Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 JL – 9 April 1626) was a British natural philosopher and founder of experimentalism and empirical science.. Sir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount of St. Alban, was a prominent figure in English society, making significant contributions to the world as a philosopher, scientist, statesman, juror, orator, author, attorney general, and lord chancellor of England. Perhaps his most significant, lasting impact was in natural philosophy and the role he played during the scientific revolution (the period between the publications of Copernicus’s Revolutions and Newton’s Principia). In the later part of his life, he worked to establish empiricism and constructed his scientific methodology, first introduced in his revolutionary text Novum Organum, describing his reformulation of scientific thinking that employs inductive reasoning to make predictions about the world.
Bacon began his studies at Cambridge University’s Trinity College in 1573 at the age of twelve.1 While there, he became dissatisfied with the tradition of Aristotelian philosophy and deemed it unfruitful.234 Bacon lived during the beginning of the scientific revolution, shortly after the publication of Copernicus’s Revolutions and thus would have likely been influenced by the new heliocentric cosmology that was beginning to take root, which brought the validity of the Aristotelian mosaic into question.5 During this time, the study of empirical natural philosophy, which set the foundations upon which modern scientific practices and methodologies were based, took its form. During this era, there was a major revolution wherein many elements of the earlier mosaic were replaced. Bacon’s early education occurred at the very beginning of this revolution, putting him in the ideal context to revolutionize how science was carried out.
At the time of Bacon’s education, there were three central ideas that defined the worldview of the time; Aristotelian scholasticism, scholarly and aesthetic humanism, and occultism.2 The tradition of Aristotelian scholasticism formed the scientific mosaic at the time of Bacon’s education and this mosaic included such theories as astrology and alchemy and the methodology employed during that era was one that demarcated scientific theories by their ability to describe the world intuitively. The prevalent renaissance humanism of the time brought many thinkers back to the ancient traditions of the Greeks, putting an emphasis on critical, evidenced-based discussion rather than dogmatism. This setting allowed the academic air of the time to be such that Bacon’s normative methodology could be well-received and eventually accepted by the scientific community. The influences of occult thinking at the time lead people to believe that not all that is real is physical and so the spiritual world was equally as important as the physical world.
One theory that played a major role in Bacon’s life was atomism; the subjects of alchemy and magic that were the standard modes of inquiry into physical substance dissatisfied him greatly as they did not have any reproducible, standard way to probe nature, and observe its phenomena.3 For this reason, he found atomism, particularly the early atomism of Democritus, to be quite compelling as it is founded in empirical notions, and then general results and claims are derived from these observations. At the time of Bacon, atomism was championed by the Copernicans as it was allowable within their heliocentric model, and incompatible with the Aristotelian model. It fit with the new, developing science, while contradicting the older thinking.
During his lifetime, Bacon bore witness to many of the great discoveries that defined the science of his era and that would later shape the nature of scientific thought. In particular, he was alive when Kepler published his first two laws of planetary motion, and also when Galileo published the first telescopic observations. Such events were of great importance to the academic community of the time and as such, would have had a great impact on Bacon and how he perceived the state of science in his time. In fact, the acceptance of Kepler’s laws, and of Galileo’s observations directly contradicted the foundations of Aristotelian geocentric cosmology and therefore, with these new ideas being proliferated, there was a general stance that perhaps science would need to be reformulated. It was this reformulation that Bacon sought to carry out from early in his studies, although he did not publish any material on the subject until much later in his life.
Following his studies, Bacon pursued a legal career in the court where he held a variety of roles and eventually pursued political endeavours, eventually sitting as a member of Parliament.14 However, in 1621, several of Bacon’s enemies had him convicted of bribery and he was, among other things, was banned from ever holding a state position again.214
No longer able to pursue a state position, Bacon resigned himself to intellectual endeavours for the remaining years of his life and it is during this period that he made his significant contributions to natural philosophy, having already spent decades refining his intellect and critical thinking in the courts and in politics.4 In 1620, shortly before his political downfall, Bacon published his Novum Organum, where he sought to supply “true directions concerning the interpretation of nature”.6 In this text, Bacon makes a normative suggestion as to how the methodology should be revised from the Aristotelian methodology to the first empirical methodology. A variation of the inductive, empirical methodology that he introduced was eventually adopted by all natural philosophers that immediately succeeded him, such as Descartes and Newton.
