Context

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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.”

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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

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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

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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 people’s proneness to prefer abstractions to the concrete realities of experience.

The Idols of the Cave are caused by the mental and bodily peculiarities of the individual. People become attached to certain beliefs of which they are the authors and on which they have spent much effort. For example, some people see resemblances and overlook differences; others reverse these; both err by excess. Some people worship the past and abhor novelty; others reverse these; truth, however, is to be found in the mean between these extremes. Similar examples are to be found in the respective overemphasis on particles rather than structure, both of which distort reality.

The Idols of the Market Place are the most troublesome of all. They are words that are names of things that do not exist (Fortune, Prime Mover, Element of Fire) and words that are names of things that exist but are vague and confused in their meanings. One example of these vague names is the word “humid,” which may apply in its many meanings to flame, air, dust, and glass.

The Idols of the Theater are subdivided into those of Systems of Philosophy and those of False Arguments. Among the former are the Sophistical (exemplified by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who corrupted philosophy by his logic and his theory of the categories), the Empirical (exemplified by the alchemists and all those who leap to generalizations on the basis of a few, “dark” experiments), and the Superstitious (exemplified by those who employ their philosophies to prove their theologies). The False Argument idols are found when people improperly extract the forms of objects from the objects themselves, and when, in a spirit of caution, they withhold judgment even though a truth has been well demonstrated or dogmatically assert a conclusion without sufficient grounds. The only true demonstration is experience, not by means of careless experiments, experiments in play, or experiments performed repeatedly with only slight variations until one wearies in the process, but by planned and controlled experiments whose motive is true understanding rather than an “overhasty and unreasonable eagerness to practice.”

The Progress of Science

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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 have failed to progress because the natural philosophy on which they must be based for sound support has not been forthcoming: Astronomy, optics, music, and the mechanical arts lack profundity and merely glide over the surface of things. In addition, the sciences have remained stagnant because their goal has not been clearly formulated and the method for attaining this goal has not been stressed; people have tended to rely mainly on their wits, on an inadequate logic, and on simple experiment. “The true method of experience first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it educing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments; even as it was not without order and method that the divine word operated on the created mass.”

Any tendency to praise the accomplishments of the mechanical arts, the liberal arts, and alchemy should be tempered by the recognition of how ignorant people still are in these areas; much is known, but much remains to be known. Much of which poses as knowledge, Bacon insists, has been set forth with such ambition and parade that one easily comes to feel that it is more nearly complete and perfect than it really is. Its subdivisions seem to embrace all fields, but many of these fields prove to be empty and devoid of content. Even worse, much of what is practiced in the arts is pure charlatanism, claiming without grounds to prolong life, alleviate pain, bring down celestial influences, divine the future, improve intellectual qualities, transmute substances, and much more. The main defects of such arts are to be found in their combination of littleness of spirit with arrogance and superiority. They aspire to very little but claim to accomplish very much; they engage in trifling and puerile tasks but claim to solve all problems.

On the positive side, Bacon believes that there are strong grounds for hope. Knowledge is so obviously good that it bears the marks of Divine Providence on its surface. All that is required is that people should realize that they need a new science, a new structure built on a new approach to experience. The old science is inadequate. “Nothing duly investigated, nothing verified, nothing counted, weighed, or measured, is to be found in natural history: and what in observation is loose and vague, is in information deceptive and treacherous.” Accidental experiments must be replaced by controlled experiments—”of light” rather than “of fruit,” which are designed simply for the discovery of causes and axioms. Data should be arranged in Tables of Discovery (which Bacon discusses in book 2), and from these people should ascend to axioms educed from these particulars by a certain rule, and then descend again to new particulars. In this activity, understanding, which is prone to fly off into speculation, should be hung with weights rather than provided with wings. The induction that is based on simple enumeration of accidentally gathered data is a childish thing; it should be replaced by one that examines the axioms derived in this way to see whether they are applicable to new particulars not included in the original enumeration and whether they should be extended to wider areas or modified and restricted to what the new experience discloses.

