One of the most ubiquitous figures in the history of science in the first half of the seventeenth century was Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban (1561–1626), jurist, and politician, who rose to become Lord High Chancellor of England.
Portrait of Francis Bacon by Paul van Somer 1617 Source: Wikimedia Commons
A prolific author of polemical text, he gets labelled the father of empiricism, the father of the scientific method, and even the father of modern science. Regular readers of this blog will know, without asking, that I reject all three labels. In fact, I go much further, rejecting the deification of Francis Bacon in the hierarchy of modern science. First, and it gets said far too little, Bacon was not a scientist and secondly, he didn’t even understand science or, if it comes to that the scientific method. In my opinion, Bacon is not the signpost to the future of science that his fans claim him to be, but someone, who looks back at the development in science that had taken place in the recent past and collated, idealised, and systemised them, whilst projecting them into an imaginary future.
Bacon’s record on the leading scientific developments in the early seventeenth century is so abysmal that it is difficult to understand how anybody ever took him seriously as a philosopher of science.
His attitude to the already advancing mathematisation of the sciences was to say the least retrograde or even reactionary. In his writings he, like Aristotle, says that pure mathematics has no place in natural philosophy, because its objects are not material. At one point he specifically rejects the developments that had been made in algebra, as it had not been well perfected. He, also like Aristotle, allows mixed mathematics, even acknowledging an increasing list of areas where this applies listing, perspective, music, astronomy, cosmography, architecture, engineering, and diverse others. This list encapsulates many of the developments during the Renaissance that we have examined in various episodes of this series. However, he only allows mathematics a measuring role in the, for him all important, empirical investigations, but not a determining or philosophical one. It should, however, be noted that in his own examples of empirical investigations there are no quantitative tables of measurement. His attitude to the role of mathematics is best illustrated by his rejection of Copernican astronomy. Bacon feared abstract reasoning not based upon experience, and rejected purely theoretical science such as Copernican astronomy, a purely mathematical model. A model for which there was no empirical, observational evidence. One must admit, a fairly reasonable argument at the time.
Bacon rejected another important milestone in the history of science, William Gilbert’s De Magnete, which had been published in 1600. This was a work solidly based on experience, experiments, and empirical observations, so one would have thought that it would be acceptable to Bacon, but this was not the case. He criticised Gilbert heavily because although based on a wealth of experiments, he had made a philosophy out of the loadstone, indulging in extravagant speculation.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bacon also raised serious doubts about both the telescope and the microscope, empirical research instruments. He found Galileo’s initial telescopic discoveries admirable, but then there was nothing more and he thus found the handful of discoveries suspicious because they were so few and had then petered out. As I’ve noted elsewhere there was indeed a lull after 1613 in telescopic discoveries, which lasted until astronomers adopted the astronomical telescope, which had a much greater magnification than the original Dutch or Galilean telescope. Bacon, who was not an optician or astronomer, had no real understanding of that which he was criticising. His doubts concerning the microscope can possibly be excused as he died much to early to see any real results of microscopic investigations, although I wonder if he attended any of Cornelis Drebble’s public demonstrations of his Keplerian microscopes in the early 1620s.
There are three major publications outlining Bacon’s views on education, which include his views on natural philosophy and his thoughts on how it should be practiced i.e., his much-praised methodology. The first of these is his The Advancement of Learning from 1605. This is a polemic advocating for a general state sponsored education. The emphasis in this polemic is very much on religion and civics. There is very little in this work that in anyway relates to the developing sciences of the period and his highly abstract discussion of natural philosophy is, for a man who supposedly dethroned Aristotle, highly Aristotelian.
It is in fact first in his Novum Organum from 1620 that he seeks to dethrone Aristotle replacing, as the title states Aristotle’s Organon, his six books on logical analysis, which underly his physics, that is the description of nature, with Bacon’s own new empirical inductive logic, which is so often falsely claimed to be “the” modern scientific methodology.