After only a six years of writing, having produced numerous volumes of great importance to natural philosophy, Bacon died in 1626. Throughout his life, the scientific community was undergoing a shift from Aristotelian science,5 to the natural philosophy that would eventually be shaped by the likes of Descartes and Newton. Many of the ideas central to Aristotelian physics, such as geocentrism, were overturned during Bacon’s lifetime however, it was Bacon who was responsible for initiating a revolution in how scientists did science leading the way for natural philosophers to construct theories that were based on evidence rather than intuition.
During his career, Bacon primarily wrote about subjects of legal or political interest as well as some works of great literary acclaim.1 However, pertaining to the philosophy of science and the theory of scientific change, Bacon’s most significant contribution was in developing the Baconian methodology of science that was then adapted by the Cartesian and Newtonian schools, and still has many common elements to most current methodologies such as ascribing value to experimentation and inductive generalization. He also further developed the problem of sensations and the problem of induction, and proposed a solution to the problem of sensations. Initially, Bacon’s Novum Organum (in reference to Aritotle’s work Organon, the foundation of Aristotelian logic) was published as the first two books in a much larger collection known as Insuratio Magna which promised to be an even greater, six book reformulation of natural philosophy although most of the collection was never written and most of that which was published was incomplete. However, through these contributions, Bacon had a significant, still lasting impact on scientific methodologies and the theory of scientific knowledge.
Criticizing the Aristotelian Worldview
Although the Aristotelian mosaic that was accepted during Bacon’s education provided a deductive description of the physical world from a set of axioms in each discipline, from as early as 1603, Bacon’s writing shows that he thought that it lacked a universal structure; there was no general way of doing science that was common across all subjects.3 In particular, he believed that it was too greatly based on metaphysical foundations; there was a strong focus on natural modes of action rather than on the actual phenomena observed. In this sense, Bacon thought that the Aristotelian worldview was overly presumptuous in terms of the knowledge we are capable of gaining about the physical world. Several followers of the Aristotelian worldview, such as Telesio, sought to reformulate it with a more well-founded basis however, Bacon was still not content with their resolutions. In Bacon’s Valerius Terminus, one can see that he argues that natural philosophy and divinity should be disconnected from one another, thereby further criticizing the accepted scientific mosaic which contained theology as one of its cornerstones.3
In his 1605 publication The Advancement of Learning, Bacon continues to reject the traditional Aristotelian school of thought since the Aristotelian logic puts its main emphasis on metaphysics and claims that which is revealed to our senses is necessarily the true behavior of reality.3 Effectively, he argues that the Aristotelian logic fails to take into account the problem of sensations and thus is not a sufficient system of enquiry in natural philosophy. He also criticizes the techniques of learning and writing about natural philosophy that were common in his time. In particular, he criticizes Cambridge University for its curricular emphasis on dialectical training, and the scholars of the time for their intellectual focus on book learning which he believed to be an ineffective way to study the physical world as no experiment or observation of the world could be made in this way.3 Here, Bacon first expressed his belief that experimentation should be of the foremost importance to studying the physical world, an element of the Baconian methodology that is still today employed.
Empiricism and the Baconian Methodology
In his Novum Organum, Bacon introduced his “true directions concerning the interpretation of nature”.6 This text was his normative manual for how he believed science should be done and in it, he lays the foundations for what would become the first empiricist methodology of science. It was in this text that Bacon first introduces the notion that scientists could learn about the world, rather than by thinking about it intuitively as was the Aristotelian tradition, but by making observations, collecting evidence, and then using this evidence to inductively make generalized claims about the world.3 This inductive approach was new to science and, although not initially accepted, eventually became a foundational element of how scientists conducted their research. Bacon argued that, under similar conditions, similar phenomena occur and so, if we seek to understand how the world works, we need to look at the conditions that lead to certain phenomena and generalize these observations to make causal statements about how the physical world behaves.