Corrections of Misconceptions

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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

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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 bodies, not empty Forms, the discovery, investigation, and explanation of Forms is the philosophical foundation of all knowledge and all operations on objects. A limited number of “simple natures,” or Forms, exist, and every body can be understood as a compound of such natures.

“The Form of a thing is the thing itself, and the thing differs from the Form no other wise than as the apparent differs from the real, or the external, or the thing in reference to humankind from the thing in reference to the universe.” Therefore, people must set up procedures that will enable them to distinguish the true Form from the apparent Form. These procedures are employed in the setting up of Tables and Arrangements of Instances. These are obtained by the collection of particulars discovered in nature. “We are not to imagine or suppose, but to discover, what nature does or may be made to do.” However, since nature is so various and diffuse, it tends to distract and confuse people as it presents itself. Consequently, the particulars must be arranged and organized so that understanding may be able to deal with them. These tables and arrangements enable people to use induction and to educe axioms from experience.

The three kinds of such tables are Tables of Essence and Presence, a Table of Deviation, and Tables of Degrees or Comparisons. Tables of Essence and Presence consist of collections of all known instances of a given nature, exhibiting themselves in unlike substances. As an example, Bacon gives a long list of instances of heat—in the sun, in meteors, in flame, in boiling liquids. A second kind of collection is a Table of Deviation, or of Absence in Proximity. These instances are cases where heat is absent—for example, in moonlight, light from the stars, and air on mountaintops. Finally, there are Tables of Degrees or Tables of Comparisons. These involve noting the increase or decrease of heat in the same substance or its varying amount in different subjects. For example, different substances produce different intensities of heat when burned; substances once hot, such as lime, ashes, and soot, retain their former heat for some time; dead flesh, in contrast to living flesh, becomes cold. These three tables are devices by which people assure themselves that where the nature is present, the Form will be present; where the nature is absent, the Form will be absent; and where the nature varies quantitatively, the Form will vary quantitatively.

Applying the Inductive Process

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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 (such as Prerogative Instances, which he discusses in great detail). On the basis of the hypothesis we then proceed either to collect the instances by controlled observation or to produce them by experimentation.

Bibliography

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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 all of his faults except his coldness toward women.

Church, R. W. Bacon. London, 1881. A nineteenth century biography that has stayed amazingly fresh over the years. The author’s readable, precise style provides an enjoyable encounter with Bacon. Emphasizes Bacon’s personality.

Farrington, Benjamin. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1964. A valuable discussion of Bacon’s philosophical concepts. The author includes good translations of Bacon’s minor Latin writings; making them available to a broader audience.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Begins with a discussion of the dialectical methods of sixteenth century Europe. Discusses Bacon’s theory of knowledge, which Bacon referred to as logic. Analyzes Bacon’s major writings and gives clear evaluations of them. Author includes a good bibliography; divided into time periods.

Sessions, William A. Francis Bacon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. This book by a leading Bacon scholar begins with an excellent biographical sketch and a chronology of Bacon’s life, including the rise and fall of his political career. Integrates his major writings with the events of his life. Last chapter emphasizes Bacon’s utopian work, New Atlantis. Bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stephens, James. Francis Bacon and the Style of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Emphasizes Bacon’s concern about the communication of knowledge, specifically the need for a philosophy of communication. Includes Bacon’s attempt to use science in this philosophy. Discusses Bacon’s psychology of discovery, his plan to exploit human passions and imagination, and his doctrine of literate experience (uniting philosophy and rhetoric). Examines Bacon’s approval of fable-making as a way to pass knowledge on to future generations.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Social Context of Innovation: Bureaucrats, Families, and Heroes in the Early Industrial Revolution, as Foreseen in Bacon’s New Atlantis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. An interesting discussion of how Bacon’s ideas in New Atlantis paved the way for many of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Includes twenty-five illustrations of those inventions and how Bacon’s political positions helped promote them.

White, Howard B. Peace Among the Willows: The Political Philosophy of Francis Bacon. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. Title based on an actual event when Bacon prayed among a grove of willow trees for peace in the world. Author discusses how others have shared that dream, with the same disappointments. Includes Bacon’s hope that science would be used to improve conditions in the world.

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