There of course being no singular scientific method and also those who believe there is one describe something very different to Bacon’s model. Bacon rejects Aristotle’s top-down methodology, which starts with supposedly obvious first principle or axioms to which deductive logic is systematically applied until one arrives at empirically observed facts. He wishes to replace it with a bottom-up system, which starts with empirically observed facts and then uses inductive logic to arrive at general statements derived from those facts.
Bacon’s system is very naïve and primitive and consists of creating lists of empirical observations. For a given phenomenon, the example Bacon uses is heat, he collects in a list all the empirical instances where heat occurs. He then complies a second list of all the instances where heat doesn’t occur. This is of course a major problem as, whilst not infinite, such a list would be impossibly long, so he makes some arbitrary decisions to reduce the list. He then compares the properties of the lists to eliminate any that appear in both lists. Finally in the parred down list of heat occurrences he removes those properties that are not in all instances, for example light, which is in fire but not in hot water. In the list that is left over the form (cause) of heat should naturally emerge. He explicitly warns against speculating too far from the acquired evidence.
This is of course not how science works. Is it argued that Bacon plays an important role in the development of the scientific method because he suggests experimentation as a method to produce more empirical instances. Of course, Bacon is not the first to introduce experimentation into scientific research, alchemy, which Bacon disdained, had been using experimentation for centuries and experimental laboratories were a feature of Renaissance science. Bacon’s insistence on empirical observation and induction appears to me to be a very similar, but formalised, approach to that of the work of the Renaissance researchers, who developed the materia medica and botany.
I think the best comment on Bacon’s approach was supposedly made by William Harvey, in his Brief Lives, John Aubrey tells us that Harvey:
“had been physitian to the Lord Chancellour Bacon, whom he esteemed much for his witt and style, but would not allow him to be a great Philosopher. Said he to me, ‘He writes Philosophy like a Lord Chancellour,’ speaking in derision, ‘I have cured him.'”
One of the most often referenced of Bacon’s texts in his utopia, The New Atlantis, the House of Salomon in which supposedly inspired the foundation of the Royal Society. It was never completed and first published posthumously.
In the modern English version that I own, it is forty-nine pages long and the first thirty-six pages tell the story of a ship blown of course arriving at the Island of Bensalem, apparently Bacon’s concept of an ideal society. I’m not going to describe the culture of Bensalem, which appears to me to be basically a form of theocracy but will briefly sketch his account of the House of Salomon. The official of the House of Salomon, who gives a verbal guided tour to the book’s narrator, a member of the ship’s crew, who is not more closely identified, just rattles of long lists of all the wonderful things that each section or division of the house contains. There is no real attempt to describe the science that produced these wonders or explain the methodology behind them. In general, large parts of this pean to the scientific achievements of the Bensalemites read like an idealised cross between the Renaissance botanical gardens of Northern Italy and the curiosity cabinets of the German aristocrats. In fact, elsewhere Bacon suggests that systemised curiosity cabinets could be used for his type of inductive scientific research. Some of them, such as that of Rudolf II, were already used for scientific research but not using Baconian methodology.
Returning to my original position, I contend that Bacon is not the father of modern science shining a methodological beacon into the future of scientific research but rather a man with very little real understanding of how science works, who held up a mirror, which reflected various aspects of the Renaissance science that had preceded him.
8 responses to “Renaissance Science – LI”
This is a a fascinating post! I already knew of Steven Weinberg’s low opinion of Francis Bacon, but the wealth of detail here is marvelous.
I really appreciate this post. It’s good to get the lowdown on Bacon.
So why did Francis Bacon have the history-of-reception as “the father of empiricism, the father of the scientific method, and even the father of modern science?”
Firstly, the early history of science was written by philosophers, who understood as much about science as Bacon. Bacon was a philosopher and they liked his philosophising, even if it was crap science, so they promoted it.
Secondly, Bacon is supposedly a good writer and a pleasure to read, personally I find him turgid, but what do I know. Readability is also one of the principle reasons Galileo gets so much promotion that he doesn’t deserve.
Thirdly, the original Royal Society saw themselves as Baconian, a reason that many 17th century mathematical scientists didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The early years of the Philosophical Transactions are actually full of an incredible amount of crap.