According to Bacon’s proposed methodology, in order to learn about the world, one must carry out careful experiments, ensuring that their experimental method only minimally disturbs the system being measured. Then, by observing trends in the collected data of these experiments, one may make more general claims about how the world works by applying induction to the observations. Then, by taking these generalizations to be new axioms, Bacon posits that one may repeat the process again, ever expanding the body of accumulated scientific knowledge. If a scientist were to compare the list of all events wherein a given phenomenon occurs and a list of all the events wherein that same phenomenon does not occur, and they rank each event by the degree to which that phenomenon occurs, then by tracking the other trends that move in a similar fashion to the trends of the given phenomenon, according to Bacon, one may logically deduce the causal structure of that phenomenon.6 By deducing more and more such causal structures, one may gradually approach a general scientific theory that describes the physical world with perfect accuracy and thus one may advance towards some true description of physical reality.
Bacon was not an instrumentalist however, he did believe that, only by interrogating nature itself, can we reach an understanding of its true form that can be of any practical significance.5 The major shift from the Aristotelian methodology to Bacon’s methodology was that the former drew generalized conclusions from individual observations and took these to be axiomatic, and then proceeded deductively to derive its scientific theories whereas the later supposes that the scientific theories are themselves the generalized axioms arrived upon through experimentation and observation; Bacon puts the generalization of observations as the conclusion rather than as the premise as the Aristotelians did.5 Furthermore, for Bacon, science was meant to be a democratic, collaborative endeavour where the people worked together towards a common goal rather than a subject shrouded in mystery that only an elite few could ever learn.5
In Bacon’s celebrated Novum Organum, he describes a version of what is known as the problem of sensations. He said that, in perceiving the world, the human mind is subject to certain imperceptible faults that deceive our perceptions and sensations of the world around us which he refers to as idols.63
This set of idols is four-fold in variety.63 The first kind, known as the idols of the tribe, pertain the way in which the human mind may perceive order and regularity when there is none; it is possible for us to think that we are observing a pattern when in fact what we are seeing is chaotic. The second type of idols are the idols of the cave wherein an individual has a biased perspective based on their own individual preferences; if an individual likes or dislikes something, this will influence how they understand the world before them. The third variety of idols, the idols of the marketplace, arise from the fact that the language used in scientific discourse often uses the same vocabulary as ordinary speech but ascribes different meanings to certain words. As a result, multiple scientists may appear to be talking about the same subject but have different images in their minds of what they are referring to. The final kind of idols are the idols of the theatre; scientists may blindly accept scientific dogma without thinking critically.
According to Bacon,6 these four categories of idols form the set of flaws in human perception that cause us to misinterpret the natural world. These idols were, for Bacon, the true root of the problem of sensations; we cannot trust our sensations because our minds are fundamentally flawed by these errors in perception. Bacon also claimed a hypothesis known as Veracitas Naturae (the truthfulness of nature) where he supposed that nature never deceives us when we look upon it from an uninhibited perspective and therefore, the only problem with sensations is the problem of the idols; if one could eliminate the idols, one could totally trust one’s sensory experience and could thus truly construct a theory of the natural world strictly by making observations. In this sense, Bacon, salvages the validity of empiricism from the problem of sensations (at least as he understood it), thus allowing him to construct his empirical methodology. This argument has been criticized by later thinkers, but Bacon’s discussion of the idols nonetheless introduces to us some of the possible ways in which our perception of the physical world may be inhibited by our own senses and our own mind.
In the modern era, many regard the works of Bacon to have been a significant step forward in the advancement of science. However, initially his work was not quite so ubiquitously accepted. When his writing made its way to France, it was not understood entirely.5 Descartes himself believed that we should have some means of gathering facts about the world without imposing any theory on these facts and claimed that Bacon’s method was greatly complimentary to this goal however, he failed to acknowledge the broader impact of Bacon’s natural philosophy, neglecting entirely his hypothesis of induction and the broader impact of his theory on social and political phenomena. Similarly, Marsenne, another French philosopher and theologian who sought to remove occultism and mysticism from scientific discourse focussed on the significance of Bacon’s arguments against the Aristotelian worldview, but rejected his new method of scientific inquiry.5 Likewise, Pierre Gassendi, a French philosopher, astronomer, and priest, criticized Bacon’s use of induction in his scientific logic on the basis that it is not able to prove anything further than any ordinary syllogism.5 The initial reception of Bacon’s new methodology was critical and, at times, confused.
