Saturday, 15 May 2010

Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) became celebrated as the founder of modern induction, as the early champion of empiricist methodology. Educated at Cambridge University, he took up a career in law, and entered the House of Commons at an early age. He gained a role at the court of Elizabeth I, though he was far more successful under James I, being knighted in 1603 and eventually entering the House of Lords in 1617, and acquiring the position of Lord Chancellor in 1618.

Bacon early reacted to the Scholastic curriculum at Trinity College, where he developed a strong aversion to the Aristotelianism of his day. He dismissed syllogistic reasoning, and much preferred the atomist theory of Democritus. “Although he did not deny that the course of nature exemplifies a divine purpose, he objected to any admixture of teleological explanation in the actual investigation of phenomena” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge edn, 2000, p. 528). Aristotle, like Plato, incorporated a version of transcendent purpose in the universe, though Bacon opted for the empiricist approach to natural philosophy.

The major criticism aimed at his career relates to the year 1621, when he became Viscount of St. Albans. Soon after, his enemies in Parliament charged him with accepting bribes in his office as a judge. He admitted to the offence, and was fined and sentenced to prison in the Tower of London. Yet he spent only a few days in the Tower, and the fine was waived. Although he gained a royal pardon, he was banished from court. He lost his political offices but retained his titles and personal property. He retired to his home in Hertfordshire and devoted himself to writing, an activity formerly confined to his spare time.


Defenders of Bacon emphasise that the acceptance of bribes in a lawsuit was common practice in his era. They also stress that he admitted to his laxity; he stated that he had given a verdict against some persons who had paid him.

His most popular work was the Essayes (1597), though philosophers have dwelt far more on The Advancement of Learning (1605), which reflects his struggle with the academic tradition and humanism. Bacon here opposed the curriculum he had known at Cambridge University, advocating an extensive reform by the use of an empiricist model.

Subsequently, he composed unpublished tracts which furthered the same theme. Favouring the natural philosophy of Democritus, he opposed the scholastic version of Aristotle as relayed by the Christian Schoolmen, though he admired the radicalism of Friar Roger Bacon. Belief in authorities was considered an obstacle to Baconian induction. Sir Francis also opposed Renaissance occultism, associated with Paracelsus and others who had assimilated magic, astrology, and alchemy.

The Novum Organum (1620) was intended as a sequel to Aristotle’s version of logic. The Baconian method was here presented in aphoristic format, intended to avoid dogmatism and to reveal the correct demonstration of natural philosophy. This work was declared as part of the ambitious project he called Instauratio Magna (Great Instauration), which he was not able to complete.

“Bacon came to the fundamental insight that facts cannot be collected from nature, but must be constituted by methodical procedures, which have to be put into practice by scientists in order to ascertain the empirical basis for inductive generalisations.” Quotation from J. Klein, “Francis Bacon” (2003), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The utopian Nova Atlantis was composed in 1623. This distinctive novel conveyed the vision of a necessary transformation of society. Bacon here depicted the New Atlantis in terms of the inhabitants of Bensalem, an imaginary island in the Pacific. Such ideals are represented as the abolition of slavery, freedom of religious expression, and improved rights for women. His ideal of an educational college has been viewed as the harbinger of subsequent university models and scientific curricula.

Bacon attempted to persuade James 1 to establish a royal institution for the advancement of science. He was unsuccessful, but when Charles II “founded the Royal Society in 1662 its members were largely Baconian in their scientific approach, and regarded Francis Bacon as the intellectual godfather of the society” (B. Magee, The Story of Philosophy, London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998, p. 74). The well known influence of this organisation, based at Gresham College in London, was pivotal in scientific developments.

There have, nevertheless, been strong criticisms lodged against the Baconian advancement of science. These range from complex academic discussions of inductive methodology to relatively popular protests at the problems created by technology. The utopia did not arrive. Spinoza was an early critic of Bacon, not being a total believer in induction. Whereas Leibniz credited that Bacon was superior to Descartes. British scientists like Isaac Newton praised Bacon and considered him an important forerunner, and so too did the French encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century.

Bacon emphasised observation and experiment in the discovery of causal connections; there was also a recognition that science additionally requires deduction to move from generalisation to particular instances. However, “the part played by deduction in science is greater than Bacon supposed” (B. Russell, Hist. of Western Philos., p. 529).


A recent commentator has reflected: “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.... 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 recognising and adapting procedures that had already been tested and approved.” The quotation here is from D. Simpson, “Francis Bacon” (2005), at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

See further P. Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (London, 1968); N, Mathews, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (New Haven, 1996); P. Zagorin, Francis Bacon (Princeton, N.J., 1999); L. Jardine and M. Silverthorne, eds., Francis Bacon: The New Organon (Cambridge, 2000); S. Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001); B. Vickers, ed., Francis Bacon: The Major Works (Oxford, 2008); G. Rees et al, eds., The Oxford Francis Bacon (15 volume project, 1996 -----).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
May 15th 2010


ENTRY no. 20

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