Novum Organum Analysis
by Francis Bacon

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Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 3,676 words.)