Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)

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Francis Bacon, Baron Veralum, Viscount St. Albans, gained renown both as an English statesman and a natural philosopher. Bacon was instrumental in the replacement of Aristotelian natural philosophy, effecting a major shift to thinking about the natural world in exclusively empirical and experimental terms, although he remained entrenched in Aristotelian thought to a significant degree. His achievement was twofold: First, he transformed the discipline of philosophy from something contemplative that focused above all on moral questions into something practical that focused centrally on questions in natural philosophy (what is now called science). Second, his work in the natural sciences resulted in the formulation of precepts that are now regarded as foundation stones of the inductive modern scientific method: moving inferentially from observable effects to deeper underlying causes and eliminating various possible explanations by testing their consequences against experiment or observation.


Bacon was born on January, 22, 1561, the eldest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper of the Great Seal, and Ann, second daughter of Sir Anthony Coke, known for her strong Protestant sympathies. Bacon attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1573 to 1575, but moved to Gray's Inn in 1575, traveling to Francewhere he came into contact with Italian republican ideasin 1576 and remaining there until his father's death in 1579. From that time onward he began a career in law and politics that took him from his first parliamentary seat (1581), admission to the bar (1582), deputy chief steward of the Duchy of Lancaster (1594), solicitor general (1607), attorney general (1613), member of the Privy Council (1616), lord keeper of the Great Seal (1617), to his being created viscount of St. Albans in 1621. In that same year he was impeached and spent the rest of his life in comparative isolation from the court society he had enjoyed for the previous fifteen years. He died on April 9, 1626. His death has traditionally been attributed to his contracting pneumonia as a result of leaving his carriage to test the preserving effects of cold on a chicken, but it is more likely that he died of an overdose of inhaled niter or opiates, self-prescribed to cure a long-running illness.

His intellectual career falls into three stages. From 1592 to 1602, his main concern was the reform of English law. From 1602 to around 1620, he worked on a very ambitious project in natural philosophy, advocating a form of atomism and setting out a new method of inquiry in natural philosophy, as well as investigating a huge number of topics in natural history. Around 1620 he began to publish parts of his grand scheme on a systematic basis, although Bacon could never be called a systematic philosopher. His plans for the reform of natural philosophy were not taken seriously by his English contemporaries during his lifetime, but within a few years of his death, critics of contemporary natural philosophy and founders of scientific academies in Italy, France, and England took him as their model, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century his name was linked with Newton's among the founders of modern science.

Law and Rhetoric

Bacon's first attempts at reform were in the area of law rather than natural philosophy. The law offered guidance on three questions that would subsequently make it a model for his proposed reform of natural philosophy: the reliability of testimony, what should be concluded from particular testimonies, and how one decided the relevance of particular laws to the case. It was the third of these that he saw most in need of reform, and he set out to investigate how the law might be systematized, how regular records and reviews of legal decisions might be provided, and whether some firm foundations for legal practice might be discovered. What is at issue here is what was referred to as the "discovery" of law. It was a shared premise that the law was structured in accord with reason and that this structure enabled one, in cases where the laws did not give a clear indication of infringements, to appeal to the implicit message of the common law. On the assumption that the law covered every eventuality, the task was to find one's way through its rational structure. The questions to which Bacon directed himself particularly were whether there was an optimal procedure by which to discover that rational structure and what the ultimate source of authority was in the case of dispute.

Bacon's emphasis on the role for discovery in the legal thinking reflects a concern with rhetoric, which plays a crucial role in both his proposed reform of the law and that of natural philosophy. The task of rhetoric was the formulation, organization, and expression of one's ideas in a coherent and compelling way. It was designed to help one find one's way around the comprehensive body of learning built up from antiquity, to recognize where appropriate evidence and arguments might be found, and to provide models that were designed to give one a sense of what was needed if a particular question was to be investigated, or a particular position defended, models that would be shared with those to whom one was expounding or defending one's case. Rhetoric, in Bacon's view, should help to focus the mental powers, to organize one's thoughts in the most economical fashion, and even (in writers like Quintilian) to provide vivid images or representations of situations that enabled one to convince oneself of a case (important especially in acting and in legal argument). It was designed to provide models to show one how particular kinds of case were best defended, depending on such facts as the availability of and complexity of the evidence and the knowledge, opinions, or prejudices of the audience toward which one was directing one's arguments.

At a general level, rhetoric was deemed to be indifferent to subject matter because comprehensive procedures were recommended that would aid a case or investigation, scientific or a legal, although there would be similarities or analogies (as regards the standing of various kinds of evidence, for example) and dissimilarities (as regards the means of evidence collection, for example) between legal cases and those in natural philosophy. The law, taken in a broad sense, was seen as a paradigm case for rhetorical writers: Rhetorical treatises were often explicitly directed toward lawyers and legislators, and examples were geared to the kinds of problems that arose in law. In light of this, it is only to be expected that using a rhetorical model for knowledgethat is, a model that gives direction on how to collect and assess evidence for a view, how to make a judgment on the basis of that evidence, and how to establish the correctness of judgment, using precepts derived from the study of rhetoricis in many respects using a legal model.

Rhetoric provided a theoretical foundation for the law, something which, at a practical level, worked with elaborate procedures for the gathering, assessing, and testing of evidence. This was exactly the kind of thing that Bacon had in mind for natural philosophy. What was unusual about his application of precepts learned from rhetoric and law to natural philosophy was that he used them to propose a fundamental reform of philosophy. While Bacon started from a consideration of the law, however, law did not act as a model in its own right. Its importance arose from the fact that (especially once it had been reformed along Baconian lines) it exemplified a rhetorically motivated account of discovery. This holds the key to Bacon's enterprise.

The best way to understand this reform is in terms of the pervasive Renaissance contrast, often drawn in classical terms, between the life of contemplation (otium ) and the life of practical, productive activity (negotium ). There had been a decisive shift in favor of the latter in sixteenth-century England. In particular, there was a stress on practical questions and the practical uses of learning; and philosophyabove all Scholastic philosophywas widely regarded as a useless discipline that fostered argument for its own sake, never getting anywhere and never producing anything of value. Moreover, morality was widely seen as the key philosophical topic (following the Ciceronian model current in Renaissance Europe), and a number of Elizabethan thinkers, most notably the poet Sir Philip Sidney, were arguing that poetry was superior to philosophy because philosophy could only discourse on the nature of goodness, whereas poetry could actually move people to goodness, which was the point of the exercise.

Bacon did two things: He shifted philosophy from otium to negotium, and he made natural philosophy replace moral philosophy as the center of the philosophical enterprise. The combination of these two (and they are intimately connected) is a radical move that marks a decisive break not only with earlier conceptions of philosophy but also with earlier understandings of the task of the philosopher.

Natural philosophy existed in a number of forms in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there were two extreme forms. The first was exemplified by alchemy, an esoteric but practical discipline that had little connection with traditional philosophical practice and that suffered, in Bacon's view, from a lack of structure that produced few results, with most of that paucity attributable to chance. At the other extreme was Scholastic natural philosophy, an intensely theoretical discipline that, in Bacon's view, produced nothing at all; despite its great sophistication, it turned out to be almost exclusively verbal.

Bacon wanted something that could deliver the advantages of each of these without any of the disadvantages. He wanted something that would provide a detailed theoretical overview of the natural realm such that natural processes could not only be understood but, more importantly, also transformed on the basis of this understanding; this is the context of his famous dictum "knowledge is power." The ultimate aim was to transform natural processes for the common good (to be decided by the sovereign, on Bacon's view), and it was this, rather than some contemplative understanding of nature, that provided the rationale for natural philosophy and, by extension, philosophy per se.

Bacon himself formulated his project in terms of a politico-religious restoration of human dominion over the natural world, something lost with Adam's expulsion from Eden. Natural philosophy thereby gained a religious imperative, albeit one with little connection with traditional theology.

The Doctrine of Idols

If rhetoric is the first ingredient in Bacon's account of method, the second is a distinctive understanding of why the need for method arises. Here Bacon's stress on a psychological dimension of knowledge is important: Questions of presentation of knowledge are not only recognized to be important but also have to be understood, where such an understanding is not supplementary to epistemology but actually part of it. At one level, there is nothing new in this, for it is simply part of a long tradition that begins in earnest with the Roman rhetoricians; but although it borrows from Greek writers, it is rather different from the approach to epistemological questions that we find in the classical Greek and Hellenistic philosophers. When one thinks of Bacon's general project in this context, it becomes clear that there is something novel here. For natural philosophy had generally been the preserve of Greek philosophy and had been pursued in a similar way by Scholastic philosophers. The Roman tradition, with the exception of Lucretius, had typically not concerned itself with speculative natural-philosophical questions, dealing instead with practical moral, political, and legal questions. In thinking of persuasion in terms of a psychological theory, of psychological theory as part of epistemology, and of epistemology as being directed primarily toward natural philosophy, Bacon was able to provide himself with some of the resources to recast natural philosophy not as a speculative but as a practical discipline.

This psychological dimension of epistemology is brought out fully in Bacon's doctrine of the "idols of the mind." These idols "do not deceive in particulars, as the others do, by clouding and snaring the judgment; but by a corrupt and ill-ordered predisposition of the mind, which as it were perverts and infects all the anticipations of the intellect." The second part of the "Great Instauration," which aims at the renewal of learning, is devoted to the "invention of knowledge" and has two components, one aiming to rid the mind of preconceptions, the other to guide the mind in a productive direction. These components are interconnected, for until we understand the nature of the mind's preconceptions, we do not know in what direction we need to lead its thinking. In other words, various natural inclinations of the mind must be purged before the new procedure can be set in place. Bacon's approach here is genuinely different from that of his predecessors, as he realizes. Logic or method in themselves cannot simply be introduced to replace bad habits of thought because it is not simply a question of replacement. The simple application of logic to one's mental processes is insufficient.

In his doctrine of the four idols of the mind, Bacon provides an account of the systematic forms of error to which the mind is subject, and this is a crucial part of his epistemology. It is in his treatment of internal impediments, the "idols," that the question is raised of what psychological or cognitive state we must be in to be able to pursue natural philosophy in the first place. Bacon believes an understanding of nature of a kind that had never been achieved since the Fall is possible in his own time because the distinctive obstacles that have held up all previous attempts have been identified, in what is in many respects a novel theory of what might traditionally have been treated under a theory of the passions, one directed specifically at natural-philosophical practice.

The "idols of the tribe" derive from human nature itself, above all from "the homogeneity of the substance of the human mind, or from its preoccupation, or from its narrowness, or from its restless motion, or from an infusion of the affections, or from the incompetence of the senses, or from the mode of impression." (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 5859). The idols of the tribe affect everyone equally and are manifested in an eagerness to suppose that there is more order and regularity in nature than there actually is; in the tendency to neglect or ignore counterexamples to one's theories; in the tendency to extrapolate from striking cases with which one is familiar to all other cases; in the restlessness of the human mind, which means it is not satisfied with perfectly good fundamental explanations, mistakenly and constantly seeking some more fundamental cause ad infinitum; and in the tendency to believe true what one would like to be true.

The "idols of the cave," we are told, "take their rise in the peculiar constitution, mental or bodily, of each individual; and also in education, habit, and accident" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 59). They include fascination with a particular subject, which leads to overhasty generalization; the readiness of some minds to focus on differences, and some to focus on similarities and resemblances, while a balance is difficult to attain naturally; and the fact that some minds are overly attracted to antiquity and some to novelty. Finally, there are those who are concerned wholly with material constitution at the expense of structure (the ancient atomists) and those who are concerned wholly with structure at the expense of material constitution.

These examples bring to light a very significant difference between the idols of the tribe and idols of the cave. There seems to be a set of routine procedures one can go through to remedy the situation in the latter case, procedures provided by the positive part of Bacon's doctrineeliminative inductionwhereas the case of idols of the tribe is, in most cases, much more difficult to remedy.

The third kind of idols, those of the marketplace derive from the fact that we have to express and communicate our thoughts by means of language, which contains systematic deficiencies. One kind of problem with language lies in the fact that words "are commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar, and follow those lines of division which are most obvious to the vulgar understanding. And whenever an understanding of greater acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist the change" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 61). This leads to two kinds of linguistically induced deficiencies. First, language provides names that refer to things that do not exist, such as "Fortune, Prime Mover, Planetary Orbits, Element of Fire, and like fictions that owe their origin to false and idle theories" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 61). The solution here is simply to get rid of the theories that give rise to these fictitious entities.

The second kind of case is not so straightforward. It arises because words have multiple and/or ill-defined meanings, and this is especially so in the case of terms such as humid that have been abstracted from observation. Bacon discerns a gradation in the "degrees of distortion and error" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 62) of terms, beginning with names of substances, where the degree of distortion is low, proceeding through the names of actions, and finally reaching the names of qualitieshe gives the examples of "heavy, light, rare, dense" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 62)where the degree of distortion is high.

Finally, the fourth kinds of impediment, the idols of the theater, are innate neither in the mind nor in language but are acquired from a corrupt philosophical culture and its perverse rules of demonstration. Here a general remedy is available, namely following Bacon's positive methodological prescriptions: "The course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level. For as in the drawing of a straight lines or a perfect circle, much depends on the steadiness and practice of the hand, but if with the aid of a rule or compass, little or nothing; so is it exactly with my plan" (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 6263).

One of the great values of Bacon's account of the idols is that it allows him to make the case for method in a particularly compelling way. Indeed, never has the need for method been set out more forcefully, for Bacon's advocacy of method is not simply an aid to discovery. He argues that we pursue natural philosophy with seriously deficient natural faculties, we operate with a severely inadequate means of communication, and we rely on a hopelessly corrupt philosophical culture. In many respects, these are beyond remedy. The practitioners of natural philosophy certainly need to reform their behavior, overcome their natural inclinations and passions, but not so that, in doing this, they might aspire to a natural, prelapsarian state in which they might know things as they are with an unmediated knowledge. This they will never achieve. Rather, the reform of behavior is a discipline to which they must subject themselves if they are to be able to follow a procedure which is, in many respects, quite contrary to their natural inclinations, which is at odds with traditional conceptions of the natural philosopher, and which is indeed subversive of their individuality.

