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  • David C. Innes

The Novelty and Genius of Francis Bacon

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

For over two hundred years, the scientific and philosophic cognoscente lauded Francis Bacon as the father of modern science, i.e., of our technological mastery over nature. It was not just Abraham Cowley of the Royal Society who compared Bacon to Moses and his vision of man enthroned over nature to the promised land. Rousseau considered him, along with Descartes, one of the "preceptors of the human race." John Dewey, in Reconstruction in Philosophy (1950), called him "the real founder of modern thought."


Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans

It has become common these days to withdraw such credit. Many take the position that Bacon was a mere popularizer of what many true scientists were doing before and during his time. Or they say that his method was insufficiently mathematical or that it simply bears little resemblance to what science has become.

Paolo Rossi, a great scholar of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment period and of Francis Bacon in particular, offers this well-supported assessment of Bacon's importance as a founder in Philosophy, Technology and the Arts in the Early Modern Era (1962, 1970[tr.]).


The founders of the Royal Society, the authors of the great Enlightenment encyclopedias, and not a few positivist historians and philosophers of the nineteenth century, were fond of the portrait of Bacon as the "father of modern science" because of his discovery of the inductive method. But to consider Bacon still from this point of view would be tantamount, as Benjamin Farrington has trenchantly observed, to placing him on an inappropriate pedestal in an inappropriate part of the gallery.

Nevertheless, the facts remains that when Bacon turned to the mechanical arts, considering them capable of revealing the actual processes of nature, and saw in them that capacity to give rise to inventions and works absent in the traditional knowledge--when polemicising against the logic of the schools, he projected a history of the arts and of technics as an indispensable prerequisite to the reform of learning--he truly became the spokesman for the fundamental demands for the culture of his time. Bacon brought to full awareness some of the thematic ideas that had been making slow headway at the margins of the official science in that world of technicians, engineers, and builders to which men like Biringuccio and Agricola had belonged (pp.117f.).


Many of Bacon's published thoughts on science were not original to him, even some of his more penetrating formulations. But he brought together, perfected, and gave force to what had been developing for a couple of centuries. That goes far beyond being a mere "popularizer."

Rossi documents that many of Bacon's criticisms of the medieval bookish approach to science and his great esteem for the practical over the merely theoretical were circulating among artisans and men of practical inquiry in the generations leading up to his own. Late medieval Europeans were not people of democratic views. There were noble classes and vulgar classes. Accordingly, there were activities suited to the dignity of a gentleman and there were activities as well as objects of study that were beneath him. The mechanical arts were considered base.


The defense of the mechanical arts against the charge of baseness, and the rejection of the notions that culture coincides with the horizon of the liberal arts and that practical operations are tantamount to servile labor, in reality implied the rejection of a certain conception of science, namely, of science as a disinterested contemplation of the truth... (p.x).


Whereas as early as 1603 Bacon called people to put their hope in a new "commerce between the mind and things," Bernard Palissy, a distinguished French potter (N.B. practical, base), claimed in 1580 that the art of observing nature must be founded on a "cult of things" as opposed to bookish learning and philosophical speculation (p.2). Bacon was not the first to emphasize the importance of closing with things themselves if there was to be any great progress in multiplying inventions. On the other hand, Bacon had far more in mind that Palissy, a potter, ever could.

Robert Norman, an English sailor who manufactured magnetic compasses and wrote on magnetism, was already in 1581 attacking the Western philosophic tradition for its indifference to the practical fruit of inventions. He condemned the "learned" for "promising much and performing little or nothing at all" (p.5). Bacon despised them as boys, who talk but cannot generate (NO I.lxxi). He took his place among many who expected far more than the ancients and their followers could deliver, but his place was not among equals. The others saw some of the problem, and, accordingly, only some of the solution.

In the writings of various artisans and philosophers between 1530 and 1580, Rossi notices,


(1) the procedures of artisans, engineers, and technicians have a value for the ends of the progress of knowledge; (2) such procedures are recognized as having the dignity of cultural facts; and (3) men of culture must give up their contempt for "operations" or "practice" and discard every conception of knowledge that is merely rhetorical or contemplative to turn to the observation and study of techniques and the arts (pp.10f.).


While this statement makes it seem as though the cultural battle that must precede the wide embrace and successful execution of science was won, it was not so, and Rossi does not mean to suggest it was. Bacon took up that fight to his dying day because it was far from over and it required his genius for victory to fall to scientific civilization. A century and half after Bacon's death, in 1680, Richelet's Dictionnaire Français, in its article on "Méchanique," says, "This term, speaking of particular arts, signifies that which is the opposite of liberal and honorable; it has the connotation of baseness and of being little worthy of an honest person." Much later still, Rossi tells us, "the French Jesuits were scandalized by what they thought was an excessive number of articles on technical subjects in Diderot's Encyclopédie" (p.12).

The great artists of the Renaissance helped eventually to dignify the practical arts with social respectability. But it took time. Again Rossi:


As Antal reminds us, in the fourteenth century art was still considered a manual skill. The artist was addressed with the familiar "thou" as were domestic servants. ... Almost all artists of the early fifteenth century came out of artisan, peasant, and petty-bourgeois melieus. Andrea del Castagno was the son of a peasant, Paolo Uccello of a barber, Filippo Lippi [1406-1469] of a butcher. ... The goldsmith's art was common to painters and sculptors. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Ghirlandaio were all goldsmiths at first (pp. 21f.).


