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The Philosophy of Francis Bacon

I. General Notions

Francis Bacon (picture) was a man who was brilliant in many ways: as a scientist, as a philosopher, and as an enthusiastic innovator in the methods of science, which he considered to be means for establishing the dominion of man on earth ("regnum hominis"). Bacon is remembered mostly for having worked out the inductive method.

He began with such phenomena of nature as are presented to us, but he intended to go beyond the phenomenal data, to reach knowledge of the form. Nature and form are terms that recall to mind the metaphysics of Aristotelio-Scholasticism. But, as used by Bacon, these terms have a different meaning: Natures are the natural phenomena of heat, sound, light, or of any other actual object of the investigations of physical science; Forms are the immanent laws of these natures.

The metaphysical support for these natures and forms is not treated by Bacon. The only metaphysics consistent with a phenomenalistic physics is mechanical atomism (Democritus - Descartes). Therefore, the differences between phenomena depend upon nothing more than the different positions of atoms regulated by movement.

Even if we grant that Bacon's method leads to a knowledge of what he calls the forms (the laws of nature), such a knowledge will only indicate that until the present day the phenomena were regulated by such laws or forms. But this does not prove that tomorrow these phenomena will obey the same laws. In other words, Bacon does not give us a metaphysics -- independent of the phenomena -- which would be the support of these same phenomena.

It seems, however, that Bacon did not realize the phenomenalistic consequences of his method, and hence could still affirm that the traditional metaphysical world exists alongside his phenomenal world. The later philosophers of Empiricism showed that this is an untenable position, and concluded that all reality is pure phenomenon.

II. Life and Works

Francis Bacon was born in London in 1561. He studied at Cambridge. After having spent some time in France, he returned to his native land and with the favor, first of Queen Elizabeth and then of King James I, he rapidly rose to the highest offices of state until in 1618 he became Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam. In 1621 he was named Viscount St. Albans.

Accused of bribery and corruption during this same year, he was tried and condemned to prison. After receiving the King's pardon, he retired to private live and dedicated himself completely to his studies until the time of his death in 1626.

The principal work of Francis Bacon is Instauratio magna scientiarum (The Great Restoration of Learning), which was intended to embrace the entire field of knowables, both theoretical and practical. But of this vast work he finished only the first and second parts: De degnitate et augmentis scientiarum (Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning), and Novum organum scientiarum (New Organ of Learning). Bacon left only notes for what was to have been the other parts of his monumental work.

III. "Instauratio Magna"

Bacon, a contemporary of Galileo and Descartes, witnessed the first conquests of modern science, the first inventions, the entry of England into the ranks of the great nations. He became a most enthusiastic admirer of science. For Bacon, knowledge is power, and man's capacity to act is in proportion to his knowledge. Science is not theoretical and speculative, but practical. It was to lead man to the discovery of the realm of nature, and to allow him to establish over it the "regnum hominis," the dominion of man.

But before man could dominate nature, he had to obey her. He had to enter into her realm as a child who listens in order to learn. Only after he knows what nature contains can he become her master. Ancient wisdom, based on the Organon of Aristotle, was not the proper means to practical discoveries. The syllogism is good as a demonstrative form of something one already knows, because the conclusion is contained in the premises; but it does not allow us to penetrate any new domain.

For the new science, a new way is necessary -- a new organ ("novum organum") -- through which discoveries will not be the work of chance, as in the past, but the result of systematic experiments. Thus an "instauratio ab imis fundamentis" of all human knowledge is necessary -- a restoration of human knowledge beginning at the root of things, as a means of discovering the hidden possibilities of nature.

IV. "Novum organum"

Bacon's inductive method, which he sets forth in his Novum organum, is composed of two parts: the negative process ("pars destruens") and the positive process ("pars construens"). This method is in opposition to the Organon of Aristotle, which was considered old because it it an instrument of the deductive-syllogistic method.

The negative process has the purpose of freeing the mind of all prejudices and errors (called idols by Bacon) which have penetrated it. Such prejudices and errors Bacon divides into four groups: (1) Idols of the tribe consist in thinking of things and their relations by analogy with man, that is, considering things as actual and organized when such aspects do not objectively exist, but are merely conceived by man. (2) Idols of the cave derive from the psychic formation of the individual, who knows the things not in themselves, but only from their subjective images, as in the case of Plato's celebrated slaves imprisoned in the cave. (3) Idols of the forum, or idols of the marketplace, are derived from social relationships and above all from the use of a common language. (4) Idols of the theater are errors coming from false philosophical systems which, like the fables of the theater, are simply fantastic.

The mind, liberated from all errors, can undertake its positive work, the interpretation of nature (phenomena); that is to say, it can come to the knowledge of forms, of the laws regulating such natures. This constructive process of Bacon's method ("pars construens") is set up in three different types of tables: (1) The table of presence ("tabula praesentiae") lists all the cases wherein the phenomenon exists whose formal cause is sought: for instance, heat, which appears to be present in fire, in the sun, etc. (2) The table of absence ("tabula absentiae") lists all the cases in which the phenomenon under analysis does not appear to be present: there is no heat in the light of the stars, of the moon, etc. (3) The table of degrees ("tabula graduum") lists the increase and decrease of the given phenomenon in one object or in different objects. This third table, by leading to knowledge of the law of movement of the phenomenon, should bring us to know the formal cause (law) of the phenomenon itself. It is not always easy to arrive at a formulation of the law of the form of movement. In such a case we must be content with a temporary or working hypothesis, and await new instances, new experiments.

These are the principles, both positive and negative, which Bacon proposes as the basis of modern science and which should lead man to conscious discoveries and hence to domination over nature.

As we have already observed, the Baconian method, based on experiences as they are offered to our senses, can indicate what was the course of nature and what it still is; but the method cannot prove the necessity and the universality of any laws. Furthermore, the forms or laws regulating phenomena are physical facts, which in Bacon lack metaphysical support, for the only data are matter and the movement of matter; hence this method is pure mechanism. Hobbes developed this mechanistic viewpoint and proclaimed materialism; Locke, Berkeley and Hume, concentrating on the formal aspect, turned to phenomenalism

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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