This important work in scientific methodology was part of a larger work, Instauratio Magna (1620; The Great Instauration, 1653), which was to consist of a preface and six parts (the Novum Organum was to be the second) but was never completed. Even this work itself is partial, as is indicated by the fact that the author listed in aphorism 21 of book 2 a number of topics that he proposed to discuss but never did. The content of the book clearly indicates that he considered it to be a correction of, or a supplement to, Greek philosopher Aristotle’s logical writings, the Organon (Second Athenian Period, 335-323 b.c.e..; English translation, 1812). A large portion of Bacon’s text is devoted to a demonstration of the futility, if not the error, of trying to understand nature by the deductive method. People cannot learn about the world, he insists, by arguing, however skillfully, about abstract principles. On the contrary, people must interpret nature by deriving “axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that the method arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.” In this work, Bacon disclosed the rules of a new “inductive logic.”

The work is divided into two books, the first concerned mainly with setting down the principles of the inductive method and the second with the method for collecting facts. Book 1 is further divided into two parts, the first of which is designed to purge the mind of the wrong methods (aphorisms 1-115), while the second is planned to correct false conceptions of the method that Bacon is proposing (aphorisms 116-120).

Humankind and Nature

Bacon begins by showing that the relation of humankind to nature is such that humankind can know the world only by being its servant and its interpreter. In humankind, knowledge and power meet, for people can control nature only if they understand it: “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” Humankind can modify nature only by putting natural bodies together or by separating them. Moreover, people’s control over nature has been very much limited because people have chosen to spend their time in “specious meditations, speculations, and glosses,” which are well designed to systematize the knowledge that they already have but poorly designed for the discovery of new ideas. The syllogism, for example, serves only to give stability to the errors of tradition; it deals with such unsound notions as substance, quality, action, passion, and essence rather than with those that have been abstracted from things by the proper inductive methods.

Bacon writes that there are three methods commonly employed for understanding nature. He describes these metaphorically in aphorism 95 as those of the ant, the spider, and the bee. The ant is an experimenter, but it only collects and uses. The spider is not an experimenter, but it makes cobwebs out of its own inner substance. The bee takes the middle course; it gathers material from the flowers but transforms and digests this by powers of its own. Natural philosophy is exemplified neither by the ant nor by the spider; it does not gather material from natural history and from mechanical experiments and store it away in memory, nor does it rely solely on the powers of the mind. Like the bee, it alters and digests the particulars that are given in experience and then deposits them in memory.

In further clarification of his method, Bacon suggests that there is an important distinction between the Anticipation of Nature and the Interpretation of Nature. Anticipations are collected from very few instances; they are sweeping generalizations that appeal to the imagination and thus produce immediate assent. Indeed, if all people went mad in the same manner, they might very well agree on all Anticipations. However, Interpretations are obtained from widely dispersed data; they cannot produce consent because they usually disagree with accepted ideas. Anticipations are designed to be easily believed, and Interpretations are designed to master things.

The Doctrine of the Idols

One of the contributions to scientific methodology for which Bacon has become famous is his doctrine of the Idols. These are false notions and false methods that have taken possession of people’s minds, have become deeply rooted in them, and strongly resist people’s efforts to study nature impartially. Bacon believes that people can guard against these only if they are aware of what these notions and methods are and how they mislead thinking. He calls them the Idols of the Tribe, the Idols of the Cave, the Idols of the Market Place, and the Idols of the Theater. The first Idols have their foundation in human nature itself, the second in the individual human being, the third in the vagueness and ambiguity of language, and the fourth in the dogmas of philosophy and the wrong rules of demonstration.

The Idols of the Tribe are found in the belief that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles, which arises because people are predisposed to find more order and regularity in the world than actually exists; superstitions, which are accepted because people are reluctant to abandon agreeable opinions even when negative instances arise; unwillingness to conceive of limits to the world, or of uncaused causes, and the resulting eternal search for principles that are ever more and more general; the swaying of people’s beliefs by emotions rather than by reason; the deceptions that arise because of the dullness and incompetency of the sense organs; and...