Eliminative Induction

What Bacon is seeking from a method of discovery is something that modern philosophers would deem impossibly strong: the discovery of causes that are both necessary and sufficient for their effects. Why place such strong constraints on causation, so that we call something a cause only when the effect always occurs in the presence of this thing and never in its absence? What Bacon (like Aristotle before him) is after are the ultimate explanations of things, and it is natural to assume that ultimate explanations are unique. Bacon's method is designed to provide a route to such explanations, and the route takes us through a number of proposed causal accounts, which are refined at each stage. The procedure he elaborates, eliminative induction, is one in which various possibly contributory factors are isolated and examined in turn, to see whether they do in fact make a contribution to the effect. Those that do not are rejected, and the result is a convergence on those factors that are truly relevant. The kind of "relevance" that Bacon is after is, in effect, a set of necessary conditions: the procedure is supposed to enable us to weed out those factors that are not necessary for the production of the effect, so that we are left only with those that are necessary.

Bacon provides an example of how the method works in the case of color. We take, as our starting point, some combination of substances that produces whitenessthat is, we start with what are sufficient conditions for the production of whiteness, and then we remove from these anything not necessary for the color. First, we note that if air and water are mixed together in small portions, the result is white, as in snow or waves. Here we have the sufficient conditions for whiteness, but not the necessary conditions, so next we increase the scope, substituting any transparent uncolored substance for water, whence we find that glass or crystal, on being ground, become white, and albumen, which is initially a watery transparent substance, on having air beaten into it, becomes white. Third, we further increase the scope and ask what happens in the case of colored substances. Amber and sapphire become white on being ground, and wine and beer become white when brought to a froth.

The substances considered up to this stage have all been "more grossly transparent than air." Bacon next considers flame, which is less grossly transparent than air, and argues that the mixture of the fire and air makes the flame whiter. The upshot of this is that water is sufficient for whiteness but not necessary for it. He continues in the same vein, asking next whether air is necessary for whiteness. He notes that a mixture of water and oil is white, even when the air has been evaporated from it, so air is not necessary for whiteness; but is a transparent substance necessary? Bacon does not continue with the chain of questions after this point but sets out some conclusions, namely that bodies whose parts are unequal but in simple proportion are white, those whose parts are in equal proportions are transparent, those whose parts are proportionately unequal are colors, and those whose parts are absolutely unequal are black. In other words, this is the conclusion that might be expected of the method of sifting out what is necessary for the phenomenon and what is not, although Bacon himself does not provide the route to this conclusion here.

This being the case, one can ask what his confidence in his conclusion derives from if he has not been able to complete the "induction" himself. The answer is that it derives from the consequences he can draw from his account. There are two ways in which the justification for the conclusions can be assessed: by the procedure of eliminative induction that he has just set out and by the consequences of those conclusions generated by it. In other words, there is a two-way process, from empirical phenomena to first principles, and then from first principles to empirical phenomena. This is a classic Aristotelian procedure. Where Bacon's version of it differs is in how the first step is carried out, and the difference turns on the use of eliminative induction.

Bacon's treatment of heat in Novum Organum follows essentially the same route, albeit in a more elaborate way. The first thing to do, he tells us, is to list "instances agreeing in the nature of heat," that is, a list of those cases in which heat is present: the rays of the sun, reflected rays, meteors, thunderbolts, volcanic eruptions, flame, burning solids, natural warm-baths, boiling liquids, hot vapors and fumes, fine cloudless days, air confined underground, wool and down, bodies held near a fire, sparks, rubbed bodies, confined vegetable matter, quick lime sprinkled with water, metals dissolved in acids or alkalis, the insides of animals, horse dung, strong oil of sulfur and of vitriol (i.e. sulphuric acid), oil of marjoram, rectified spirit of wine, aromatic herbs (which are hot to the palate), strong vinegar and acids (which burn those parts of the body where there is no epidermis, such as the surface of the eye), and, finally, intense cold, which can produce a burning effect (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 127129).

The list makes no claims to completeness, of course, but presumably it does aim to give us some idea of the range of phenomena we have to deal with. Because, on Bacon's view, a cause should not only be present when the effect is present but also absent when the effect is absent, the next step ideally would be to list those cases where the effect was absent, but this is clearly an impossible task, for the list would be infinite. So what Bacon does is to list, in some detail, counterinstances to the items of the first list: cases when heat is absent or at least where there is some doubt. So, for example, the rays of the sun are hot, but those of the moon and the stars are not; the reflections of the sun's rays are usually hot but not in the polar regions; the presence of comets (counting these as a type of meteor) does not result in warmer weather; and so on. The point of this exercise is not simply to record known counterinstances, however, but also to suggest experiments that need to be carried out to discover whether there are counterinstancesfor example, in the case of lenses and "burning mirrors," in connection with which he makes several suggestions.

Instances and counterinstances of heat are absolute questions, but we can also discover something of the nature of heat by comparative means, by making a comparison either of its increase and decrease in the same subject, or of its amount in different subjects, as compared one with another. For since the Form of a thing is the very thing itself, and the thing does not differ from the Form except in the way that the apparent differs from the real, or the external from the internal, or the thing in reference to man from the thing in reference to the universe, it necessarily follows that no nature can be taken as the true Form unless it always decreases when the nature in question decreases, and in like manner always increases when the nature in question increases. (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 137)

This procedure for discovery requires the compilation of a "table of degrees or comparison," in which the instances previously listed are examined in respect of changes in heat. Putrefaction always "contains" heat, for example; inanimate things are not hot to the touch; the heat of lower animals such as insects is barely perceptible, but higher animals are hot to the touch; the heat in animals increases as a result of motion; the heat of celestial bodies is never sufficient to set fire to things on Earth; the sun and the planets give more heat in perigee than in apogee; and so on.

It is at this point that induction comes into play. The various instances must be reviewed with a view to eliminating those natures that can be absent while heat is still found, those natures that are present even though heat is absent, and those where the heat increases or decreases without a corresponding increase or decrease in the nature. Examples of the exclusions are as follows: Because the rays of the sun sometimes warm and sometimes do not, reject the nature of the elements as the explanation for heat; because of ordinary fire and subterranean fires, reject the nature of celestial bodies; because of boiling water, reject light or brightness; and so on. This process is less reliable than it might seem, for the exclusion of some simple natures and the narrowing down to others presupposes that we know what simple natures are, whereas in fact we do not know this; but the procedures followed this far, Bacon believes, do allow us to advance finally to the interpretation of nature, or at least to the first version of that interpretation, which he refers to as "the first vintage."

It is a premise of Bacon's account that the Form that causes an effect must be present in every instance and absent in every counterinstance, but he also points out that it is more evident in some instances than in others. This is particularly so in the case of heat: The tables show that hot thingssuch as flames and boiling waterare characteristically in rapid motion and that compression puts out a fire. The tables of results show, moreover, that bodies are destroyed or changed radically by heat, indicating that heat causes a change in the internal parts of the body and perceptibly causes its dissolution. Bacon concludes that heat is a species of the general genus of motion, but before examining what marks it out from other species of motion, he removes some ambiguities from the idea of heat. Sensible heat, for example, which is relative to individuals, not to the universe, is not heat properly speaking but the effect of heat upon the animal spirits. Moreover, the communication of heat from one body to another is not to be confused with the Form of heat, for heat itself and the action of heating are two different things. Nor is fire to be confused with the Form of heat, for fire is a combination of heat and brightness.

Having removed these ambiguities, Bacon turns to heat proper. A number of things mark it out as a distinctive species of motion. First, heat is a motion that causes bodies to expand or dilate "towards the circumference"that is, in all directionsas is evident in the case of vapors or air, liquids such as boiling water, and metals such as iron, which expand when heated. Cold has the opposite effect in all cases. The second distinctive feature is that heat, aside from being a motion to the circumference, is also a motion upward. To determine whether the contrary holds in the case of cold, Bacon proposes an experiment in which a sponge soaked with cold water is placed at the bottom of one heated rod and at the top of another to determine whether one cools faster than the other. He further suggests that the one with the sponge at the top will cool the other end of the rod more quickly.

The third characteristic is that heat comprises a variety of nonuniform motion, whereby small parts of a body are moved in different ways, some motions being checked and others proceeding freely, with the result that the body experiences a constantly subsiding quivering and swelling motion. This third characteristic is evident in flames and in boiling water. Moreover, where the motion is of the whole, such as a gas escaping from confinement at great pressure, we find no heat. Bacon maintains that cooling proceeds like heating, in a nonuniform way, although the absence of great cold on the Earth makes this phenomenon less evident. Finally, the fourth characteristic of heat as a species of motion is that it acts rapidly, for comparison with the effects of age or time on the corruption of bodies shows a similar result, corruption or dissolution of bodies, and the difference must lie in the rate at which the parts of the body are penetrated. The case of cold is not mentioned here, and, unlike the first three characteristics, it is not clear just what Bacon would want to establish in the case of cold. He sums up by drawing two kinds of conclusions from this "first vintage:"

The Form or true definition of heat [is that] heat is a motion, expansive, restrained, and acting in its strife upon the smaller particles of bodies. But the expansion is thus modified; while it expands all ways, it has at the same time an inclination upwards. And the struggle in the particles is modified also; it is not sluggish, but hurried and with violence. Viewed with reference to operation it is the same thing. For the direction is this: If in any natural body you can excite a dilating or expanding motion, and can so repress this motion and turn it back upon itself, so that the dilation does not proceed equably, but can have its way in one part and is counteracted in another, you will undoubtedly generate heat. (Works 18571874, vol. 4, p. 155)

This process is only the first stage in induction for Bacon, but it is the one that is both most novel and most problematic. In particular, it is appropriate to ask just how far the process of eliminative induction gets us. After all, to go back to the case of color, it is giant leap, indeed a qualitative leap, from noting that a mixture of oil and water is white to the conclusion that Bacon seeks, namely that those bodies whose parts are in simple proportion are white. Is it plausible to suppose that the continuation of the procedure would in fact get us to the conclusion? More particularly, the "directions" that have been followed to this stage remain wholly at the macroscopic level, yet their continued application is supposed to guide us to the particular microcorpuscular internal structure of a body that makes that body white. This issue prompts two questions: whether eliminative induction generates explanations and whether it genuinely involves a process that converges to a single cause or explanation.

On the first question Aristotelians would have resisted the demand that, in seeking an explanation for a physical phenomenon, they sift through all the possibilities until they have found the cause. The question turns on the relation between explanations and causes. Although the Greeks generally did not separate questions of causality and explanation, disputes did arise about which should be given priority. Cause would be given priority if one were seeking to determine or ascribe responsibility for something. Explanation would be given priority if one were trying to provide an account of all the relevant factors concerning how something came about, without necessarily wishing to apportion blame or responsibility. It makes a considerable difference which of these views we take. The Stoics, for example, maintained that the most important thing was to determine responsibility and, as a consequence, they viewed causes as being necessarily active. This view was supported by an analogy with the law, where the person deemed responsible for an offense is the person who had done whatever it was that resulted in the offense being committed.

The physical analogue here is a body: a cause is a body that does something to affect another body in some way. On this construal, an explanation is simply a statement of a cause: cause is prior to explanation. The alternative is to make explanation prior to cause, in which case we might say that a cause is whatever figures in the explanation of an event. Take the legal analogy: if we were seeking an explanation of why an offense occurred rather than simply trying to find out who was to blame, we might look at all kinds of factors, such as the conditions under which offenses of this kind usually occur, whether preventive measures had been taken, what kinds of things motivated people to commit offenses of this kind, and so on. In natural philosophy, Aristotle makes explanations prior to causes. His famous "four causes" are, in fact, four kinds of explanation, the combination of which is designed to yield a complete understanding of the phenomenon. If we know what something is, what it is made from, how it was made, and for what end it was made, we have a complete understanding of the phenomenon. To restrict oneself effectively to efficient causes, as Bacon does, will not yield such an understanding. So Aristotelians might well resist the notion that Bacon's procedure is going to lead to explanations.

Someone who is committed to making explanations prior to causes will argue that there are as many causes of something as there are explanations of that thing, for what will count as a cause will be determined by the kind of explanation one is seeking. Bacon has little in reply to this kind of move. In Valerius Terminus, he sets out the error of seeking the causes of particular things, which are "infinite and transitory," as opposed to "abstract natures, which are few and pertinent." Such criticism seems most appropriately leveled against alchemists and others, whom Bacon criticizes for their piecemeal approach, rather than Scholastic natural philosophers, who would agree with his stricture here. But, in fact, Bacon has the Scholastics in mind, telling us that, despite appearances, on closer examination they do not seek abstract natures. This somewhat surprising criticism is possible only because of the very restrictive interpretation he places on "abstract natures," which he compares to "the alphabet or simple letters, whereof the variety of things consisteth; or as the colors mingled in the painter's shell, wherewith he is able to make infinite variety of faces or shapes" (Works 18571874, vol. 3, p. 243). Clearly, what he really wants is an atomist account of the "abstract natures" of things, something that can be only defended on substantive natural-philosophical grounds. The kind of explanation he is seeking, namely an atomist/corpuscularian one, is without doubt guiding what is going to count as a satisfactory argument here.

This issue brings us to the second question. Is eliminative induction suitable as a method of discovering efficient causes? It is hard to see how it could not help in such a process, but it is far from clear that in itself it could generate an account of such causes. Indeed, it is impossible to see how Bacon's examples of whiteness and heat can be pursued further by eliminative induction to generate a conclusion of the kind he wants. One might admit some degree of convergence, but there is nothing like convergence to a point: things become squared off well before that stage.


