Torre de Babel

Francis Bacon. The philosopher of science. Modern philosophy


Chap. II. Realistic tendency. Bacon

Modern philosophy may be said to begin with Bacon on the one hand, the founder of a new empirical method, and on the other with Descartes, the author of a new speculative system.

The keynote of the new period is revolt against all authority and assumption and a return to experience. It is an age of inquiry and investigation. The demand is made for a new method, a sure and reliable instrument of discovering truth.


All modern thinkers agree in their determination to clear the mind of every assumption and to accept nothing but what experience offers. But they differ as to what is to be included in that term. Descartes not less than Bacon assumes only what is given; but while Bacon accepts the facts of outward experience only, Descartes recognises the phenomena of the mind. Both start with doubt; but both accept as data what comes within their own consciousness and can be vindicated by reason.

 (1) Francis Bacon of Verulam was born in London in 1561, and died in 1626. At the age of thirty-two he entered Parliament and soon become distinguished as a debater. In 1619 he attained to the Lord Chancellorship of England. After a brilliant career, as the result of political opposition, he was convicted of venality and deposed from office.

The character of Bacon has called forth most diverse estimates, and it may be regarded as one of the unsettled problems of history. His nature was certainly a most complex one, full of lights and shadows. Bacon the philosopher of science and author of the Novum Organum, and Bacon the courtier and political place-seeker, seem not one man, but two. If we consider him as a thinker, we cannot but admire his zeal for truth, his penetrating insight and comprehensive grasp of mind; while, on the other hand, if we view him as a statesman, his vulgar ambition and cringing sycophancy in some measure justify Pope’s description,

"The greatest, brightest, meanest of mankind."

When we remember that his whole life was spent in the throng of the world amid the demands of professional and public life, we cannot but wonder at the number and variety of his literary labours. Whatever the verdict as to the value of his philosophy may be, there is no doubt that among the forces in English literature and life he stands second to none.

Besides his Essays, which consist of prudential maxims, miscellaneous reflections on human conduct and sagacious considerations upon life generally, his principal writings are the three great works: The Dignity and Advancement of Learning (1605), and the Novum Organum (1620), intended to be part of his unfinished Instauratio Magna

It has been remarked by Kuno Fischer that, as a philosopher, Bacon has not received his due, especially from German writers. In histories and compendia of modern philosophy Bacon either plays no part at all or, at best, but a very insignificant part as one of the unimportant names of mediaeval philosophy. It has been said, indeed, that the point of contact between English and German philosophy is to be found not so much in Bacon as in some of his successors. Erdmann, Ueberweg, and others have maintained that it was not Bacon but Hume who influenced Kant, while it was Locke who affected Leibnitz. Spinoza speaks of Bacon with contempt, and if he drew anything from English philosophy at all it was from Hobbes. But it must not be forgotten that Hobbes, Locke, and Hume are all descendants from Bacon, that in him they all have their root, and without him they cannot be adequately accounted for. Bacon is the true father of Realistic philosophy, and it is his genius which gives the direction and character to the age in which he lived. He is essentially a pioneer. He stands in the same relation to Realism as Descartes stands to Idealism, Leibnitz to the enlightenment, and Kant to modern philosophy. He opens a path which others follow, and there is scarcely a line of thought which does not, indirectly at least, lead back to him.

Bacon sets himself the ambitious task of reorganizing the sciences. He begins by describing the state of learning in his day, and he institutes a contrast between the barrenness of philosophy and the vitality of the mechanical arts. While philosophy is at a stand-still, these are advancing towards perfection. This condition of things is due, according to Bacon, to certain "distempers of learning," viz., vain affections, vain disputes, and vain imaginations.

The first disease consists in "luxury of style," in which the manner is considered more than the matter. Phrases, figures, tropes take the place of the dignity of the subject and depth of judgment. The second disease consists of "the pursuit of fanciful speculation." This is specially the error of the Schoolmen, "who spin out of a small quantity of matter those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books." The third disease consists in a disregard of truth. This vice branches into two—a delight in deceiving others and an aptness to be deceived, imposture and credulity, which show themselves in superstition and fanaticism.

From these vices there spring innumerable errors which infect philosophy; among others, the unreasoning deference to great names, the exaggerated estimation of the human understanding, distrust of past discovery, a tendency to rash and hasty conclusions, and, greatest error of all, that of mistaking the ultimate end and purpose of all knowledge.