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The Progress of Science

Bacon shows that if traditional natural philosophy is examined, it is easy to see why it has not met with success. In the first place, it was largely disputational—a feature that is most adverse to the acquisition of truth—and primarily dialectical. Much of it was argued by itinerant scholars, who put their wisdom up for sale and were primarily concerned with defending their own schools of thought. In addition, these people had the disadvantage of there being no historical knowledge other than myths on which they could base their conclusions, and they had very limited geographical knowledge. Furthermore, such experimental knowledge as existed was largely a kind of “natural magic” that had almost no utility, philosophy not having realized, apparently, that it, like religion, must show itself in works. Indeed, it proved sterile, not only of mechanical progress but also of theoretical development; it thrived under its founders, remained stagnant for a few years, then declined and disappeared. As a result, many of its advocates not only apologized for the limited character of their knowledge by complaining of the subtlety and obscurity of nature and of the weakness of the human intellect but also argued defensively that nature was completely beyond the reach of humankind and essentially unknowable. To claim that the soundness of Aristotle’s philosophy has been demonstrated by its long survival is fallacious, Bacon argues; it has survived not because of the consensus of the judgments of free minds (the only real test of truth) but because of the blind worship of authority. “If the multitude assent and applaud, men ought immediately to examine themselves as to what blunder or thought they have committed.”

According to Bacon, science has progressed slowly over the history of humankind for several reasons. In terms of the total history of humankind, the few centuries that had elapsed since the Greeks was not a long period; people should therefore not be too hasty in disparaging the meager results of humanity’s attempt to understand the world. The poverty of results in natural philosophy can be explained by the great concentration of effort on study in the other areas of thought: religion, morals, and public affairs. Furthermore, the sciences...

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Corrections of Misconceptions

The second section of book 1 is devoted to a correction of the misconceptions of the Baconian method. Bacon assures the reader that he is not trying to set up a new sect in philosophy and not trying to propose a new theory of the universe. He is not even willing to promise any new specific scientific discoveries that may occur as a result of the introduction of the new method. He grants that his method probably contains errors of detail, though he believes these to be minor in character. Among the results that he is able to show, some will be claimed by others to be trivial, some to be even mean and filthy, and some to be too subtle to be readily comprehended. In reply to these charges, Bacon repeats the statement of the poor woman who, having asked for a grant from a haughty prince and been rejected on the grounds that such an act would be beneath his dignity, replied, “Then leave off being king.” If Bacon is criticized on the grounds that his method is presumptive, since he claims with one blow to have set aside all previous sciences and all earlier authors, his reply will be that with better tools one can do better things. Thus, he is not comparing his capacities with those of his predecessors but rather his skill at drawing a perfect circle by means of a compass with that of his predecessors who would draw a less perfect one without this instrument. To the charge that in urging caution and suspension of judgment, he is really denying the capacity of the mind to comprehend truth, he can answer that he is not slighting the understanding but providing for true understanding, not taking away authority from the senses but supplying them with aids.

Fact-Collecting Methods

Book 2 is concerned with the method for collecting facts. To explain this method, Bacon first shows what he means by “Forms.” Every body may be regarded as a collection of “simple natures.” Gold, for example, is yellow, malleable, heavy, nonvolatile, noncombustible. These constitute the Form of gold, for in gold these properties meet. Anyone who knows what these properties are and is capable of transforming a body that does not possess these properties into one that does can create gold. The Form of gold can therefore also be called the “law” of gold, for it is a description of the nature of this substance and of the various ways in which it may be created or generated. Although in the world itself there exist only...

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Applying the Inductive Process

The next step is to apply the inductive process to data arranged in tables. If people follow their natural inclination and proceed simply on the basis of affirmative cases, the results will be fancies, guesses, and ill-defined notions, and the axioms must be corrected every day. God and the angels may have the capacity to extract Forms solely from affirmative cases; but humankind must proceed by affirmation, negation, and variation. What is obtained by this process, however, is only the Commencement of Interpretation, or the first vintage. Bacon presumably means by this what present-day scientists would call a hypothesis, that is, a tentative interpretation that is employed as a guide to the selection of further instances...

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Additional Reading

Anderson, Fulton H. Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1962. Discusses the public life of Francis Bacon. Based on a series of lectures, the book links Bacon’s philosophy to his politics. Attempts to relate Bacon’s philosophy to twentieth century problems are not entirely successful.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. A very readable and interesting biography that brings Bacon to life but is still historically accurate. The author’s favorable treatment forgives Bacon for...

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