Closely tied up with Bacon's account of method is his treatment of the question of truth. Bacon goes through a number of what he considers to be inadequate criteria that have been used to establish truth. He rejects criteria depending on antiquity or authority, those deriving from commonly held views, and those relying upon the internal consistency or the capacity for internal reduction of theories, presumably on the grounds that such criteria do not bear on the question of whether there is any correspondence between the theory and reality. He also rejects "inductions without instances contradictory" that is, inductions that restrict themselves to confirming a theory, as well as "the report of the senses." None of these, he tells us, are "absolute and infallible evidence of truth, and bring no security sufficient for effects and operations." That he ties in evidence for the truth of a theory and its usefulness here is no accident, for these are intimately connected, telling us in Valerius Terminus that

That the discovery of new works and active directions not known before, is the only trial to be accepted of; and yet not that neither, in case where one particular giveth light to another; but where particulars induce an axiom or observation, which axiom found out discovereth and designeth new particulars. That the nature of this trial is not only upon the point, whether the knowledge be profitable or no; not because you may always conclude that the Axiom which discovereth new instances be true, but contrariwise you may safely conclude that if it discover not any new instance it is in vain and untrue. (Works, vol. 3, p. 242)

It is unclear here whether Bacon is providing a gloss on truth, maintaining that it has been misconstrued, or saying that something is true, in the ordinary accepted sense, only if it is useful. Whichever, it is a very strong claim on Bacon's part. For there are certainly useless truths, just as there are falsehoods that have practical applications. It is not simply that false premises may lead to true conclusions, but there are cases where approximations, although false, may have more practical value than the truths of which they are the approximation.

The solution becomes clear when we consider that, since antiquity, debates on methods of generating truths had hinged on the question of generating informative truths, the aim being to discover something we did not already know. In particular, there was a concern among Aristotle and his Renaissance followers to show that formal modes of reasoning such as the syllogism were not trivial or circular because, at the start of the inferential process, we have knowledge that something is the case, whereas at the end of it we have knowledge why it is the case. In particular what they sought to show was that the kind of knowledge of an observed phenomenon we have through sensation is qualitatively different from and inferior to the kind of knowledge we have of that phenomenon when we grasp it in terms of its causes.

This latter kind of knowledge is also what Bacon was seeking. If we think in terms of "informative truths," Bacon's position makes more sense. He is saying that the only way in which we can judge whether something is informatively true is to determine whether it is productive, whether it yields something tangible and useful. And if something does consistently yield something tangible and useful, then it is informatively true. The case of approximations can perhaps be dealt with by saying that these derive their usefulness not from their falsity but from their proximity to the truth, although the cases where the approximation is more useful than the true account cannot be handled so easily.

The question of the practicality of truth turns on how informative it is, but there is another dimension to this question that, although not explicitly mentioned by Bacon, is of importance in understanding his general orientation. In the humanist thought that makes up the source from which Bacon derives much of his inspiration, moral philosophy figures prominently. Now in this philosophy, being virtuous and acting virtuously are the same thing: There is no separate practical dimension to morality. This is all the more interesting because moral philosophy is a cognitive enterprise, one in which the practical outcome is constitutive of the discipline, a point Bacon stresses the Advancement of Learning. If moral philosophy is the model for natural philosophy, a natural enough conclusion for a humanist and one that is reinforced in the shift from otium to negotium, then we may be able to make a little more sense of the idea that truth is not truth unless it is informative and productive.

If we think of Bacon's project as transforming moral philosophers into natural philosophers, then we might expect some carryover from conceptions of the moral philosopher. Notions that were quite appropriate in moral philosophy but not (at least outside Epicureanism) in natural philosophy remain in the transformation process. And this is exactly what we do find, most strikingly in the idea of truth as productive and informative. For Bacon, the truth of natural philosophy hinges as much on its being informative and productive of works as does the truth of moral philosophy in its way. "In religion," he tells us in Redargutio Philosophiarum, "we are warned that faith is to be shown by works" (Works, vol. 3, p. 576). And he proposes that the same test that is applied in religion be applied in philosophy: if it produces nothing at all, or, worse, if, "instead of the fruits of the grape or olive, it bear the thistles and thorns of disputes and contentions," then we can reject it.

Bacon's Legacy

In the early modern era, there emerged in the West a style of doing natural philosophy, a way of thinking about the place of natural philosophy in culture generally, and a way of thinking about oneself as a natural philosopher. Bacon played a key role in this development. He inaugurated the transformation of philosophy into science, for even though the ideas of "science" and "scientist" in their modern sense were only really established in the nineteenth century, their genealogy goes back to Bacon's attempt to effect a fundamental reform of philosophy from a contemplative discipline, exemplified in the individual persona of the moral philosopher, to a communal, if centrally directed, enterprise exemplified in the persona of the experimental natural philosopher. Thanks in large measure to Bacon's exertions, observation and experiment were lifted out of the purview of the arcane and the esoteric and planted firmly in the public realm. As a result, science was transformed: Its tradition of irregular fits of progress alternating with long periods of stagnation gave way to the uninterrupted and cumulative growth that has characterized Western science since then.

In defending natural philosophy, Bacon reshaped it; his establishment of its autonomy, legitimacy, and central cultural role are on a par with Plato's defense of the autonomy and centrality of the "quiet" virtues, such as justice and moderation. Both irreversibly changed the cultures in which they lived and those that followedabove all our own.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Ethics, History of; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Induction; Logic, History of; Lucretius; Naturalized Philosophy of Science; Newton, Isaac; Philosophy of Law, History of; Philosophy of Mind; Philosophy of Science, History of; Philosophy of Science, Problems of; Plato; Psychology; Renaissance; Scientific Method; Semantics, History of; Stoicism.


works by bacon

The Oxford Francis Bacon, edited by Graham Rees and Lisa Jardine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 onwards. This will eventually replace the Spedding and Ellis edition, as the volumes appear.

The Works of Francis Bacon. 14 vols, edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. London: Longmans, 18571874.

works about bacon

Anderson, Fulton H. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. New York: Octogan Books, 1971. A comprehensive treatment of Bacon's natural philosophy.

Gaukroger, Stephen. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Looks at the connection between Bacon's natural philosophy and his account of method, and at his account of the shaping of the natural philosopher.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Deals with those issues in theories of rhetoric and logic that were the key ones in Bacon's formative years and shows their influence on his thinking.

Jardine, Lisa, and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon, 15611626. London: Victor Gollancz, 1998. The most comprehensive and up-to-date biography.

Martin, Julian. Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Natural Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. The best available treatment of Bacon's thought on legal questions.

Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. General collection of articles on all aspects of Bacon's thought.

Pérez-Ramos, Antonio. Francis Bacon's Idea of Science and the Maker's Knowledge Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Concentrates on the role of rhetoric in Bacon's work.

Rossi, Paolo. Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. Deals with Bacon's natural philosophy.

Urbach, Peter. Francis Bacon's Philosophy of Science: An Account and Reappraisal. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987. Provides a comprehensive discussion of Bacon's account of method, with regular comparisons with Popper.

Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 16261660. London: Duckworth, 1975. The best available treatment of the influence of Bacon between the time of his death and the founding of the Royal Society.

Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. A general overview of Bacon's thought.

Stephen Gaukroger (2005)

Bacon, Francis

views updated Jun 08 2018

Bacon, Francis

(b. London, England, 22 January 1561; d. London, 9 April 1626)

philosophy of science.

Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper of the great seal, and Ann, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1573 to 1575, when he entered Gray’s Inn; he became a barrister in 1582. Bacon’s life was spent in court circles, in politics, and in the law; in religion he adhered to the middle road of the Church of England, neither authoritarian nor sectarian. In 1606 he married Alice Barnham. He was knighted on the accession of James I In 1603, became lord chancellor in 1618, and was made viscount St. Albans in 1621. Bacon was dismissed from the chancellorship in 1621 after being convicted of bribery, a strain under which his health broke down. He then lived in retirement near St. Albans, devoting his remaining years to natural philosophy.

Bacon’s writings in history, law, politics, and morals are extensive; but his place in the history of science rests chiefly upon his natural philosophy, his philosophy of scientific method, his projects for the practical organization of science, and the influence of all these upon the science of the later seventeenth century. During and immediately following his lifetime his principal publications in these areas were The Advancement of Learning (1605), expanded and latinized as De augmentis scientiarum (1623); De sapientia veterum (1609); Novum organum (1620); and Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis (1627). Many of his shorter works, some of them fragmentary and published posthumously, are of equal scientific and philosophical interest.

Although Bacon was a contemporary of William Gilbert, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and William Harvey, he was curiously isolated from the scientific developments with which they were associated. His knowledge of and contribution to the natural sciences were almost entirely literary; and, indeed, it has been shown that much of the empirical material collected in his “histories” is not the result of his own firsthand observation, but is taken directly from literary sources. Furthermore, most of Bacon’s comments on both his scientific contemporaries and his philosophical predecessors are critical. For example, he never accepted the Copernican “hypothesis,” attacking both Ptolemy and Copernicus for producing mere “calculations and predictions” instead of “philosophy... what is found in nature herself, and is actually and really true”1. On similar grounds he attacked the theory of “perspective” as not providing a proper theory of the nature of light because it never went further than geometry. Mathematics was, he thought, to be used as a tool in natural philosophy, not as an end, and he had no pretensions to mathematical learning. He was not unsympathetic to Gilbert’s magnetic philosophy, but he criticized him for leaping too quickly to a single unifying principle without due regard for experiment.

Bacon’s closest associations with contemporary science were with atomism and with the Renaissance tradition of natural magic. His views on atomism underwent considerable change during the period of his philosophical writings, from a sympathetic discussion of Democritus in De sapientia veterum and De principiis atque originibus,2 to outright rejection of “the doctrine of atoms, which implies the hypothesis of a vacuum and that of the unchangeableness of matter (both false assumptions)” in Novum organum.3 There were both philosophical and scientific reasons for this change of mind. Even in his earlier works, Bacon posed the fundamental dilemma of atomism: either the atom is endowed with some of the qualities that are familiar to sense, such as “matter, form, dimension, place, resistance, appetite...,”4 in which case it is difficult to justify taking these qualities rather than any other sensible qualities as primary; or the atom is wholly different from bodies apprehended by the senses, in which case it is difficult to see how we come to know anything about them. On the other hand, empirical phenomena of cohesion and continuity are impossible to understand in terms of inert atoms alone; and the existence of spirituous substances, even in space void of air, seems to cast doubt upon the existence of the absolute void demanded by atomism.

In any case, Bacon was never an orthodox atomist, for as early as De sapientia veterum he insisted that the atom has active powers other than mere impenetrability—it has “desire,” “appetite,” and “force that constitutes and fashions all things out of matter,”5 in Novum organum these qualities are ascribed to bodies in general. All bodies have powers to produce change in themselves and in other bodies; they have “perceptions” that, although distinct from the “sensations” of animals, nevertheless enable them to respond to other bodies, as iron does in the neighborhood of a magnet. That virtues seem thus to emanate from bodies through space is an argument for suspecting that there may be incorporeal substances: “Everything tangible that we are acquainted with contains an invisible and intangible spirit, which it wraps and clothes as with a garment.” It “gives them [bodies] shape, produces limbs, assimilates, digests, ejects, organises and the like.” It “feeds upon” tangible parts and “turns them into spirit.”6

Commentators have seen in this dualism of tangible, inert matter and active, intangible spirits a legacy of Renaissance animism, and have tended to apologize for it as being out of harmony with Bacon’s other, more progressive views. Indeed, in seventeenthcentury writings and later, Bacon was most often listed with the revivers of the Democritan philosophy, in company with those to whom his “active spirits” might be an embarrassment. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Bacon necessarily thought of his view on spirits as opposed to a mechanical theory of nature. There are many passages in which he objects to his predecessors’ purely verbal ontologies of spirits and describes his own view as essentially unitary:” “this spirit, whereof I am speaking, is not a virtue, nor an energy, nor an actuality, nor any such idle matter, but a body thin and indivisible, and yet having place and dimension, and real... a rarefied body, akin to air, though greatly differing from it.”7 Both in the description of heat as a species of motion in Novum organumand in the discussion of transmission of light and sound in Sylva sylvarum,8 Bacon showed his sympathy with explanations in terms of mechanical analogues.

Bacon’s natural philosophy is indecisive, and also a good deal more subtle than that of his corpuscularian successors. It is not surprising, therefore, that it did not lead to any detailed theoretical developments (as did, for example, Descartes’s) and had, in fact, little direct influence. It can be argued, however, that, unlike Descartes, Bacon was not attempting to reach theoretical conclusions but, rather, to lay the necessary foundations for his inductive method. To that method we now turn.

Bacon’s method is foreshadowed in the early Valerius terminus (1603), but was not developed until the last few years of his life. De augmentis scientiarum and Novum organum are the first and second parts of his projected Great Instauration, and the applications of the method that were to have constituted four further parts reached only a fragmentary stage in the Histories, most of which were published posthumously.

In De augmentis scientiarum, which is concerned primarily with the classification of philosophy and the sciences, Bacon develops his influential view of the relation between science and theology. He distinguishes in traditional fashion between knowledge by divine revelation and knowledge by the senses, and divides the latter into natural theology, natural philosophy, and the sciences of man. Natural philosophy is independent of theology; but in a sense its end is also knowledge of God, for it seeks the “footprints of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”9 Indeed, Bacon sees both speculative and practical science as religious duties, the first for the understanding of creation and the second for the practice of charity to men. We should not read back into Bacon’s separation of science and theology any implication that theology is depreciated or superseded by science. Such a view was hardly influential until the Enlightenment, whereas seventeenth-century natural philosophers generally followed Bacon in claiming a religious function for their investigations; this was undoubtedly one important factor in the public success of the scientific movement.

Having placed his project within the complete framework of knowledge in true Aristotelian fashion, Bacon proceeds to demolish all previous pretensions to natural philosophy. His aim is to lay the foundations of science entirely anew, neither leaping to unproved general principles in the manner of the ancient philosophers nor heaping up unrelated facts in the manner of the “empirics” (among whom he counts contemporary alchemists and natural magicians). “Histories,” or collections of data, are to be drawn up systematically and used to raise an ordered system of axioms that will eventually embrace all the phenomena of nature. Many commentators, in the seventeenth century and later, have been misled, by the apparently unorganized collections of facts that fill Bacon’s works, into supposing that his method was a merely empirical one, with no concern for theoretical interpretation. Such an impression is easily dispelled, however, by a closer reading of the text of Novum organum. We shall follow his account of the method in that work.