Despite these facts, the Renaissance artist of the fifteenth century was rising socially. As Rossi puts it, "No affluent citizens and nobles would have considered the artist's status humiliating" (p.21). Rossi traces this change in people's estimate of art and artists to "the increasingly profane character of artistic production, to the ever greater weight of the opinion of lay persons, as well as to the social transition of artists from the status of artisans to that of bourgeois. Whereas Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had been not only a painter and sculptor, but also an engineer, architect, and many other things, by the mid-sixteenth century, "commissions of an artisan character no longer appears in keeping with the dignity of the artists. This was the age when Charles V stopped to pick up the brush dropped by Titian [d. 1576]" (p.22).

We note from this, however, that artisans and engineers remained objects of disdain among the powerful and well born. Bacon labored not simply to defend the benefits and dignity of the mechanical arts. While the mechanic had been able to gain some insight into the workings of nature by his attention to "things" and had produced useful works, this field of activity was not the answer to the miserable condition of mankind.

In the New Organon (I.v), Bacon points us beyond this type of labor. "The study of nature with a view to works is engaged in by the mechanic, the mathematician, the physician, the alchemist, and the magician; but by all (as things now are) with slight endeavor and scanty success." Engineers have done good work with what they know, but a true attention to "things" will produce an understanding of nature's inner workings, formulated into "axioms." "The productions of the mind and hand seem very numerous in books and manufactures. But all this variety lies in an exquisite subtlety and derivations from a few things already known, not in the number of axioms" (NO I.vii). These can be derived only from what he called experiments of light, which are to be preferred over what were overhastily and exclusively pursued as experiments of fruit, and these would have to proceed by the disciplined method of investigation that he was proposing. "For axioms rightly discovered and established supply practice with its instruments, not one by one, but in clusters, and draw after them trains and troops of works" (NO I.lxx).

But to get to this point, people's approach to the world, one another, and all things had to be democratized. Bacon had to undermine and bury all notions of noble and base. We see that in New Organon Book I, aphorisms 119-121, where he calls serious searchers into the secrets of nature and all those who are ambitious to bring her under human dominion to overcome their indisposition to investigate things that are common, mean, or subtle.


And for things that are mean or even filthy — things which (as Pliny says) must be introduced with an apology — such things, no less than the most splendid and costly, must be admitted into natural history. Nor is natural history polluted thereby, for the sun enters the sewer no less than the palace, yet takes no pollution. And for myself, I am not raising a capitol or pyramid to the pride of man, but laying a foundation in the human understanding for a holy temple after the model of the world. That model therefore I follow. For whatever deserves to exist deserves also to be known, for knowledge is the image of existence; and things mean and splendid exist alike. Moreover, as from certain putrid substances — musk, for instance, and civet — the sweetest odors are sometimes generated, so, too, from mean and sordid instances there sometimes emanates excellent light and information (NO I.cxx).


Think of the many and various breathless investigations that had to be undertaken before we could come to the understanding that there was much useful information hidden within stool samples. The humor in the Scrubs number, "Check the Poo," is premised on the still common notion that looking into these things is beneath human dignity. But a scientist sets aside all such notions of dignity and nobility. Or at least he does today. Bacon had to argue for an attitudinal reorientation to get us here. Thus he entitled one of his major works defending his new science, Of the DIGNITY and Advancement of Learning. Learning had always been considered dignified...but not the sort of learning that Bacon argued was necessary to raise the dignity of the human race in power and comfort.

Howard White, in his seminal work Peace Among the Willows (1968), calls this new moral understanding that Bacon not only presents in argument but also insinuates with rhetoric his provisional morality. We see it largely in the Essays. "One has to see what kind of men are to take us from the world where politics controls science to the world where science is to control politics..." (p.43). The men of the future in whom Bacon's provisional morality has taken hold will be "the kind of men who are intended to take the voyage to the New Atlantis..." (p.32; also p.16). But once we all land on the shores of that blessed future and the regime of science takes charge, Bacon expects that we will transition to what White calls the "definitive morality" that Bacon pictures, albeit subtly in New Atlantis. The provisional is what we would call democratic, though not immediately and obviously, but the definitive is far more regimented than the mess that is individual liberty.

But I digress.

While many of these ideas were in the air that Bacon was breathing, and quite self-consciously, Bacon went far beyond them. Rossi points beyond these ideas to Bacon's novelty.


The appeal to "nature" and "experience" so widespread in the culture of the Renaissance (what type of knowledge and what culture, after all, do not appeal to a certain "nature and to a certain "experience"), the rejection of authority (Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy), the "disputation" with the "ancients," and insistence upon the necessity of observation as such do not themselves imply acceptance of this ideal view of science.

This ideal has a public, democratic, and collaborative character, composed of individual contributions organized in the form of a scientific discourse and offered with the view of achieving a general success which becomes the patrimony of mankind. This conception of science, which found its first expression on a "philosophical" plane in the work of Francis Bacon, played a crucial role in the formation of the idea of progress...(p.64).


Tomasso Campanella, in his utopian work The City of the Sun (1602; published in Latin, 1623), expressed the hope people had in this notion of progress, linked as it was to the conquest of nature through an explosion of inventions, and that was buzzing among those who were at the forefront of learning. "Oh, if you knew what our astrologers say of the coming age, and of our age, that it has in it more history within a hundred years than all the world had in four thousand years before, of the wonderful invention of printing and guns and the use of the magnet..." (Rossi p.65). But he really had no way of getting there. It took Bacon to provide the instrument, the reliably effective organon.

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