritical reliance on the senses [a], on received ideas, abstractions, and on anthropomorphic interpretations of Nature. We must therefore back up sense observations with suitable experiments, and we must avoid attributing purpose (final causes) to Nature [a].

(2) Idols of the den (idola specus). These involve personal prejudice [b] resulting from one's temperament or upbringing.

(3) Idols of the market-place (idola fori) arise as a result of insensitivity to or the misuse of language. We often fail to see the ambiguity of words or use words which have no reference [c].

(4) Idols of the theatre (idola theatri). Bacon refers here to previous philosophical systems such as the 'sophistical' dialectical philosophy of Aristotle, the 'empiricism' of certain [al]chemists, and the 'superstition' [d][d] of Pythagoreans and Platonists.

Other kinds of errors are found in syllogistic arguments. Bacon rejects the use of purely deductive and rationalistic methods, because they not only make permanent the fallacies in our reasoning and our conceptual confusions but also fail to give us knowledge about the world. Science must therefore be inductive. It must also be 'eliminative', starting, not from what he calls [I, 26] "rash and premature anticipations [anticipationes] of nature" based on enumerative induction, typical of scholasticism, but from a careful examination of particulars by means of sense and perception. Enumeration, he says, can verify only restricted, finite claims, such as 'All swans in this particular spot are white'. Bacon thinks of this as essentially an 'interrogation' of nature. Through eliminative induction we can move to well-founded general axioms (a process he calls 'eduction'). In this way we achieve an interpretatio naturae, [I, 26-33]. The value of these general laws can then be demonstrated when we are able to derive further 'experiments' from them [e]. We thereby obtain a "sufficient and good natural and experimental history" [II, 10].

The various stages of Bacon's method are illustrated by his discussion of heat [II, 10ff]. We look for situations in which heat is found, for example, rays of light from the sun, sparks from a flint when struck; and we search for similar phenomena where heat is absent (for example, rays of light from the moon). We then look for variations (animals get hotter when they exercise or when they are ill). By means of processes of 'rejection' or 'exclusion', and by examining all the 'tables' or lists of instances we arrive at a "provisional affirmation". Thus heat is located in a special 'expanding' (expansivius) or 'restraining' (cohibitus) motion, which 'presses forward' (nitens) through smaller parts. This affirmation can be made more certain, and can provide an adequate foundation for inductive generalization or eduction, through an examination of special cases in which the only common element is the participation of things in the 'nature' under investigation. Bacon says we can then make use of a number of "helps to the intellect" before moving on to the latent processes and schemata. But there is no discussion of this in the Novum Organum after he deals with the special cases.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Despite his use of Aristotelian terminology ('formal cause', 'forms', 'first philosophy'), Bacon consciously rejects the assumptions and methods of Aristotelian metaphysics. His importance lies in his emphasis on empirical data, his rejection of final causality in science, his appeal to inductive rather than deductive reasoning in his search for the 'forms', that is, 'fixed laws' he supposed to be latent in phenomena, his identification of knowledge with power, and not least for his recognition of errors arising out of received ideas or prejudices, or as a result of an uncritical use of language. As against these positive features of his thought, it might be said that Bacon was not a great philosopher of science. He certainly underestimated the importance of mathematics in science. And one could argue that his scientific methodology was unsophisticated by today's standards — though this is hardly a criticism. But in recognising the need for a "new organ" or logic in natural philosophy to replace the syllogism he marks himself off as a radical thinker and a modernizer — even though he may not have explored the full implications of his inductive method, or recognised the part that can be played in science by imagination.

 

READING

Bacon: The Advancement of Learning (1606). This was revised and appeared in a Latin version in 1623 (De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum) as the first part of a projected Instauratio magna (Great Instauration). New Organon (Novum Organum sive indicia vera de interpretatione naturae) — Part II of the Instauratio (1620). For a useful selection see F. H. Anderson (ed.), The New Organon and Related Writings. ). (Note also his Essays: although not specifically philosophical, they are a joy to read!)

Studies:

Introductory

A. Quinton, Francis Bacon.

Advanced

F. H. Anderson, The Philosophy of Francis Baco.

L. Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discours.

Collection of essays

M. Peltonen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bacon.

 

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Francis Bacon

 

[sec. 1] Human knowledge; philosophy as universal science

   Leibniz

   Vico

   Hume

   Mill

[1e]

[1d]

[1a]

[1k]

 

[1a d 2a d] Rejection of metaphysics & final causes

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Aquinas
   [representative
   scholastic]

[secs 1-5]

[6a secs 9, 13, 15b]

[1b 6a]

   

Hobbes

   Descartes

Leibniz

Vico

Mill

[4a]

[3d]

[4a]

[1d]

[1i]

 

[1b] No knowledge of soul or God (but latter provable as 1st cause from motion)

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Epicurus

   Descartes

Vico

[sec. 9]

[12e sec. 15]

[2b c]

[3d]

[1a 1c]

 

[1c] Separation of theology/ metaphysics and science/ philosophy

   Ockham

   Hobbes

   Descartes

[3c]

[6c]

[3d e]

 

[1d] Search for latent processes (efficient causes) and latent forms (formal causes which reveal inner nature of things)

   Aristotle

Hobbes

Leibniz

[6a 8e sec. 9 13c]

[2a 4a 6b]

[4a]

 

[1e] Knowledge and power over Nature

Hobbes

   Bergson

   Comte

   Dewey

[6d]

[1c]

[1b]

[1b]

 

 

Errors in reasoning: the 'idols':

 

   
[2a] i uncritical reliance on the senses and abstractions; need for experimentation

   Aristotle

   Bacon (Roger)

Hobbes

Vico

 

[16b]

[2b]

[2c]

[1d]

 

[2b]

ii prejudice through disposition/ upbringing

 

   Gadamer

 

[1d]

 

[2c]

iii misuse of language

 

Hobbes

   Locke

   Diderot

 

[1d]

[1c]

[2b]

 

[2d; cf. 1a] iv 'sophistical'/ dialectics; superstition

   Plato

   Aristotle

[1a]

[sec. 9 13 etc.]

 

[2e] Rejection of purely deductive/ rationalist methods; 'interrogation' of nature; induction and 'eduction'; experimental method in 'interpretation' of nature; limitations of enumerative induction

   Aristotle

   Machiavelli

Hobbes

   Descartes

Vico

Diderot

   Comte

Mill

   Dewey

[6b]

[2a]

[2b]

[1a c d 3e]

[1d]

[2a]

[1b]

[1g 1j]

[2a]