In order to overcome these "peccant humours" which have tended to retard the advancement of learning, it is necessary to make a new beginning, to establish a complete change of standpoint and an entirely new method of procedure. Science must be raised to correspond to the advanced state of the world. Thus the problem which Bacon sets himself is to extend the intellectual world that it may be able to comprehend the material world.

What is it, asks Bacon, which has created the mighty changes which characterize the new age? It is, in a word, the spirit of discovery. Man has for the first time taken possession of the planet. The inventions of the mariner’s compass, of gunpowder, and of printing have changed the entire outlook of man. The inventive spirit is the feature of the age. Hence the subjection of science to the spirit of invention and the liberation of knowledge from all chance and guess-work are the task which now confronts men. Bacon would establish a new logic corresponding to the spirit of observation and discovery by which man may achieve systematically what has been attained formerly by accident. This is the Novum Organon, the logic of invention, the Ratio Inveniendi, which Bacon opposes to the Organon of Aristotle.

Herein then consists Bacon’s principle. He is not characterized with sufficient accuracy when he is styled "the philosopher of experience." He is rather the philosopher of invention. It is his endeavour to philosophically comprehend and fortify the inventive spirit of man. From this point of view his opposition to antiquity and his new philosophy are to be explained. "Our determination is," says Bacon, "to try whether we can really lay firmer foundations and extend to a greater distance the limits of human power and dignity."

Invention is the aim of science. But what, it may be asked, is the aim of invention? Obviously the service of man. A science which is not practically useful is in Bacon’s eyes of no worth. The dominion of man, in short, over all things, is the highest end of science. To meet the wants of life, to minister to human satisfaction, to multiply pleasure, and to increase power, that is the purpose of all knowledge. "Human science and human power coincide." "Knowledge is power," as Bacon never tires reminding us. We can only dominate things by knowing them. To understand the world and make it serve us we must form an acquaintance with it. This acquaintance consists in experience, and, therefore, experience is the beginning of science. All human knowledge has ultimately for its sole task to procure for man dominion over the world, which, on the other hand, can only be gained by careful observation and sober investigation. For Bacon, therefore, the interpretation of nature is a necessary condition of man’s dominion.


But in order that we may attain to a faithful and correct knowledge of nature, two things are necessary—a negative and a positive condition; the mind must be purified of all preconceptions, and it must proceed by a gradual method of observation and induction from particular to more general facts.

  First, the mind must be freed from all assumptions. These perversions of pure experience Bacon calls " Idols," which are four in number.

(1) The Idols of the Tribe, which are errors inherent in human nature, and, therefore, belonging to the human race generally.

(2) The Idols of the Den, errors which are peculiar to the individual. "For everybody has his own cavern which intercepts the light of nature," arising either from his disposition, education, or intercourse with others.

(3) The Idols of the Market, which arise from intercourse among men, and are especially due to an improper and fallacious use of language.

(4) The Idols of the Theatre—the idols which have crept into men’s minds from "the various dogmas of philosophy and perverted rules of demonstration"—the illusory phantoms and traditionary axioms which are credulously received from history and repeated without examination. They are called Idols of the Theatre because all systems are but "so many stage-plays representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion."

These idols, according to Bacon, are "the duties of omission" in the world of science. They represent the ignes fatui which travellers must know to avoid.

In order to rid the mind of these idols or prejudices science must begin with doubt, uncertainty. We must entirely clear away the old fabric before we can start to build a new and firm edifice. In this respect Bacon is in agreement with Descartes. They both withhold their assent from all previously accepted truth that they may obtain a clear field for their labour of renovation. But while Descartes affirms that the pure understanding must be left wholly to itself in order that from itself alone it may derive its judgments, Bacon declares that we must go again to nature and build up the structure of our knowledge from outward experience. We thus stand here at the parting of the streams of modern philosophy. From these different and opposite methods the two great historical movements of philosophy have proceeded—Idealism and Realism, or, as it is sometimes called, Empiricism. From Descartes there sprung a Spinoza and a Leibnitz; from Bacon a Hobbes and a Locke, both of which tendencies led to a new epoch in philosophy, the one to the German enlightenment, the other to the English—to be united at last in the higher synthesis of Kant and his followers.