The first step in making true inductions is, as in a religious initiation, a purging of the intellect of the “idols” that, in man’s natural fallen state, obstruct his unprejudiced understanding of the world. Bacon holds that we must consciously divest our minds of prejudices caused by excessive anthropomorphism (the “idols of the tribe”), by the particular interests of each individual (the “idols of the cave”), by the deceptions of words (the “idols of the market place”), and by received philosophical systems (the “idols of the theater”).10 Only in this way can the mind become a tabula abrasa on which true notions can be inscribed by nature itself. The consequences of the Fall for the intellect will then be erased, and man will be able to return to his God-given state of dominion over creation.

The aim of scientific investigation is to discover the “forms of simple natures.” What Bacon means by a “form” is best gathered from his example concerning the form of heat (which is the only application of his method that he works out in any detail): “The Form of a thing is the very thing itself, and the thing differs from the form no otherwise than as the apparent differs from the real, or the external from the internal, or the thing in reference to man from the thing in reference to the universe.” Hence, when the “form or true definition of heat” is defined as “Heat is a motion, expansive, restrained, and acting in its strife upon the smaller parts of bodies,” Bacon means “Heat itself, or the quid ipsum of Heat, is Motion and nothing else.”11 Thus, the form is not to be understood in a Platonic or Aristotelian sense but, rather, as what was later called an “explanation” or “reduction” of a secondary quality (heat) to a function of primary bodies and qualities (matter in motion). In order to discover what primary qualities are relevant to the form, Bacon prescribes his Tables of Presence, Absence, and Comparison: “[the form] is always present when the nature is present.... absent when the nature is absent” and “always decrease[s] when the nature in question decreases, and... always increase[s] when the nature in question increases.”12

Therefore, we are to draw up a Table of Instances that all agree in the simple nature, heat—such as rays of the sun, flame, and boiling liquids—and then to look for other natures that are copresent with heat and therefore are candidates for its form. To ensure that as many irrelevant natures as possible are eliminated at this stage, these instances should be as unlike each other as possible except in the nature of heat. Second, a Table of Absence should be drawn up, in which as far as possible each instance in the Table of Presence should be matched by an instance similar to it in all respects except heat, such as rays of the moon and stars, phosphorescence, and cool liquids. This is the method of exclusion by negative instances, which will at once test a putative form drawn from the Table of Presence; if it is not the true form, it will not be absent in otherwise similar instances when heat is absent. The tables are the precursors of Mill’s “Joint Method of Agreement and Differences,” and clearly are more adequate than the method of induction by simple enumeration of positive instances, with which Bacon has so often been wrongly identified. Construction of the tables demands not a passive observation of nature, but an active search for appropriate instances; and it therefore encourages artificial experiment. Nature, Bacon says, must be “put to the question.”13

Inference of the form from the tables is, however, only the beginning of the method. Bacon speaks often of raising a “ladder of axioms” by means of the forms, until we have constructed the complete system of natural philosophy that unifies all forms and natures. The conception seems to be something like an Aristotelian classification into genus, species, and differentia, in which every nature has its place. It also has some affinity with the later conception of a theoretical structure that yields observation statements by successive deductions from theoretical premises. But it would be misleading to press these parallels too closely, for the essence of Bacon’s ascent to the axioms is that it is the result of a number of inductive inferences whose conclusions are infallible if they have been properly drawn from properly contrived Tables of Instances. The axioms are emphatically not the result of a leap to postulated premises from which observations may be deduced, for this is not an infallible method and gives no guarantee that the axioms arrived at are unique, let alone true. This deductive method is, in fact, what Bacon calls the method of “anticipation of nature,” which, he thinks, may be useful in designing appropriate Tables of Instances, but is to be avoided in inductive inference proper.

Bacon is not unaware that the infallibility of his method depends crucially on there being only a finite number of simple natures and on our ability to enumerate all those present in any given instance. His faith that nature is indeed finite in the required respects seems to rest upon his natural philosophy. Although he rejected atomism, he retained the belief that the primary qualities are few in number and regarded the inductive method as the means to discover which qualities they are. Forms are the “alphabet of nature”14 that suffice to produce the great variety of nature from a small stock of primary qualities, just as the letters of the alphabet can generate a vast literature. The whole investigation is further complicated, as Bacon also sees, by the fact that some natures are “hidden” and cannot be taken account of in the tables unless we employ “aids to the senses” to bring them within reach of sensation. Much of the later part of Novum organum is taken up with this problem, which leads Bacon to commend not only instruments such as the telescope, but also “fit and apposite experiments” that bring hidden and subtle processes to light.15

Complementary to Bacon’s ascent to axioms is his insistence on subsequent descent to works. The aim is not merely passive understanding of nature, but also practical application of that understanding to the improvement of man’s condition; Bacon holds that each of these aspects of his method is sterile without the other. Furthermore, he claims to have given in his method a means whereby anyone who follows the rules can do science—he has “levelled men’s wits.”16 Thus, with proper organization and financial support, it should be possible to complete the edifice of science in a few years and to gather all the practical fruit that it promised for the good of men. Such a vision inspired Bacon as early as 1592, when he described in a letter to Cecil his “vast contemplative ends... I hope I should bring in industrious observations, grounded conclusions, and profitable inventions and discoveries.”17 Throughout his life he used his status and influence in a succession of frustrated attempts to obtain the Crown’s support for this enterprise. In 1605 it was advertised in The Advancement of Learning—the only work Bacon ever published in English. His unfinished account of the ideal scientific society was published posthumously in New Atlantis, which ranks among the best-known and most delightful Utopian writings in the world and has been perhaps the most influential.

New Atlantis contains a description of the island of Bensalem, on which there is a cooperative college of science called Salomon’s House. Bacon’s account of it begins with a concise expression of his whole vision of science: “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”18 The house is essentially a religious community, having “certain hymns and services, which we say daily, of laud and thanks to God.”19 It contains all kinds of laboratories and instruments for the pursuit of science, and is organized on the principle of a division of labor among those who perform experiments and collect information from various sources; those who determine the significance of the information and experiments, and direct and perform new and more penetrating experiments; and the “Interpreters,” who “raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms.”20 It is noticeable that while there are said to be thirty-three men assigned to the experimental parts of this task, only three are assigned to interpretation—a proportion that seems to reflect neither the status Bacon gives to the raising of axioms in his explicit accounts of method, nor the ease with which he thought this part of the task would be completed. Unfortunately, however, it does reflect the way Bacon’s ideas were subsequently understood.

Bacon’s immense prestige and influence in later seventeenth-century science does not rest upon positive achievements in either experiment or theory but, rather, upon his vision of science expressed in Novum organum and New Atlantis, and in particular upon his fundamental optimism about the possibilities for its rapid development. Now that the true method had been described, he thought all that was required was the purgation of the intellect to make a fit instrument for the method, and the human and financial resources to carry it out. When patronage and manpower for the organization of science were eventually forthcoming in the form of the Royal Society, its Philosophical Transactions was soon full of just the sort of “histories” Bacon had prescribed. His program for the raising of axioms, however, was taken less seriously than his strictures against “anticipations” and hypotheses, so that the weight of his influence was toward empiricism rather than toward theoretical system-building. At the time this did provide a useful corrective to Cartesianism, as can even be seen In Newton’s insistence on the inductive “ascent” to the law of gravitation, in contrast with the merely imagined hypotheses of Descartes. But although most leading members of the Royal Society took every opportunity to proclaim themselves Bacon’s loyal disciples, they tacitly adopted a more tolerant attitude toward hypotheses than his; and subsequent theoretical developments took place in spite of, rather than as examples of, his elaboration of method. His successors in this area should be sought among the inductive logicians, beginning with Hume and Mill, and not among the scientists.


1.Descriptio globi intellectus (1612), in Works, III, 734; V, 511.

2. Probably written before 1620, published 1653.

3.Novum organum, in Works I, 234; IV, 126.

4.De principiis atque originibus, in Works, III, III; V, 492.

5.De sapientia veterum, in Works, VI, 655, 729.

6.Novum organum, 1, 310; IV, 195.

7.Historia vitae et mortis (1623), in Works, II, 213; V, 321.

8.Sylva sylvarum, in Works, II, 429 ff.

9.De augmentis scientiarum, in Works, I, 544; IV, 341. Also Novum organum, I, 145; IV, 33.

10.Novum organum, I, 169; IV, 58 ff.

11.Ibid., I, 248, 262, 266; IV, 137, 150, 154.

12.Ibid., I, 230, 248; IV, 121, 17.

13.Ibid., I, 403; IV, 263.

14.Abecedarium naturae, in Works, II, 85; V, 208.

15.Novum organum, I, 168; IV, 58.

16.Ibid., I, 217; IV, 109.

17.Letters and Life, I, 109.

18.New Atlantis, in Works, III, 156.

19.Ibid., III, 166.

20.Ibid., III,


I. Original Works. The standard edition of Bacon’s works is The Works of Francis Bacon, J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, eds., 7 vols. (London, 1857–1859), which contains valuable prefaces and notes. The philosophical and scientific works are in Vols. I-III and VI, with English translations in Vols. IV and V. Also of value is The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, Including All HIs Occasional Works, J. Spedding, ed., 7 vols. (London, 1861–1874). All page references in the Notes are to these editions. I have modified some of the translations. For further original works and secondary literature, see R. Gibson, Francis Bacon: A Bibliography of His Works and of Baconiana to the Year 1750 (Oxford, 1950). A useful edition of an individual work with notes, introduction, and bibliography is Novum organum, Thomas Fowler, ed. (2nd ed., Oxford, 1889).

II. Secondary Literature. There are many biographies, and their quality varies greatly. The most valuable recent examples are F. H. Anderson, Francis Bacon, His Career and His Thought (Los Angeles, 1962); J. G. Crowther, Francis Bacon (London, 1960); and B. Farrington, Francis Bacon; Philosopher of Industrial Science (London, 1961). The last two interpret Bacon mainly as a “philosopher of works.”

The literature on Bacon’s philosophy and science is enormous, and there is no attempt at completeness here. The recent books and articles listed give references to further material whose absence from this list does not imply any value judgment: B. Farrington, The Philosophy ofFrancis Bacon, an Essay on Its Development From 1603 to 1609 With New Translations of Fundamental Texts (Liverpool, 1964)—neither the commentary nor the newly translated texts throw much additional light on Bacon’s scientific ideas during this period; Kuno Fischer, Francis Bacon of Verulam, Realistic Philosophy and Its Age, John Oxenford, trans. (London, 1857), which is still a useful analysis of Bacon’s method but, like most nineteenth-century works (except those of Ellis and Spedding), underestimates the significance of Bacon’s doctrine of spirits; Thomas Fowler, Bacon (London-New York, 1881), which deals with Bacon’s philosophy and scientific method and their influence; W. Frost, Bacon und die Naturphilosophie (Munich, 1927); Mary B. Hesse, “Francis Bacon,” in D. J. O’Connor, ed., A Critical History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1964), pp. 141–152; C. W. Lemmi, The Classic Deities in Bacon (Baltimore, 1933), not always accurate on Bacon’s science; A. Levi, II pensiero di F. Bacone considerato in relazione con le filosofie della natura de Rinascimento e col razionalismo cartesiano (Turin, 1925), one of the first detailed accounts of Bacon’s relation to his immediate predecessors; G. H. Nadel, “History as Psychology in Francis Bacon’s Theory of History,” in History and Theory, 5 (1966), 275–287; M. Primack, “Outline of a Reinterpretation of Francis Bacon’s Philosophy,” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 5 (1967), 123–132; P . Rossi, Francesco Bacone, dalla magia alla scienza (Bari, 1957; English trans. by S. Rabinovitch, London, 1968), which interprets Bacon’s science as being heavily indebted to the natural magic tradition and his logic as indebted to Ramist rhetoric; P. M. Schuhl, La pensée de lord Bacon (Paris, 1949); and K. R. Wallace, Francis Bacon on Communication and Rhetoric (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1943).

Recent general works with extensive references to Bacon are R. M. Blake, C. J. Ducasse, and E. H. Madden, Theories of Scientific Method: The Renaissance Through the Nineteenth Century (Seattle, Wash., 1960), ch. 3; C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford, 1965), esp. ch. 3; R. H. Kargon, Atomism in England From Hariot to Newton (Oxford, 1966), which contains a good bibliography of recent scholarly articles on Bacon, pp. 150–153; R. McRae, The Problem of the Unity of the Sciences: Bacon to Kant (Toronto, 1961); and Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation (Cambridge, Mass. 1967), esp. ch. 2.

Mary Hesse

Bacon, Francis

views updated May 18 2018


London, England, 22 January 1561; d. London, 9 April 1626), philosophy of science, cosmology, theory of matter, life sciences, medicine.

For the original article on Bacon see DSB, vol. 1.

Baconian studies have seen many major developments since publication of the original DSB article in 1970. In particular, it is now clear that, in parallel to the methodological reflections culminating in the Novum organum, Bacon developed a complex and coherent system of positive natural philosophy. This key Baconian scientific interest remained in large part unrecognized until the research of Graham Rees. Both through the reinterpretation of well-known texts and the use of newly discovered sources, Rees identified and delineated what he called Bacon’s “Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology,” a “highly speculative system of the world,” with its natural background in a complex theory of matter and spirits (Rees 1975a–b;

Bacon, 1984). Conceived as early as 1592, the system’s cosmological features were mainly sketched in the works Thema coeli(c. 1612; Theory of the Heaven) and De fluxu et refluxu maris(c. 1611; On the Ebb and Flow of the Sea); however, Bacon’s theory soon after developed to include a sophisticated and elaborate analysis of life and living processes, which culminated in the late Historia vitae et mortis(1623;History of Life and Death). New, striking evidence for these interests emerged with the discovery and publication, in the early 1980s, of a hitherto unknown

lengthy Baconian treatise on biological and medical matters,De vijs mortis (1610s,The Ways of Death; see Bacon, 1984 and 1996).

In the past, many readings of the Baconian project have accentuated the weight of Bacon’s methodology and philosophy of science, while assigning an ancillary and peripheral role to his interests in natural philosophy; Mary Hesse’s original DSB entry was a fine example of this type of analysis. However, the new and reinforced evidence of Bacon’s dedicated commitment to the study of nature decisively renders this type of interpretation dated and calls for a better integration between Bacon’s scientific concerns and the other areas of his philosophy.