You can’t justly blame Bacon for not having done more philosophy and science. Not enough time. He was too busy writing Shakespeare’s plays.
OK, more serious comment. Peter Harrison (no relation) sees Bacon’s empiricism as an exercise in humility, appropriate to man’s fallen condition. In lieu of achieving God-like insight, he recommended an organized search for homely but useful facts like how to use snow to keep partridges from going bad. If so, perhaps we should understand his knowledge-is-power bit in a non Faustian sense. After all, he also insisted that we only rule nature by obeying her (if I remember the line correctly).
The Essays are pretty sporty.
Well, I’m glad you wrote this; I tried reading Bacon last summer and ended up with a view similar though less informed than your own: http://mustelid.blogspot.com/2022/09/ye-workes-of-ye-francis-bacone.html
The crucial invention connected with the astronomical telescope was the micrometer eyepiece invented by William Gascoigne, who Thony wrote about some years ago in https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/he-died-fighting-for-his-king/
That invention was in the late 1630s, so Bacon had been dead for nearly 15 years before it became public knowledge through William Crabtree.
(On a Different Note, but not necessarily at loggerheads with yours on every point): Bacon and Modernity (11/6/2012)
In the past I refrained from saddling Bacon with the lion’s share of culpability for the catastrophically imbalanced, nay unhinged, technocracy for which he laid the foundations three centuries ago. My willingness to exonerate him was based upon his repeated insistence that the powerful new technologies that his new science would assuredly generate were to be used solely for philanthropic ends—and not for the enormous profit of the few at the expense of the many, which, as we can all see, is pretty much the way things have panned out.
Now that I am learning more about his protracted, virulent smear campaign against Plato and Aristotle—and not simply as thinkers/philosophers, but as characters, as humans—I am less forgiving towards him. His efforts to discredit and to effectively quash Platonic and Aristotelian moral-speculative philosophy (which was concerned, especially in Plato, with the intelligible Good-in-itself) certainly contributed a great deal to the redirection and re-allocation of Europe’s intellectual capital towards exclusively practical investments—and towards the aggrandizement of human power. So, we see the clearing of a path of domination over nature while effectively obstructing an old and well-traveled path of moral-spiritual enlightenment.
My sense is that if Bacon (and others after him who followed in his powerful wake—persons like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Bentham, and Mill) had made half as strong an effort to preserve and uphold the spiritual-moral authority of these ancient philosophers as he did to impugn them, the West might not have become so completely deracinated from its moral-spiritual underpinnings. I am not alone in suspecting that Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical and moral campaigns—had they been left intact near the beating heart of Western culture, instead of being thoroughly upstaged and eclipsed by the material science founded by Bacon, Descartes, and Co.—would almost certainly have provided a wise and moderating counterweight against the shameless acquisitiveness, the crass sensualism, and the virulent banality that have inundated the last few centuries.
Why did Bacon deem it necessary to dethrone Plato and Aristotle—categorically, and not just those bits that were obstructive to his natural science project—in order to accomplish his world-historical ‘revolution’ in thought and action? This is a big question and any attempted answer will necessarily be complex and many-sided, not simple. If Bacon had not been such a notoriously subtle dissimulator, we might be in a better position to know if—and how much—he privately believed that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were indeed worthless and misguided, as he publicly claimed. It is certainly possible that, despite his indisputably first-rate intellect, Bacon was constitutionally incapable of seeing things ‘transcendentally’—after the fashion of Socrates and Plato (I am very much of two minds about Aristotle’s ability to authentically experience Platonic ideas in other than a merely conceptual manner, so I will keep him ‘on ice’ in this discussion). One might raise much the same psychological observation or question about Hobbes, Locke, Spencer, Darwin, and even Nietzsche, who was nothing if he was not a kind of physiologist in his psychological speculations. One could even argue that a man as intimately acquainted with the psyche as Freud lacked this introverted-intuitive faculty needed to experience the Ideas or the archetypes, which must be distinguished from hypostatized drives, reified instincts, and mere ‘general concepts’ (nominalism).