Second, having thus freed the mind of all error, a positive method must succeed the negative process. This is the method of induction which, according to Bacon, is the only correct mode of elaborating facts. By its aid we proceed from particulars to general truths, carefully examining, arranging, comparing, and sifting truth lest any theological presumption should mingle with the facts.

While Bacon admits that all knowledge has for its end the causes of things, of the four kinds of causes instituted by Aristotle, he treats only of formal causes. All that takes place has its ground in the nature or form of things. How am I to know the causes or forms on which some particular phenomenon depends? How, in other words, shall I discover its essential conditions? "By setting aside whatever is non-essential or contingent." What remains after this operation will be that which is essential and true—"the form" of the given phenomenon. The whole physical world, according to Bacon, consists of a limited number of simple elements or qualities variously combined, so that all that is required to obtain a complete knowledge of all concrete objects in nature is simply, by a progressive process of exclusion, to reach the simple elementary qualities of an object. The form of heat, for example, is that which is everywhere present where heat is found and which is nowhere where heat is lacking. It cannot be weight, for we find heaviness both where heat is and where it is not. Thus by a method of abstraction we find at last that it must be motion, as the one quality which is always present where heat is, and is always absent where heat is not. Induction—generalization by abstraction—is the process by which the primary forms are to be discovered and by which nature is to be interpreted.

Bacon thus declared that natural science is the parent of all the sciences. He attempted to apply his empirical method not only to the physical disciplines such as astronomy, optics, mechanics, medicine, but to humanistic subjects as well, such as morals, politics, and logic. He demanded that the whole of human life and all forms of thought, the movement of ideas and the activities of the will, the social and political conditions of humanity should be examined and reduced to their "simple forms" by the method of natural science. But while this demand is made by Bacon, he himself has by no means fulfilled it. Of a moral theory he has only given us hints and suggestions, on politics he has little to say, and with regard to religion he is altogether silent. With regard to these two subjects he found it no doubt prudent to be silent. His contention that science has nothing to do with religion is an evasion. Everything, according to his principle, must be brought within the range of knowledge, but he was well aware that if he attempted to explain spiritual facts on naturalistic principles he would involve himself in trouble. The question as to the natural basis of man on which his social and religious life is reared—hinted at but never answered by Bacon—his successors were not slow to take up. How does the moral order result from the natural, or, in Bacon’s language, "how does the status civilis follow from the status naturalis? "This was the problem which Hobbes, the disciple of Bacon, as we shall see, sought to solve.

Bacon everywhere promises more than he achieves, and his philosophy, like his life, must be pronounced something of a failure. Such a mechanical and formal process —classification and abstraction—was not fitted to cope with the deeper problems of thought. Of the nature and origin of things in themselves, Bacon has nothing to say. The Baconian philosophy, from its very nature, is incapable of explaining religion. It could comprehend neither the creative imagination in art nor the essential nature of the human mind.

The merit of Bacon lies in his having been the first to establish the principles of empirical science, and generally, in an age of false assumption and verbal abstraction, to direct men’s minds to the accurate observation of facts.

If Bacon had a passion which sincerely occupied his mind it was the passion for science alone. She was the only friend to whom he remained entirely true. She accompanied him through his restless and busy life, and to her he delighted to return in his hours of leisure. This passion alone consoled him in his misfortunes when other ambitions were frustrated. "Science," says Fischer, "was Bacon’s last destiny, and even death bore witness to her fidelity." He died on the morning of Easter Sunday, 1626, in consequence of a physical experiment. "It is not," says Sir John Herschel, "the introduction of inductive reasoning as a new and hitherto untried process, which characterizes the Baconian philosophy, but his keen perception, and his broad, spirit-stirring, almost enthusiastic announcement of its paramount importance, as the alpha and omega of science."

Bacon, in short, was the interpreter of his age—the emancipator of the mind from the traditions of the past and the herald of a new and brighter era.

Closely connected with Bacon and Descartes, two contemporary writers must be mentioned who have been rightly regarded as the revivers of the material theory of the universe. Gassendi and Hobbes—the first of whom was to some extent an antagonist of Descartes, while the latter was a follower of Bacon—were strongly influenced by the new scientific ideas of the time, and became the earliest modern exponents of views which were destined to exert a powerful influence on scientific as well as ethical thought.

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