Theory of Matter and Cosmology. Bacon’s interest in astronomy and cosmology predated the formulation of his theory of matter. Nevertheless, these two areas became strongly associated in his mature reflection, and he developed his matter theory by integrating it with and fitting it to his cosmological ideas: for this reason, it is worthwhile to treat them jointly.

For Bacon, matter existed in both tangible and pneumatic forms. Tangible matter is concentrated on Earth and is inert and passive. By contrast, highly active pneumatic matter, or spirit, constitutes the source of any change in the Baconian universe. For instance, tangible matter confines very active attached spirits, which are interspersed in different proportion in any terrestrial body and naturally tend to escape from their bounds. This tendency produces many of the macroscopic transformations taking place on Earth and in the subterranean regions. Spirits can also be found free, outside of tangible matter: the sublunary and celestial regions are mainly occupied by spirits in this form.

Both tangible and pneumatic matter can also be classified through what Rees has called Bacon’s “quaternion theory.” According to this idea, all entities belong to a family or, to use a Baconian expression, “tribe,” possessing four constituents (a “quaternion”). Bacon identified two principal groups, respectively the mercury and sulfur quaternions. The division between mercurial and sulfuric components pertains to the entire universe: in the subterranean realm, it mainly consists in the division between the two constituents of sulfur and mercury proper, while on the surface of Earth it takes the form of the opposition between oily, inflammable substances (sulfuric in nature), and watery, noninflammable ones (mercurial).

Moving from Earth toward the heavens, four different types of free spirits can be found. Air and ether belong to the mercury quaternion, while terrestrial and sidereal fires are situated in the sulfur quaternion. Because of their constitutions, these opposite groups engage in a mutual struggle, and each zone of the heavens is dominated by a specific component (see Table 1).

Thus, the sublunary region is dominated by air, while fire is present in a weak and gross form. With an increase of distance from Earth, the influence of fire becomes stronger, balancing that of ether, a rarified and purer form of air. In the region of the fixed stars, sidereal fire is dominant, pure, and strong. In general, the various components become purer with the increase of their distance from Earth.

Bacon adjusted his theories of matter and quaternions to his idiosyncratic model of the universe. As early as 1592 he had adopted the cosmological system of the medieval Arab astronomer Alpetragius (al-Bitruji). Though little studied today, Alpetragius’s work was translated into Latin in 1217 by Michael Scot with the title De motibus celorum and was fairly well known during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Alpetragius’s work was an attempt to replace the Ptolemaic model with an astronomical system more conformable to Aristotelian physics. The Alpetragian model was geocentric and required nine celestial spheres. According to Alpetragius, the primum mobile completed its rotation in about a sidereal day and transferred its motion beneath, to the sphere of the fixed stars. However, during this process the motion of this sphere was slightly attenuated, so that the sphere would take exactly twenty-four hours to complete its rotation. This attenuation also occurred within the spheres of the planets, with a progressive delay of their motion. This progressive abatement of the spheres’ motion in relation to the primum mobile and the daily rotation of the heavens accounted for the periodic motion of a planet.

Bacon did not assign any role to the celestial spheres but adapted his quaternions theory to the Alpetragian model. In this way he explained the progressive attenuation to the motion of the planets: having a fiery nature, they find greater resistance to their motion when closer to Earth because of the opposition of the mercurial principles of ether and air. Bacon’s matter theory also accounted for the planets’ deviation from circular orbits, which intensified the closer the planet was to Earth:

for just as substances degenerate in purity and explication, so too do their motions degenerate. Now it happens that, as in their speed the higher planets move faster, and the lower more slowly, so also do the higher make closer spirals, and ones which come nearer to the circles, but the lower make spirals more distinct and open. For as they descend they always depart more and more both from that splendour of velocity and perfection of circular motion, ever in regular order. (The Oxford Francis Bacon [OFB], vol. 6, p. 183)

Bacon encountered more difficulties, however, when he tried to analyze the retrograde motion of the planets. In this case he had to turn to ad hoc explanations, using the differences and fluctuations in the physical properties of the ethereal medium in which the planets move. Also, Bacon could not accommodate Galileo Galilei’s discoveries of Jupiter’s satellites within his strongly geocentric system (OFB, vol. 6, pp. 187–193).

A further implication of Bacon’s quaternion theory when applied to celestial matters regarded tides and winds. Because of the “conformity” of their internal configurations, elements of the same quaternion are driven by “consent” (or consensus), that is to say, they possess similar inclinations and related behaviors. This general rule is particularly true in the case of the mercury quaternion: The daily westward motion of the ethereal heavens, even though “enormously weakened,” extends by consent to sublunary air and water. This correspondence sets a constant westward wind, tending to decrease with altitude. Also, the wind is “more observable in the tropics, because it moves there in larger circles” (The Works of Francis Bacon [WFB], vol. 2, pp. 26–27; vol. 5, p. 147). Tides are set in motion by the same mechanism: “I am entirely of the opinion that this same motion belongs to the mass of waters and exists in it, but that is slower than in the air” (OFB, vol. 6, p. 79). Bacon subsequently argued that the presence of two ebbs and flows per day was because of the presence of the “Old and New World”:

I think it necessarily follows that these two obstacles communicate and insinuate the nature of a double reciprocation to the whole mass of the waters, and from this arises that quarter of the diurnal motion; as, that is, with the waters checked on both sides, the ebb and flow of the sea unfolds itself twice a day over a six-hour period, since there is a double advance and likewise a double retreat. (OFB, vol. 6, p. 87)

Biological and Medical Ideas. Biological and medical matters have received particular attention in Baconian studies since the 1980s (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1984, 1996; Gemelli, 2004; Giglioni, 2005). In part this interest was sparked by the publication in 1984 of the newly discovered Baconian treatise on the prolongation of life titled De vijs mortis (The Ways of Death). The discovery and publication of this work were remarkable in that this treatise is Bacon’s longest Latin manuscript to be published after the seventeenth century (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1984).

Bacon’s interest in medical subjects was strong and manifest throughout his career. De vijs mortis, written sometime during the 1610s, was Bacon’s first extensive writing on biological and medical issues, subsequently elaborated and developed in his Historia vitae et mortis, published in 1623. As in the case of his cosmology, Bacon’s biological ideas had strong foundations in his theory of matter. In particular, Bacon’s biology was based on the fundamental distinction between inanimate and vital spirits. According to Bacon, when it comes to the action of the attached inanimate spirits inside them, the tangible parts of living beings are not different from those of inanimate bodies. The tripartite activity of the inanimate spirits, or actio triplex, respectively corresponds to the attenuation of the moist parts of the body and their conversion in pneumatic matter; the escape of the spirit from the body; and the consequent “Contraction of the Grosser Parts after the Emission of the Spirit” (WFB, vol. 2, pp. 119–120; vol. 5, pp. 231–232). These steps lead to the decay of the body, the final effect of the actio triplex.

By contrast, vital spirits are unconstrained and diffused continuously all over the organism. In plants, the spirit is “merely branched, and permeating through small thread-like channels.” In animals, spirit congregates and collects in “some hollow space,” or cell, mainly “the ventricles of the brain.” Furthermore, vital spirits possess a “degree of inflammation,” which supplies motion and vital faculties, “gentler by many degrees than the softest flame” but still requiring continuous nourishment. All the functions of the organisms are dependent on the activity of the vital spirits: “Attraction, retention, digestion, assimilation, separation, excretion, perspiration, and even the sense itself, depend upon the properties of the several organs, as the stomach, liver, heart, spleen, gall, brain, eye, ear, and the rest. But yet none of these actions would ever be set in motion without the vigour, presence, and heat of the vital spirit” (WFB, vol. 2, p. 215; vol. 5, pp. 323–324). The vital spirit is then like “the master-wheel which turns the other wheels in the body of man” (WFB, vol. 2, p. 221; vol. 5, p. 330). The activity of the vital spirit ends when the spirit is “deprived either of motion, or of refrigeration, or of aliment.” Any of these causes produces the death of the organism (WFB, vol. 2, p. 225; vol. 5, pp. 334–335).

The major motivations for Bacon’s biological interests were medical: in the appendix to the New Atlantis, while enumerating the magnalia naturae (wondrous works) to be achieved for the use and benefit of humankind, “prolongation of life,” “restitution of youth in some degree,” and “retardation of age” figured at the top of Bacon’s list (WFB, vol. 3, p. 167). But it was only through the knowledge of the activity of the spirits in the organism that these wonders could be achieved: As Bacon stated in The Advancement of Learning,

It is more probable, that he that knoweth the nature of arefaction, the nature of assimilation of nourishment to the thing nourished, the manner of increase and clearing of the spirits, the manner of the depredations which spirits make upon the humors and solid parts, shall by ambages of diets, bathings, anointings, medicines, motions, and the like, prolong life or restore some degree of youth or vivacity, than that it can be done with the use of a few drops or scruples of a liquor or receit. (WFB, vol. 3, p. 362)

Moreover, the Historia vitae et mortis and his posthumous Medical Remains (1679) testify to Bacon’s technical interests in medical remedies, dietary directions, and pharmacology. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Bacon’s research on longevity was quoted and admired by medical authors like Johannes Antonides Van der Linden, Martin Lister, Hermann Boerhaave, and Albrecht von Haller (Gemelli, 2005).

The Role of the Speculative Philosophy. The various features of Bacon’s system of speculative philosophy well show the eclecticism of his intellectual construction. Bacon employed a variety of sources from very different traditions. Several characteristics of his system were certainly Paracelsian: in particular, like the Paracelsians, Bacon associated air and water with the mercurial aspect, and fire with the sulfuric one. Moreover, Bacon’s chemical theory of the world bears a strong resemblance to similar ideas developed by Paracelsians like Petrus Severinus, Oswald Croll, and, in particular, the French chemical author Joseph Duchesne (Quercetanus). However, other characteristics of his system clearly diverged from Paracelsianism. For instance, Bacon did not assign any special role to salt, the third of Paracelsus’s tria prima. Moreover, Bacon’s very atypical merging of chemical ideas with the astronomical doctrine of Alpetragius is original and not reflected in the work of other authors. Also, Bacon never tried to reinterpret scripture (and in particular the account of the creation in Genesis) in light of his chemical notions, as in the case of the Mosaic chemical cosmogonies of the Paracelsians. It is clear, then, that Bacon’s appropriation of Paracelsian concepts was far from uncritical. Another tradition that clearly informs Bacon’s conceptions of spirits is Renaissance pneumatism, very likely mediated by such figures as Bernardino Telesio and Agostino Doni (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1996). All of these sources show Bacon’s close association with many intellectual trends of Renaissance natural philosophy, and warn us against anachronistic readings and interpretations of Bacon’s enterprise.

Several issues have been raised regarding the new picture of the Baconian project emerging from this impressive body of works and speculative theories. Was Bacon’s speculative philosophy a radically different enterprise from his project for the reform of knowledge in the Great Instauration? And, more specifically, what was the precise philosophical significance of these speculative doctrines?

In her DSB entry on Bacon, Hesse suggested that the role of Bacon’s natural reflections inside his more general philosophical system was merely ancillary and preparatory. According to Hesse, “unlike [René] Descartes, Bacon was not attempting to reach theoretical conclusions but, rather, to lay the necessary foundations for his inductive method” (p. 374). This interpretation is questionable, both in light of Bacon’s speculative philosophy and also in terms of some of the clues that Bacon himself left regarding his general intentions and the value to be assigned to this work. As he explained in the “Distributio operis” (“Plan of the Work”), Bacon divided the project of his Great Instauration into six parts. De augmentis scientiarum and the Novum organum constituted the first and second sections, while a third was reserved for Natural Histories(including the Historia vitae et mortis). If the sixth and final part of the Instauration was to be occupied by the ultimate fruits of Bacon’s new induction, the fourth and the fifth ones were likely to be devoted to examples and expositions of the speculative philosophy. Bacon explicitly stated the provisional character of this latter material. This was not yet a “universal or systematic theory,” he said (OFB, vol. 11, p. 175). Instead, he compared it to “interest payable until the principal can be had” and the true philosophy established. Certainly this provisional research was going to be presented by way of “examples of investigating and discovering according to my plan and way” (this being the purpose of the fourth part). However, at the same time, Bacon also suggested that one assign considerable value and significance to these investigations. For instance, with some false modesty, he stated that he hoped that his speculations “from my unceasing acquaintance with nature ... may be greater than the measure of my mind leads me to expect” (OFB, vol. 11, p. 43). In fact, as he more bluntly affirmed in the Novum organum, he thought that his work on natural philosophy was greatly superior to anything thus far produced: “here and there I have in some special subjects conclusions ... which are far truer, more certain and also (I think) more fruitful than those that men have employed hitherto” (OFB, vol. 11, p. 175). He even suggested that some of this material, once properly confirmed by his method, could directly become part of the sixth and final part of the Instauration(WFB, vol. 3, p. 547). Thus, Bacon’s aims were not simply methodological but implied the achievement of a body of positive knowledge.

Still, the more general question regarding the exact role and significance of the speculative philosophy inside Bacon’s work considered as a whole remains open to interpretation, and charting this precise degree of integration is one of the important tasks with which Baconian scholars are now confronted. For instance, in what ways do the speculative doctrines conform to the more “traditional” elements of Bacon’s philosophy, such as his theory of forms, or the new induction? These and other problems, still to be thoroughly examined, nevertheless confirm the fact that the study of Bacon’s philosophy and science remains a lively and stimulating area of research.


Historically, the primary source for Baconian scholarship has been the Victorian edition of Bacon’s works by Spedding, Ellis, and Heath (abbreviated as WFB ). This edition is commonly referred to in two parts: Volumes one through seven comprehend Bacon’s works, while volumes eight through fourteen cover Bacon’s correspondence. At this writing a new edition comprising both is being prepared by Oxford University Press, The Oxford Francis Bacon (abbreviated as OFB ), with Graham Rees and Lisa Jardine as general editors. This edition includes new material plus new facing-page translations of all Bacon’s Latin works. The volumes also contain comprehensive introductory essays. To date, five volumes have been edited (vols. 4, 6, 11, 13, and 15). In addition, 1984 saw the first edition and annotated translation of the newly discovered Baconian treatise De vijs mortis. The same treatise has been published with improved typographical standards and readings in the OFB, vol. 6.