If Bacon did, in fact, suffer from this sort of congenital psychological blindness—a defect that seems to have been compensated by an exaggerated, hypertrophic development of ‘extraverted sensation thinking’—then we may have a partial explanation for his extraordinary powers of penetration as an empirical, outer-directed thinker and, alas, his corresponding weaknesses in the internal realm of transcendent/speculative cognition and experience. And what a man simply cannot see or experience for himself (if he’s honest), he will be likely to dismiss as an empty phantom or chimera. In such a case we cannot, in all fairness, impugn the thinker’s sincerity. He suffers from something analogous to color-blindness in his psychic make-up and cannot perceive certain mental phenomena that are plainly evident to persons who do not suffer from the same defect. From this angle, materialism—as a metaphysical scheme or standpoint—is not so much an elaborate concatenation of abstract concepts or intellectual postulates as it is a kind of consciousness that is decisively governed and oriented by sensation, one of the four psychological functions, along with thinking, feeling, and—its polar opposite—intuition, which is precisely the function that is crucial to the symbolic-transcendent cognition that Plato exemplified so impressively.
For the materialist, the senses are automatically elevated in importance and implicitly regarded as the proper criteria when it comes to the reality and the ultimate nature of things in the world. The thoughts that the strict, self-consistent materialist has about sensory data appear to be derived from and shaped by the evidence of the senses. Such a psychic constitution or organization I suspect Bacon to have been endowed with. The general trajectory of his stupendously influential thought fully conforms to the terms and natural conditions of this sense-determined, outer-directed attitude and approach towards reality. Its remarkable effectiveness cannot be disputed. Bacon—pioneering and charting the way into the terra incognita of external nature—has, along with his loyal followers and disciples, radically transformed the world in which we now live. If Bacon’s thoroughly ‘down to earth,’ un-transcendental psychic constitution had been some fluke or anomaly, the scientific revolution never would have taken off—let alone become the intellectual movement that spread like a wildfire through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—and is still going strong.
He was in this sense an outstanding prototype—a groundbreaking pathfinder—who opened up territory that was quickly and enthusiastically colonized by hordes of lesser, but thoroughly competent lights. Outstanding, similarly-oriented scientific geniuses—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Lavoisier, Boyle, Darwin, Marie Curie, Einstein, and Heisenberg, to mention only some of the most renowned—lent enormous and well-deserved dignity to the scientific enterprise. Aside from the brilliant theoretical insights of these luminaries, there are the countless comforts, conveniences, and medical marvels with which applied science and the new technologies have blessed a grateful humanity. Of course, it is not an unmixed blessing and the costs—both to the natural environment and to our spiritual balance and well-being—may soon bring the brilliant success story to an unexpectedly sobering denouement.
I am not oblivious to the fact that in ‘profiling’ Bacon as psychologically ‘blind’ to the ‘transcendent’ or spiritual dimension of our human endowment, I am surreptitiously linking modernity to a kind of mental imbalance that afflicted one of its principal architects. Having read Bacon (and about his legacy) for many years—and having ‘placed’ him, to the best of my ability, within the general scheme of Western cultural evolution—I strongly suspect that, like Nietzsche, his understanding of the whole was skewed and incomplete. Nietzsche’s lopsidedness and mental disequilibrium were of a somewhat different ilk than Bacon’s: there was a good deal more innate piety and religiosity that had been rather brutally traumatized by his own ferociously critical intellect and forcibly repressed, causing all sorts of related complications, while Bacon often seems not to have had a sincerely pious bone in his body.
I also suspect that Bacon—supremely conscious of his bulging intellectual endowment, confident in his vast learning and his privileged access to the highest social and political circles of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts—was possessed of an exceptionally ambitious soul. He was not only a peerless analytical and inventive thinker—but a sly and artful man of action who had little doubt in his ability or his calling to steer the course of mankind’s future—the sort of legacy that few sane persons in a century have the wherewithal even to contemplate soberly. Bacon surely must have recognized that his particular genius was splendidly tailored for the task he set before himself—to become an actual, as opposed to a merely fabled, Prometheus or Dædalus. As such, he would unlock the carefully hidden secrets of nature—secrets the knowledge of which would forthwith transform the earth itself into a bountiful cornucopia, controlled for the first time by its most magnificent and godlike creature—man. This—if anything—was religion for Bacon: the relief of man’s material estate with himself as the benevolent author and architect of the Novum Organon, a book that made the (formerly) impossible possible.