In the years following Bacon’s work, many accepted his view that experiments should be involved in the process of scientific inquiry however, much of his more foundational philosophy and logic was ignored. The development of British empiricism, though similar to Bacon’s work in several respect, was not based on Bacon’s own work but rather, the likes of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and others in fact followed the tradition of the Cartesian philosophers who studied Bacon but largely ignored important elements of his philosophy.5 Experimentalism survived, but his views on induction and the idols of our sensations were largely ignored by those immediately following him. As such, although empiricism eventually became the foundation for science, it was not directly due to Baconian empiricism.
Here are the works of Bacon included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:
- Bacon (2012): Bacon, Francis. (2012) The Oxford Francis Bacon I: Early Writings 1584-1596. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2011): Bacon, Francis. (2011) The Oxford Francis Bacon VIII: Historie of King Henry VII. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2007): Bacon, Francis. (2007) The Oxford Francis Bacon XII: Historia Naturalis. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2004): Bacon, Francis. (2004) The Oxford Francis Bacon XI: Novum Organum. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2000b): Bacon, Francis. (2000) The Oxford Francis Bacon IV: Advancement of Learning. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2000d): Bacon, Francis. (2000) The Oxford Francis Bacon XV: The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2000a): Bacon, Francis. (2000) A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (2000c): Bacon, Francis. (2000) The Oxford Francis Bacon XIII: Last Writings. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (1998): Bacon, Francis. (1998) The History of the Reign of King Henry VII and Selected Works. Cambridge University Press.
- Bacon (1996b): Bacon, Francis. (1996) The Oxford Francis Bacon VI: Philosophical Studies 1611-1619. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (1996a): Bacon, Francis. (1996) Collected Works of Francis Bacon. Routledge/Thoemmes Press.
- Bacon (1968): Bacon, Francis. (1968) The Works of Francis Bacon. Garrett.
- Bacon (1965): Bacon, Francis. (1965) The Advancement of Learning. Everyman's Library.
- Bacon (1962): Bacon, Francis. (1962) Essays. J. M. Dent & Sons.
- Bacon (1958): Bacon, Francis. (1958) Essays. Everyman's Library.
- Bacon (1920): Bacon, Francis. (1920) The Advancement of Learning. Oxford Clarendon Press.
- Bacon (1901b): Bacon, Francis. (1901) Novum Organum. Collier.
- Bacon (1901a): Bacon, Francis. (1901) The Works of Francis Bacon. NA.
- Bacon (1898): Bacon, Francis. (1898) Novum Organum or True Suggestions for the Interpretation of Nature. NA.
- Bacon (1878): Bacon, Francis. (1878) Bacon’s Novum Organum. Clarendon Press.
- Bacon (1874): Bacon, Francis. (1874) The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts..
- Bacon (1861): Bacon, Francis. (1861) The Works of Francis Bacon. Taggard and Thompson.
- Bacon (1859): Bacon, Francis. (1859) The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England. Parry & McMillan.
- Bacon (1855): Bacon, Francis. (1855) The Novum organon, or a true guide to the interpretation of nature. Oxford University Press.
- Bacon (1853): Bacon, Francis. (1853) The Essays, or, Counsels, Civil and Moral. John W. Parker & Son.
- Bacon (1613): Bacon, Francis. (1613) The Essaies of Sir Francis Bacon. His Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. I. Iaggard.
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- Jones, Meredith. (1868) Biographies of Great Men. T. Nelson and Sons.
- Marguerite Lea, Kathleen and Quinton, Anthony. (2017) Francis Bacon. Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Klein, Jurgen. (2016) Francis Bacon. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016).
- Lovejoy, Benjamin. (1888) Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam) : a critical review of his life and character with selections from his writings. British Law: Constitutional Law: Special Topics.
- Briggs, John and Peltonen, Markku. (1996) The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge University Press.
- Bacon, Francis. (1878) Bacon’s Novum Organum. Clarendon Press.