The Works of Francis Bacon. Edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. 14 vols. London: Longman, 1857–1874.

Francis Bacon’s Natural Philosophy: A New Source. A Transcription of Manuscript Hardwick 72A. Edited, translated, and with commentary by Graham Rees, assisted by Christopher Upton. Chalfont St. Giles, U.K.: British Society for the History of Science, 1984.

Philosophical Studies c. 1611–c. 1619. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 6 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

The Advancement of Learning. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Vol. 4 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Instauratio Magna: Last Writings. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 13 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Vol. 15 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Instauratio Magna. Part 2: Novum Organum and Associated Texts. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 11 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.


Gaukroger, Stephen. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gemelli, Benedino. Aspetti dell’atomismo classico nella filosofia di Francis Bacon e nel Seicento. Florence, Italy: Leo S. Olschki, 1996. An excellent analysis of Bacon’s debt to classic atomism and Lucretius.

———. “Francis Bacon: Un riformatore del sapere tra filosofia e medicina.”Cronos 7, no. 2 (2004): 227–276.

Giglioni, Guido. “The Hidden Life of Matter: Techniques for Prolonging of Life in the Writings of Francis Bacon.” In Francis Bacon and the Refiguring of Early Modern Thought: Essays to Commemorate The Advancement of Learning (1605–2005). Edited by Julie Robin Solomon and Catherine Gimelli Martin. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Jardine, Lisa, and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. An authoritative modern biography.

Martin, Julian. Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Natural Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 1992.

Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A useful collection of introductory essays by leading Baconian scholars.

———. “Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561–1626).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, September 2004. Available from A useful short biography.

Pérez-Ramos, Antonio. “Essay Review: Bacon in the Right Spirit.” Annals of Science 42, no. 6 (1985): 603–611.

———.Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. An important philosophical analysis of Bacon’s project.

Rees, Graham. “Francis Bacon’s Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology.” Ambix 22 (1975a): 81–101.

———. “Francis Bacon’s Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology and the Great Instauration.” Ambix 22 (1975b): 161–173.

Urbach, Peter. Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science: An Account and a Reappraisal. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. Review of The Oxford Francis Bacon Volume VI: Philosophical Studies c. 1611–c. 1619, edited by Graham Rees. Isis 90 (1999): 117–119.

Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. A good introductory survey of Bacon’s life and philosophy.

Cesare Pastorino

Bacon, Francis

views updated May 23 2018

Bacon, Francis



Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, English statesman and philosopher, was born in 1561. His father, a leading official in Queen Elizabeth’s government, had Bacon educated at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn. At the university he soon began to develop the impatience with traditional philosophy that was to run through his writings; at the Inn of Court he learned what he always called “my profession.” The law was to be the career that eventually took him to high political office, and it was also one of the objects of his schemes for reform.

Reform was the constant preoccupation of Bacon’s life. Apart from his love of luxury and ostentation, the chief reason he sought political power was his conviction that his plans could be implemented only with governmental support. For over forty years he prepared a succession of memoranda and dedications of books for his monarchs, asking them to overhaul almost every element of English society, from agriculture to education. His most cherished and comprehensive project, the “Great Instauration” of science, designed to relieve man’s estate, required a marshaling of effort that, so he believed, only the crown was capable of organizing. Despite many excellent connections (his uncle, Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth’s chief minister), over two decades of futile office seeking passed before Bacon was appointed solicitor general to James I in 1607, then attorney general in 1613, lord keeper in 1617, and finally lord chancellor in 1618. But when he was impeached and disgraced in 1621, largely as a result of the efforts of his archrival, Sir Edward Coke, in the House of Commons, his short political career proved to have been in vain, and his attempts to return to favor during the remaining five years of his life were to no avail. Even in a position of considerable influence, as lord chancellor, Bacon was unable to persuade the king, in whose power and wisdom he trusted completely, to support the reforms he proposed. James reputedly found the Novum organum to be “like the peace of God, that passeth all understanding.”

Various historians of Stuart England, including S. R. Gardiner (1885, pp. 812–813), have suggested that the execution of Bacon’s program might have averted the English Civil War; but in the long run the lord chancellor’s fame has rested on his vision for the future of mankind, not on his recommendations for immediate political action, which his contemporaries ignored. Less than twenty years after his death he became the inspiration for an entire generation of scientists and social reformers in England, and thereafter his reputation, despite attacks, was secure. It has been pointed out that Bacon himself was a poor scientist; that he missed completely the significance of the conceptual and mathematical breakthroughs achieved by contemporaries such as Gilbert, Galileo, and Harvey; and that his much vaunted inductive method was neither original nor particularly helpful to scientific advance. It has also been shown that he owed a great debt, usually unacknowledged, to some of the very traditions and thinkers he attacked. Men such as Palissy, Telesio, Cardano, and Campanella, who advocated observation and experience and questioned accepted attitudes; the hopeful view of the future held by Leroy and others; Ramus’ criticism of Aristotelian logic and method; and the wish to control nature expressed by alchemists and practitioners of magic—all had a profound influence on Bacon’s ideas. And yet he was able to combine these various elements of late sixteenthcentury thought into a distinct and personal message. As he himself rightly saw, he was not really a “combatant,” a participator in the philosophical inquiries of his day. Rather he was a “trumpeter,” calling men to action, urging them to turn “with united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds, and extend the bounds of human empire, as far as God Almighty … may permit” (De augmentis scientiarum [1623] in The Works of Francis Bacon, vol. 9, p. 14).

Man’s dominion over nature; the resultant amelioration of his lot on earth; and the improvement of the educational, administrative, legal, and religious institutions into which his society is organized—these were the goals toward which Bacon’s writings and propaganda were directed. It is difficult to consider him a philosopher in the literal sense, because all his concerns were so intensely practical. Wisdom on its own was of little interest. Only if it had some obvious material value was it worth achieving. Bacon completely separated divine from secular learning, and concerning the latter category he wrote, “Human knowledge and human power meet in one.” “Truth … and utility are here the very same things.” Man’s highest ambition in temporal matters should be “to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe.” But he cautioned, “the empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her” (Novum organum [1620] in The Works, vol. 8, pp. 67, 157, 162–163).

It was crucial, therefore, to supply mankind with a method of inquiry into nature that would ensure practical and productive results. Method thus came to be Bacon’s chief interest, receiving more attention in his writings than any other subject. At an early age he grew disillusioned with the investigations of traditional philosophy, and he repeatedly attacked Greek, scholastic, and Renaissance thinkers for not producing “any magnitude of works.” Impelled by profound humanitarian concerns and a deeply Christian sense of charity, he denounced his predecessors and their unquestioning adherents for failing to improve life on earth. While faith helped man to recover the innocence he had lost at the Fall, science should help him to recover the dominion over nature he had lost at the same time. It was no less than a sin for a philosopher to ignore this ultimate purpose of his work, and so Bacon condemned all earlier methods of inquiry for this one overwhelming failure. But if he were to pose as the prophet of an advancement of learning, he had to furnish mankind with an approach to knowledge whose efficacy and fruitfulness were guaranteed.

It has often been assumed by his detractors (e.g., Cohen 1926) that Bacon’s “method” consisted simply of a recommendation to return to nature: careful and exhaustive observation, followed by a painstaking process of induction, which led very slowly to absolutely certain generalizations. In essence, this was indeed the antidote he proposed for the vague hypotheses and abstractions of previous philosophers; but it was only one-half of his program. The other half, the organization of the effort of inquiry, was equally important and just as much a part of his over-all “method.” For Bacon wanted to control the social and psychological influences that stimulated scientific advance as carefully as he wanted to control the procedures used by individual scientists. Thus, when he explained why learning had progressed so little in past ages, he concentrated on the cultural, political, and other defects of the unproductive societies. The Greeks, for example, had been too close to their myths and had lacked the awareness of history and a sense of the difference of other nations necessary for an interest in the study of nature. Conversely, a great age could be created by social forces, such as proper governmental encouragement, exemplified by the policies of the Roman emperors from Nerva to Commodus. Bacon’s famous doctrine of the four idols that hinder intellectual advance—“Idols of the Tribe,” errors caused by human nature; “Idols of the Cave,” errors caused by personal idiosyncrasies; “Idols of the Market Place,” errors caused by misleading words; and “Idols of the Theatre,” errors caused by the wish to create philosophical systems (Novum organum [1620] in The Works, vol. 8, aphorisms XXXVIII-LXIX)—outlined the principal psychological, cultural, and linguistic pressures that interfere with man’s reason. Knowledge was held back not only by the inherent shortcomings of the human mind but also by the effects of one’s physical needs, background, and environment. When Bacon surveyed the reasons for stagnation of learning in his day (Advancement of Learning [1605] in The Works, vol. 8, pp. 383–520; vol. 9, pp. 13–357), he stressed the inadequacies of institutions, patronage, education, and society as a whole, rather than the mistakes of individual thinkers. Certainly scientists would have to adopt a better approach to nature, but this would have to be accompanied by a complete reorganization of the scholarly community. He wanted to see rewards for inventors, drastic revisions of university curricula, more frequent exchanges between scholars, and an expansion of the physical resources available to researchers, such as libraries. His description of Salomon’s House, a college of scientists in his ideal state (New Atlantis [1627] in The Works, vol. 5, pp. 347–413), suggested that only with careful planning could constant progress be assured.

In Salomon’s House laboratories were established for every possible type of experiment or investigation. Constant contact with foreign advances was maintained by a special group of traveling scholars, and each stage of scientific research, arranged according to Bacon’s inductive process, was carefully organized and assigned to those whose talents were suitable for each level of inquiry. Unhampered and undistracted, the scientists would undertake a steady stream of experiments, seek practical applications for their discoveries, and reach higher and higher generalizations. As Bacon himself admitted, he was hoping “to level men’s wits.” Having dwelt at length on the weakness and proclivity to error of the human mind, he wished to reduce reliance on “individual excellence.” But it is misleading to conclude that Bacon saw no place for genius or considered one researcher as good as another. His wish was to place genius within a precise structure so that it could have maximum effect. The brilliant mind, instead of working in lone and purposeless splendor, must be harnessed to a well-coordinated effort. Each researcher would work according to his abilities in the framework of a program that remorselessly increased man’s dominion over nature. Bacon allowed his optimism to get the better of his remarkable foresight only when he suggested that the final encyclopedia containing all natural science would be merely a few times larger than Pliny’s Natural History.

Nearly all of Bacon’s writings discussed reforms of one kind or another. He wanted to simplify and codify England’s legal system in order to eliminate litigiousness, delays, and uncertainties in the law. Because of the obviously practical value of technology and the mechanical arts, he hoped to raise their status. He suggested the relief of poor economic conditions and a re-evaluation of relations betwen king and Parliament in order to prevent political troubles. He also had a solution—peaceful colonization—for the perennial problem of Ireland. It has been shown (Crane 1923) that even in his later literary works, the last two editions of his Essays (first published in 1597, enlarged in 1612 and again in 1625) he kept his long-term aims in mind. He wrote on subjects such as anger and sedition because of the insufficiency of studies of human nature and “civil knowledge.” One of his greatest hopes was that eventually research would enable man to control his passions, and the Essays gave him the opportunity to make preliminary investigations that would eventually form part of a complete body of knowledge about the mind. In political science and ethics he admired, with reservations, the realism of Machiavelli; but studies of history, which could teach man so much, he found woefully inadequate, particularly in the case of intellectual history. He envisioned vast projects to remedy these deficiencies, and his History of the Reign of King Henry VII ([1622] in The Works, vol. 11) was intended as part of a complete history of England. Medicine, too, occupied his interest; he believed that like all sciences, it had to be systematized if it was to progress toward its ultimate goal, the prolongation of life.

Bacon’s writings ranged over so many topics— from ethics to teratology—because he believed in an essential unity of all the sciences. Methods of inquiry should be the same in all subjects, starting with observations of fact and moving slowly to careful generalizations. The highest study of all, which he called the prime philosophy, would contain generalizations about the entirety of knowledge, and he wanted researchers in different disciplines to be in contact so that they could learn from one another. When in 1592 he wrote, “I have taken all of knowledge to be my province,” he was stressing the basic unity of science, which enabled him to study many widely separated fields. But the very breadth of his vision, combined with an active public life, forced him to leave most of his work unfinished. Only fragments of his sweeping program for the Great Instauration ever came to be written. Its most complete section, the Novum organum, where Bacon outlined the shortcomings of past science and expounded his inductive method, consisted of aphorisms that he himself said served to “invite men to enquire farther” (Advancement of Learning [1605] in The Works, vol. 8).

Nonetheless, the indifference he faced in his lifetime soon gave way to widespread admiration. William Harvey’s gibe that he wrote “philosophy like a Lord Chancellor” may have pinpointed Bacon’s mediocrity as a scientist—he knew too little to appreciate the vital importance of hypotheses and mathematics—but it also hinted at Bacon’s unique position in the thought of his century. He has been called a statesman and strategist of science, and he was indeed primarily an organizer and a prophet, not a notable discoverer. Although much respect was later accorded to his general stress on experiment and induction, the reverence he inspired was due mainly to his vision of science as an organized, collaborative, and fruitful inquiry. Leibniz acknowledged his importance, even though he felt that Bacon’s ignorance of mathematics put him outside the course of actual scientific development. Descartes, too, despite a radically different view of scientific thought, paid homage to the lord chancellor. And during the English Civil War, the man who had been ignored by his contemporaries suddenly became a hero not only to revolutionaries who wanted to reform society but also to the scientists, such as Boyle, who were to found the Royal Society of London in 1662 in a deliberate attempt to put his program into practice. Other scientific academies throughout Europe followed suit, and in the realm of philosophy Hobbes, Locke, the eighteenth-century encyclopedists, and Bentham joined the many who reflected his influence. In his advocacy of a systematic organization of learning, a skeptical attitude toward knowledge, a humanitarian goal for science, and a study of society and the mind as well as nature, Bacon heralded the beginning of a new era in man’s conception of himself and his universe.

Theodore K. Rabb

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Bacon’s ideas, see the articles underScienceand the biographies ofBentham; Descartes; Hobbes; Locke.]