I believe it was this preferment of the spiritual over the (‘corrupt’ and chaotic) material world that Bacon and Nietzsche both found unforgivably repellent in Plato. These were very much ‘this-worldly’ thinkers who, while attentive to the grandeur of the Bible (or rather, the Old Testament), saw little besides error and useful fictions in the actual content of religion—at least to the extent that they were able to appreciate its cultural significance. Bacon—like that other extraordinary secular thinker across the channel, Montaigne—had witnessed the senseless mutual slaughter of Catholics and Protestants during that bloody era of religious wars. Very bad business for the implementation of the communal research—the peaceful collaboration—that Bacon’s grand scheme would require before the scientific revolution could get rolling! The tempests of religious fanaticism certainly had to be calmed—and sectarian agitators had to be de-clawed and de-fanged—if the proper conditions for Baconian science were to be established.
In the fabled ‘Bensalem’—Bacon’s pleasant, science-founded (and secretly governed) utopia depicted in his posthumously published The New Atlantis—the great co-architect of modernity presents us with a materially seductive alternative to Plato’s equally fabled Republic, a sterner and rather less cozy regime ruled over by ascetic philosopher-kings who place the highest value on spiritual and moral excellence, while setting little store on technological innovations and sensual pleasures. Was it this hedonistic appeal that won over the hearts and minds of Bacon’s initial (bourgeois) fans and followers? Is it any coincidence that improvements in technology brought increased trade, prosperity, and a growing middle class that wanted its share in the political freedoms that had heretofore been confined to the few, the well-born? The generation and the distribution of wealth—drawn both from the new industries and from exploited colonies scattered throughout the world—set Europe (and later, America) on the complex economic, social, and political trajectory that carries us to the present day.
Bacon was decisive in plotting and inaugurating this materialistic/terrestrial trajectory, but in order to put his contribution into a larger perspective it should be remembered that the Renaissance in Italy had already, a century earlier, heralded a sea change in European culture—a kind of swing of the world-historical pendulum away from the spirit and towards matter and the outer world of sensuous experience. When viewed within the vast context of this great reversal of collective psychic energy and attention, Bacon’s project can be seen as facilitating and formally articulating this new direction that life and consciousness were already moving in. The ‘Great Man’ theory of history (Carlyle) turns out to be woefully inadequate here, even if it is true that extraordinary geniuses—persons like Bacon, Descartes, and Newton—may be crucial for establishing the actual roads and drawing up the maps through territory that is already being entered by the ‘spirit of the era.’
As I recall, Jung—perhaps echoing a previous observer—postulated the notion that the first half of the Christian aeon was governed by spirit and by inner realities, while the second half, beginning around the 12th century, has been (through a world-historical enantiodromia) governed by the pull outwards towards matter, the body, and the senses—which were disparaged and, to a great extent, repressed throughout the ‘ascetic’ first millennium. Understood in this way, Christ (as living symbol of spiritual, transcendent reality) ruled over the first half of the aeon (which currently is nearing its end), while the Antichrist (complementary symbol of material, immanent, sensual reality) has ruled over the latter half (our own ‘end times,’ as Jung makes clear in the cited passage. Whether or not one goes in for such mythological or theological readings of historical-cultural trends and energies, the recorded evidence quite persuasively corroborates this rather dualistic, spirit-versus-matter, inner-versus-outer dynamic that has been played out upon the grand stage of human history these past two thousand years.