The Works of Francis Bacon. Collected and edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. 15 vols. New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1863–1872. → Volumes 1–7: Philosophical Works. Volumes 8–10: Translation of the Philosophical Works. Volumes 11–15: Literary and Professional Works. The Essays are contained in Volume 12.


Anderson, Fulton H. 1948 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A major work that has influenced all subsequent studies.

Anderson, Fulton H. 1962 Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. → The best concise biography.

Bertolino, Alberto 1929 Bacone e I’economia. Siena (Italy): Circolo Giuridico della R. Università.

Bock, Hellmut 1937 Staat und Gesellschaft bei Francis Bacon: Ein Beitrag zur politischen Ideologie der Tudorzeit. Berlin: Junker & Dünnhaupt.

Broad, C. D. 1926 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Address Delivered at Cambridge. Cambridge Univ. Press. → An excellent brief exposition of Bacon’s classification of knowledge.

Cohen, Morris R. 1926 The Myth About Bacon and the Inductive Method. Scientific Monthly 23:504–508.

Crane, Ronald S. 1923 The Relation of Bacon’s Essays to His Program for the Advancement of Learning. Pages 87–105 in Schelling Anniversary Papers. New York: Century.

Farrington, Benjamin 1949 Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science. New York: Schuman. → A pioneering study of the social aims of Bacon’s thought. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Farrington, Benjamin 1964 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Essay on Its Development From 1603 to 1609. Liverpool (England) Univ. Press.

Gardiner, Samuel rawson 1885 Francis Bacon. Volume 1, pages 800–821 in Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith & Elder.

Hill, Christopher 1965 Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon. → See Chapter 3, on Bacon’s milieu.

Jones, Richard F. (1936) 1961 Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-century England. 2d ed. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington Univ. Press.

Kocher, Paul H. 1957 Francis Bacon on the Science of Jurisprudence. Journal of the History of Ideas 18:3–26.

Macaulay, Thomas B. (1837) 1898 Lord Bacon. Volume 8, pages 496–647 in Thomas Macaulay, Works of Lord Macaulay. London: Longmans.

Mcrae, Robert 1957 The Unity of the Sciences: Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz. Journal of the History of Ideas 18:27–48.

Merton, Robert K. 1961 Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 105:470–486. → A paper delivered at a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Bacon’s birth; sees Bacon as making contributions to the sociology of science.

Orsini, Napoleone 1936 Bacone e Machiavelli. Genoa (Italy): Orfini.

Prior, Moody E. 1954 Bacon’s Man of Science. Journal of the History of Ideas 15:348–370.

Rossi, Paolo 1957 Francesco Bacone: Dalla magia alla scienza. Bari (Italy): Laterza. → Reveals Bacon’s debt to magic and other contemporary traditions. Together with Anderson and Farrington, Rossi has brought about a complete revaluation of Bacon’s significance.

Whitaker, Victor K. 1962 Francis Bacon’s Intellectual Milieu. Los Angeles: Univ. of California, William Andrew Clark Memorial Library.

Bacon, Francis

views updated Jun 08 2018

Francis Bacon

BORN: January 22, 1561 • London, England

DIED: April 9, 1626 • London, England

English philosopher; statesman

Francis Bacon is considered the most important English thinker of the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. He believed that knowledge should come from direct observation of the world. He rejected traditional ways of teaching because they were not founded on scientific methods, and he argued that education should be based on active observation and experimentation. His theories deeply influenced other thinkers of the time and helped to introduce modern methods of learning. Bacon also held various government posts in the courts of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) and her successor, James I (1566–1625; see entry).

"Knowledge is power."

Though Bacon enjoyed great prestige, wealth, and power, he spent the last few years of his life in social disgrace after being convicted of political corruption. Nevertheless, he continued to write and publish works that provoked intense debate among leading scholars. He is remembered today for his contributions both to English literature and to the development of modern scientific thinking.

Born into influential family

Francis Bacon was born in London, in 1561. Bacon's family was extremely powerful and influential. His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510–1579), was lord keeper of the great seal of England. His mother, Anne Cooke (1533–1610) was the daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke (1505–1576), who had served as tutor to Edward VI (1537–1553). The Cooke household valued education and maintained close connections with the royal court. Anne's sister, for example, was married to Queen Elizabeth's principal advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry). Francis and his older brother, Anthony (1558–1601), grew up surrounded by some of the most important political figures of the time.

Bacon and his brother spent most of their childhood at their father's big country house in Gorhambury, Hertfordshire. When Anthony was fourteen, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge University. Though Francis was only twelve, he went with his brother and also enrolled as a student. Francis finished his studies at Cambridge in 1575 without completing a degree. He then began his training as a lawyer at Gray's Inn, London. While still a student Bacon went to France for two and a half years to serve the English ambassador. He returned to England after his father's death in 1579 and resumed studying at Gray's Inn. He became a lawyer in 1584.

That same year Bacon was elected to his first term in Parliament, the English legislature. One of his most notable actions as a member of Parliament was to speak in favor of the execution of Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry). A Roman Catholic cousin of Elizabeth, Mary had been involved in a plot to assassinate the queen. Though Mary was found guilty of treason, the question of her sentence was controversial. If the English government put her to death, this action would threaten the authority of the monarchy. Mary was a legitimate queen. By authorizing Mary's execution, Elizabeth would be establishing the legal right of a head of state to execute another sovereign monarch. This precedent, she feared, would weaken the principle that monarchs could not be subjected to the death sentence for treason. Bacon sided with those who insisted that Mary be executed.

Gains support from queen's favorite

Bacon also served on various parliamentary committees and as a legal consultant. In 1589 he was named Clerk of Star Chamber, a law court at Westminster Palace. Historians think it is likely that his uncle, William Cecil, helped him get this job. Bacon also served as Queen's Counsel (attorney), but Elizabeth never made this a formal appointment. Though these were respectable jobs, they did not pay very much. Bacon, who had expensive tastes and wished to live in luxury, wanted more income. He tried to persuade one of the queen's favorite advisors, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex; 1566–1601; see entry), to help him get a higher appointment in the government. Although Devereux recommended Bacon very highly to the queen, she chose not to appoint him to any additional positions.

Devereux continued to be one of Bacon's most powerful supporters. From 1592 to 1601 Bacon worked in Devereux's service. One of his tasks was to compose masques to entertain Devereux's friends. (Masques are staged performances featuring music, poetry, song, and dance.) In 1592 Bacon composed such a masque, "In Praise of Knowledge," for Elizabeth in honor of the anniversary of her coronation, or crowing as queen. This masque contained flattering language about the queen, honoring her deep respect for learning. Bacon had also flattered the queen by dedicating an earlier composition, "Maxims of the Law," to her. Bacon received many favors from Devereux during his service. However, when Devereux was arrested for treason in 1601, Bacon joined the government in prosecuting him. Elizabeth asked Bacon to be her lawyer in the case against Devereux, and Bacon agreed. Devereux was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Though many people considered Bacon's actions a betrayal of his friend and supporter, Bacon argued that he was obeying his duty to his queen.

Bacon's career and finances improved dramatically after Elizabeth's death. When James I took the throne in 1603, he made Bacon a knight. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) Four years later the king named him solicitor general. In 1613 the king made Bacon attorney general, and in 1616 he appointed Bacon a member of the Privy Council, the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the king's chief advisors. In 1617 Bacon was given the position his father had once held, lord keeper of the great seal. He became lord chancellor in 1618. Also that year he was given a title, Lord Verulam. In 1621 the king made Bacon the Viscount St. Alban.

Marriage had also improved Bacon's financial situation. In 1607 he wed Alice Barnham (1592–1650), a member of a rich family. She brought a large income with her as part of her dowry. (It was traditional at that time for a woman's family to provide a gift of money or property, called a dowry, to her new husband.) Alice was only fourteen when the wedding took place; Bacon was a middle-aged man of almost forty-five. The couple spent much of their time apart and did not have any children. It appears that they may not have been happy together. Just a few months before he died, Bacon removed his wife from his will so that she would not be able to inherit anything from him.

Was Bacon the Real Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry) is the most famous playwright of the Elizabethan Era. Because few records remain of Shakespeare's life, some scholars began to question whether it was actually Shakespeare or someone else who wrote his famous plays. Starting in the mid-1800s, some scholars began to suggest that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare, they reasoned, did not have enough education to have written so brilliantly about so many complex ideas and characters. But Bacon did. And Bacon's works showed exceptional literary talent; his language, they believed, was as brilliant and stylish as that attributed to Shakespeare. In addition Bacon sometimes liked to use ciphers, a type of code, in his writing. Some scholars argued that he wrote the plays and used this system of ciphers to disguise his identity as their true author. This theory that Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare's plays caused intense controversy for decades and still inspires debate. But it has become less respected over the years, as many scholars have concluded that the evidence for this theory is not convincing.

Major publications

Bacon published his first book, a collection of essays, in 1597. He had been working on these writings since at least 1592, when he wrote to his uncle that he intended to devote his mind to writing books that would revolutionize human learning. Bacon's essays became quite popular. They differed significantly from an earlier tradition of essays that emphasized abstract, or theoretical, thinking. Instead, Bacon's essays focused on concrete observations and ideas. For example, when he wrote about friendship he did not talk about various theories of friendship. He wrote about such practical subjects as how friendships could enrich a person's life and what qualities were ideal in a friend. A second edition of his Essays was published in 1612 and a third edition in 1625. Bacon wrote about a wide range of topics in his essays, from architecture and gardening to love and death.

The Advancement of Learning, which Bacon wrote in 1605, explained his belief in the importance of scientific education. He dedicated it to King James in hopes that it would persuade the king to support this kind of learning. In 1609 he published De sapientia veterum (On the Wisdom of the Ancients), in which he wrote about ancient myths.

Bacon's most important work, Novum organum (New Instrument), was published in 1620. This book detailed his new system of scientific study. As Bacon explained in the dedication, quoted in Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, he intended his book to describe "a new logic, teaching to invent and judge by induction [reaching a conclusion by testing facts] … and thereby to make philosophy and sciences both more true and more active." This new method, which came to be known as the Baconian Method, involved the study of natural phenomena through the careful observation of facts. Most English philosophers before Bacon used the a priori method of argument. They simply assumed a point was true and then explained their reasoning, considering this sufficient proof of their idea. Bacon believed that a priori argument was flawed because it was not based on observable facts. Instead of starting with an abstract idea and devising an argument that made that idea compatible with concrete information, Bacon began with the observation of facts. From these he could develop theories that he went on to test in a scientific way. He believed that this method was the only way to obtain knowledge that was truly accurate. New Instrument was only part of a huge work that Bacon planned to publish as The Great Instauration. This work would present his entire philosophy. Though Bacon did work on this gigantic project for the rest of his life, he never completed it.

Though Bacon's writings focused most often on his ideas about obtaining knowledge, he also wrote some works that dealt more specifically with scientific matters. These he compiled in Abecedarium naturae (Alphabet of Nature). Bacon intended this project to be read by specialists in the sciences, and it received much less attention than his other works. But he did arrange to have Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) read the section on the ocean tides. Galileo is believed to have sent Bacon a letter in response.

Luxury and scandal

By the early 1620s Bacon had achieved wealth and professional respect. He lived in luxury, throwing elaborate parties and spending huge sums of money on entertainments. He employed almost three hundred personal servants, including twenty-six gentlemen waiters, as well as pages, cooks, wardrobe masters, tailors, secretaries, a sergeant-at-arms, a seal bearer, and numerous others. Many people in London considered Bacon a show-off, and they laughed at his fancy dress and behavior. They even joked about his bad breath, which was the subject of a humorous poem called "On the Lord Chancellor Bacon's stinking breath."

In addition to making jokes about him, people began to challenge some of Bacon's legal decisions. They had evidence that made it appear that Bacon was letting wealthy people influence him to rule in their favor when they were taken to court. In 1621 Bacon was charged with accepting bribes. He eventually pleaded guilty, and the High Court of Parliament sentenced him to prison and ordered him to pay an enormous fine. In addition he was banned from holding public office again and from entering Parliament. The man who had enjoyed such tremendous fame and power had been cast into disgrace.

After being forced to retire from public service, Bacon spent the rest of his life doing research and writing books. He was often ill with gout, a painful disease of the joints, and he was constantly in debt. But his mind was too active for him to rest. In 1622 he published History of the Reign of Henry VII, which he dedicated to King James. The following year he published De augmentis, a book that expanded on the theories that he had introduced earlier in The Advancement of learning. Bacon wrote The New Atlantis, a work that described a Utopia, or ideal society, in 1624 but it was not published until after his death in 1627. Unlike most of Bacon's other works, this book was written for all people, not just scholars. In The New Atlantis, Bacon suggested that a perfect society could be achieved through science. Though other philosophers before him had written about ideal societies, they had imagined that such Utopias would be created by means of legislation or other reforms. Bacon was the first Utopian writer to argue that science could be used for the improvement of society. Scholars have continued to admire The New Atlantis for its original ideas and its amazing ability to imagine new technologies. Among the future inventions that Bacon imagined in the book were airplanes, telephones, and submarines.

Death and influence

Even Bacon's death, in 1626, was connected with his interest in observation and experimentation. On a very cold day that March, he was riding in a carriage near the outskirts of London and decided to stop and make some scientific tests on the effects of refrigeration. He wondered whether packing meat in snow could keep it fresh. To test this idea, he bought a slaughtered chicken from a woman in the area and started stuffing its body cavity with snow. In the process, he caught a chill. He stopped for shelter at the nearby home of Thomas Howard (Earl of Arundel; 1586–1646), but was put to bed in an unheated room. Bacon developed bronchitis, an inflammation of the lungs, and died on April 9. He was buried at St. Michael's Church in the Hertfordshire town of St. Albans.

Bacon's writings directly influenced many generations of philosophers and intellectuals, including the English poet John Milton (1608–1674); English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873); and English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882). The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) dedicated the second edition of his most important work, Critique of Pure Reason, to Bacon. Indeed, students still read Bacon's work and debate his ideas.

Many of Bacon's aphorisms, or brief sayings, remain well known. For example, he wrote such famous words as "The remedy is worse than the disease," and "Knowledge is power." About children he wrote, "Children sweeten labours, but they make misfortunes more bitter." The statement that might be considered among the best descriptions of Bacon himself reads simply: "Chiefly the mould [shape] of a man's fortune is in his own hands."