The powerful, generally unconscious determinants alluded to in this narrative transcend mere human rationality and control. Within the context of such a cosmic scheme, human cultural and collective psychological developments emerge chiefly as effects, rather than as primary causal factors. For those, like myself, who find philosophical merit in such narratives, it makes more sense to view transformative figures like Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Bacon, Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung as oracular articulators and avatars of these transpersonal, course-determining energies and worldviews than as the autonomous creators of the legacies they bequeath to us. The work of a Plato, Jesus, Bacon, or Nietzsche is not produced ex nihilo but in sensitive, intelligent response to archetypal energies and to ‘daimonic’ inner realities that few can encounter without being overwhelmed or even crushed. Thus it stands to reason that skeptical and extremely strong-willed egos (Bacon, Nietzsche) are perhaps more susceptible to dangerous inflation or madness than more pliant and transcendentally-minded ones (Jesus, Plato, Jung).
…and, by extension, those among his followers and adherents who embraced the new science without adequately reflecting upon its darker implications for a species that, in retrospect, appears to have been manifestly unready to responsibly manage the incalculable material power and the personal freedoms that came along with the political reforms of the past few centuries.
 As Laurence Lampert points out in his provocative book, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche, the young author of Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil entertained similarly Olympian ambitions of redirecting humanity’s trajectory in accordance with his own superior will and special wisdom. And he, too, incidentally, regarded Plato as his arch-enemy—and for much the same reason that Bacon did: for his ‘after-worldliness,’ i.e., his ‘transcendental’ claims for the philosophically enlightened soul.
One could argue that it was largely because religion had gradually degenerated into such a dismal and destructive state of dogmatic-sectarian warfare that Bacon’s genius for improving man’s material conditions through science and technology was given the warm and enthusiastic welcome it received by up-and-coming, middle class men of learning. Had Western Christianity managed to remain spiritually effective and coherent instead of succumbing to schisms and internal disintegration, then the seductions of materialism and earthly comforts would perhaps have been somewhat easier to resist. But this question must be saved for another time.
Jung’s controversial idea is explored in his work on psychological symbolism in Christianity: “If we see the traditional figure of Christ as a parallel to the psychic manifestation of the self, then the Antichrist would correspond to the shadow of the self, namely the dark half of the human totality, which ought not to be judged too optimistically. So far as we can judge from experience, light and shadow are so evenly distributed in man’s nature that his psychic totality appears, to say the least of it, in a somewhat murky light…In the empirical self, light and shadow form a paradoxical unity. In the Christian concept, on the other hand, the archetype is hopelessly split into two irreconcilably halves, leading ultimately to a metaphysical dualism—the final separation of the kingdom of heaven from the fiery world of the damned…For anyone who has a positive attitude towards Christianity the problem of the Antichrist is a hard nut to crack…the devil attains his true stature as the adversary of Christ, and hence of God, only after the rise of Christianity, while as late as the Book of Job he was still one of God’s sons and on familiar terms with Yahweh. Psychologically the case is clear, since the dogmatic figure of Christ is so sublime and spotless that everything else turns dark beside it. It is, in fact, so one-sidedly perfect that it demands a psychic complement to restore balance…The coming of the Antichrist is not just a prophetic prediction—it is an inexorable psychological law whose existence, though unknown to the author of the Johannine Epistles, brought him a sure knowledge of the impending enantiodromia…In making these statements we are keeping entirely within the sphere of Christian psychology and symbolism. A factor that no one has reckoned with, however, is the fatality inherent in the Christian disposition itself, which leads inevitably to a reversal of its spirit—not through the obscure workings of chance but in accordance with psychological law. The ideal of spirituality striving for the heights was doomed to clash with the materialistic earth-bound passion to conquer matter and master the world. This change became visible at the time of the ‘Renaissance.’ The word means ‘rebirth,’ and it referred to the renewal of the antique spirit. We know today that this spirit was chiefly a mask; it was not the spirit of antiquity that was reborn, but the spirit of medieval Christianity that underwent strange pagan transformations, exchanging the heavenly goal for an earthly one, and the vertical of the Gothic style for a horizontal perspective (voyages of discovery, exploration of the world and of nature). The subsequent developments that led to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution have produced a world-wide situation today which can only be called ‘antichristian’ in a sense that confirms the early Christian anticipation of the ‘end of time.’ (Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self; CW, vol. 9, part. 2, pars. 76-78)