For More Information


Jardine, Lisa and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Pitcher, John, ed. Francis Bacon: The Essays. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Vickers, Brian, ed. Francis Bacon: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


"Francis Bacon." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Francis Bacon." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Modern History Sourcebook: Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"The Utopian Tradition." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Westfall, Richard. "Francis Bacon." The Galileo Project. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)

views updated May 23 2018

BACON, FRANCIS (15611626)

BACON, FRANCIS (15611626), English natural philosopher, essayist, and statesman. Francis Bacon was the youngest son of Elizabeth I's lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, and his second wife, Anne Cooke. Nephew by marriage to William Cecil, chief councillor to the queen, young Bacon was well positioned to succeed at court. Educated at Cambridge from the age of twelve, Bacon in 1576 began the study of law at Gray's Inn. He interrupted his legal studies that same year to accompany Sir Amias Paulet on a diplomatic mission to France. His father's sudden death recalled him home after three years' residence abroad. Because Sir Nicholas had not made adequate financial provisions for his youngest son, Francis now had to fend for himself financially. He continued his legal studies, becoming a bencher, or senior member, at Gray's in 1586. In 1584 Bacon became a member of Parliament, but thereafter failed to secure the position of solicitor general despite the assistance of his patron, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. In 1597 he published the first version of his Essays, which he continued to revise and augment in later years. During Elizabeth's reign, Bacon only attained to the post of learned counsel extraordinary and the dubious honor of prosecuting his recalcitrant ex-patron, the earl of Essex, for his treasonous uprising in 1601.

James I's ascension to the English monarchy in 1603 marked a decided turn in Bacon's fortunes. Knighted and appointed to the position of king's counsel, Bacon thereafter became solicitor general (1607), attorney general (1613), member of the privy council (1616), and lord keeper (1617). He married Alice Barnham in 1606. In 1618, he was created Baron Verulam, and became lord chancellor. From 1604 until 1621, when he was impeached for bribery, Bacon advised the king on religious, financial, administrative, parliamentary, judicial, and foreign policy matters, as well as advocating for the political union of England and Scotland. As lord chancellor, he wrote important judicial decisions and sought to reform English law.

During this period, Bacon wrote extensively about ameliorating the human condition through his plans for the advancement of natural philosophy. His Advancement of Learning appeared in 1605, his natural philosophic reinterpretation of Greek mythology, De Sapientia Veterum, in 1609, the Novum Organum in 1620, and the Historia Ventorum in 1622. After his impeachment, Bacon devoted his final years to scientific writing and experiments. He died childless in 1626 from pneumonia contracted after a foray into winter snows with a chicken carcass to conduct an experiment in refrigeration.

Bacon achieved an incisive grasp of the most significant philosophical, social, and political issues of early modernism. In The Advancement of Learning, he took the measure of the intellectual ferment that comprised the contemporary intellectual scene. Aristotelian natural philosophy had lost preeminence and now competed with Neoplatonism, empiricism, alchemy, and ancient atomism, among other philosophical theories, in the effort to explicate the natural world. Bacon articulated the weaknesses of each intellectual movement and reincorporated its strengths into his own philosophical program. For Bacon, natural philosophy should begin with empirical observation and the painstaking compilation of natural histories. Inductive inquiry and the noting of particulars would be followed by controlled experiments (under natural and artificial conditions), which would yield first-level axioms or generalizations. These, in turn, would be corrected and refined by further inductive inquiry and experimentation until higher-level axioms, which were capable of producing useful material effects, were attained. To ensure the validity of inductive and experimental findings, Bacon required the natural philosopher to eschew the four "Idols of the Mind," those ways in which the human mind distorted knowledge through the peculiarities of nature, nurture, language, and ungrounded theorizing.

Bacon tried to ensure that his program was politically practical. He designed his new science to fit within the institutional framework of a Jacobean monarchy purportedly interested in mutually beneficial relations with commercial and artisanal sectors. Bacon imagined the scientific enterprise as a grand public works project that would enlist the energies and ideas of broad sectors of society but would remain under the auspices of royal government. Bacon's institution of natural philosophy would be to reconcile private intellectual ambitions with public interests to the benefit of civil society, as his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis (1627), envisioned.

Francis Bacon never gained financial or political support for his scientific program during his lifetime. His philosophic influence in England was negligible during the first third of the seventeenth century, although his importance was understood in the 1620s by Continental philosophers such as Pierre Gassendi, Marin Mersenne, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, and Isaac Beeckman. By mid-century, however, Bacon's works were highly valued everywhere. In the 1640s, Protestant educational reformists led by Samuel Hartlib saw Bacon as a forerunner. John Wilkins, Seth Ward, and John Webster followed Bacon in attempting to devise an accurate scientific language. But Bacon's greatest influence was on the early members of England's Royal Society (est. 1662), who viewed him as their intellectual progenitor. Bacon's star blazed bright into the eighteenth century, but was clouded in the nineteenth, when biographers charged him with perfidy in prosecuting his treasonous former patron, the earl of Essex. Nonetheless, the upsurge in published studies of Bacon's life and work at the turn of the twenty-first century makes evident his status as a seminal figure in the history of early modern science.

See also Alchemy ; Aristotelianism ; Descartes, René ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Empiricism ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Hartlib, Samuel ; Huygens Family ; James I and VI (England and Scotland) ; Mersenne, Marin ; Neoplatonism ; Wilkins, John .


Primary Sources

Bacon, Francis. The Advancement of Learning. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Oxford, 2000.

. The Essayes or Counsel, Civill and Morall. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Oxford, 1985.

. The New Organon. Edited by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000. Translation of Novum Organum (1620).

Secondary Sources

Solomon, Julie Robin. Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry. Baltimore, 2003.

Weinberger, Jerry. Science, Faith, and Politics: Francis Bacon and the Utopian Roots of the Modern Age. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985.

Whitney, Charles. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, 1986.

Julie Robin Solomon

Bacon, Francis

views updated May 18 2018


Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was born in London, England on January 22. His life combined politics and philosophy. As a politician, Bacon became a prominent lawyer, judge, member of Parliament, and adviser to the British monarch during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and King James I (1566–1625). He reached the peak of his political power in 1618, when he was appointed Lord Chancellor, the highest judge in England. He fell from power in 1621 when he was impeached by Parliament for accepting bribes in his judicial cases, although he insisted there was no evidence that his judgments had been unfairly biased by the gifts he received. He died in London on April 9.

The idea that human beings should use science and technology to conquer nature for human benefit was first elaborated in the seventeenth century by Bacon. He supported that idea with five kinds of arguments—philosophical, theological, ethical, methodological, and political. Although the scientific and technological mastery of nature has become a fundamental idea in modern life, some people have challenged the wisdom of that idea by questioning Bacon's arguments.

Philosophy of Technological Science

As a philosopher, Bacon sought to move beyond traditional learning and establish a new intellectual world based on an observational and experimental science of nature that would give human beings power over nature for human benefit. In The Advancement of Learning (1605), he defended the pursuit of knowledge and surveyed the whole world of knowledge as it existed in his time. In The Great Instauration (1620), Bacon sketched a vast plan for his new scientific philosophy with technological powers, including the The New Organon, which proposed a new logic of inductive reasoning. Although he never completed this plan, he published many writings that worked out parts of it. In his Essays (1625), his most popular work, he offered scattered but penetrating observations on human life. In New Atlantis (published posthumously in 1627), he wrote a utopian fable about a society ruled by what would today be called a technoscientific research institute.

Bacon's philosophical argument was that human beings needed to reconstruct all knowledge based on natural philosophy or physics, which required studying the laws of nature as physical regularities that can be established by observation and experimentation. Beginning with Socrates (470–399 b.c.e.), many philosophers have regarded natural philosophy as less important for understanding human life than moral philosophy and theology. But Bacon thought that natural philosophy should be regarded as "the great mother of the sciences" (Bacon 2000, pp. 64–65). In particular he praised the natural philosophy of Democritus (460–370 b.c.e.), who thought that everything in nature could be explained ultimately as caused by the physical motion of atoms (Bacon 2000, 2002). Such knowledge will give people both a theoretical understanding of nature and a practical or technological power over it, because understanding the causes will give them the power to produce effects. Human knowledge and human power will be combined. This power will be limited, however, by nature itself. "Nature is conquered only by obedience," Bacon declared. And "all that man can do to achieve results is to bring natural bodies together and take them apart; Nature does the rest internally" (Bacon 2000, p. 33).

Bacon's theological argument was that this new natural philosophy would be compatible with biblical theology, although the two needed to be separated. True science is the study of God's works as revealed in nature. True religion is the study of God's words as revealed in the Bible. The book of nature and the book of scripture are separated yet compatible. Through reason, people can discover the causal laws of nature. Through faith, they can ascend to God as the miraculous First Cause of nature's laws (Bacon 2002). Humans believe in miracles as a matter of faith. But this goes beyond natural science, because "miracles are either not true or not natural; and therefore impertinent for the story of nature" (Bacon 2002, p. 177). In using scientific knowledge of nature to exercise technological mastery over nature, people show a dominion over nature that manifests their dignity as the only creatures created in God's image (Bacon 2000, 2002).

Bacon's ethical argument was that this new science would be good both as an end in itself for the pleasure of understanding and as a means for its practical benefits. To know the truth about nature is satisfying in itself for those who choose a contemplative life, because such knowledge is "the sovereign good of human nature" (Bacon 2002, p. 342). Scientific knowledge also gives the power to control nature for human benefit through discoveries and inventions that make human life more secure. By thus securing "the empire of man over things," the new science will show a love for the good of humanity that expresses the Christian virtue of charity (Bacon 2000, p. 100).

Bacon's methodological argument was that the success of this new knowledge would depend on a rigorously inductive method of reasoning from observations and experiments. Humans will need a universal natural history that allows them to move from particular facts to general ideas that suggest experiments; and from these experiments they can move gradually to ever more general ideas, until they finally grasp the fundamental laws of nature (Bacon 2000). The theoretical understanding of these laws of nature as rooted in experimental science will then yield a practical mastery of nature through mechanical inventions and discoveries. Bacon pointed to printing, gunpowder, the compass, microscopes, telescopes, and other examples of technological discoveries of his time as illustrating the practical power of natural science (Bacon 2000).

Bacon's political argument was that the observational and experimental work required for the new science would necessitate the cooperative activity of many people over many years, which could be sustained only through public institutions devoted to scientific education and research. Bacon attempted to persuade Queen Elizabeth and King James to support his intellectual project (Bacon 2000, 2002). He suggested that political rulers should be guided by natural philosophers. For example, he thought that Aristotle's influence with Alexander the Great illustrated the glory of learning in sovereignty. In New Atlantis, he described an imaginary society organized to support a scientific research institute, which would produce discoveries and inventions that would benefit the whole society.

Influence and Critics

Bacon's proponents have included many of the leaders of modern science. In seventeenth-century England, scientists such as Robert Hooke (1635–1703) and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) undertook the cooperative experimental research advocated by Bacon. They set up the Royal Society of London in 1662 with a charter from King Charles II (1630–1685) to carry out Bacon's project. In the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Jean d'Alembert (1717–1783), and others in the French Enlightenment acknowledged the influence of Bacon in pointing them toward the promotion of the arts and sciences for human benefit. In America, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) praised Bacon as one of the three greatest human beings who ever lived (along with Isaac Newton and John Locke). In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) adopted Bacon's view of inductive science and his metaphor of the two books of God as showing how religion and science can be compatible. In the twentieth century, the increase in scientific discoveries and inventions from publicly supported research institutes seemed to vindicate Bacon's optimism. In Consilience (1998), Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929) sketched a program for the unification of all knowledge based on the physical laws of nature that would complete Bacon's project.

At the same time, since Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) attacked him early in the nineteenth century, the number of Bacon's opponents has also grown. De Maistre was a French conservative who saw Bacon as a source for the morally corrupting atheistic materialism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. De Maistre argued that in basing all knowledge on physical causes, Bacon was denying the importance of moral and religious knowledge and undermining the dignity of the human soul as a spiritual power beyond the material world. Devout Christians such as Boyle had defended Bacon's science against the charge of atheistic materialism, and Bacon had written a "Confession of Faith" that conformed to the Protestant theology of John Calvin (1509–1564) (Bacon 2002). Yet de Maistre insisted that Bacon had hidden the atheistic implications of his scientific materialism through false professions of faith.

Since the twentieth century, Bacon's opponents have warned that his project for exploiting nature shows a disrespect for nature and nature's God, and a willful determination to replace the naturally given and divinely ordained with the artificially constructed and humanly manipulated. From C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) to Leon Kass, these critics worry that the abolition of nature through technology will remove the ethical limits on human will that come from nature or God. As biotechnology gives people the power to create new life forms and even redesign human nature, they might eventually find themselves in a totally artificial world empty of natural value.

Bacon's critics warn that to speak of humanity using science and technology to master nature for human benefit is vague in ways that hide inherent problems. To speak of humanity gaining such mastery suggests that all human beings will have equal power. But is it not inevitable that some human beings will have more of this power than others, and that they will use it to advance their selfish interests? Will the nations with the greatest access to scientific and technological power not use it to exploit those nations with less power? Can scientists and engineers be trusted to use their power for the good of all? If this power is publicly regulated, can the regulators be trusted to act for the common good?

To speak of the human mastery of nature suggests that human beings will have an unconstrained power that will set them apart from and above nature. But will that power not always be constrained by the potentialities of nature and by the limits of human knowledge? Will human beings not often change nature in ways that produce unanticipated consequences that are undesirable? And in changing nature, will human beings not change themselves as well? Does mastery of nature include mastery of human nature—meaning that some human beings will have mastery over the nature of other human beings, perhaps by genetically engineering the future generation of human beings? But would this not be the ultimate tyranny of some human beings over others? Even if individual human beings are free to use this power for changing their nature in whatever ways they desire, will this not create possibilities for foolishly choosing to use such power in dehumanizing ways? Might not the power of parents to manipulate the biological nature of their children deprive children of their dignity and freedom?

To speak of the mastery of nature for human benefit suggests that people have a clear grasp of the human goods about which they can all agree. But will people not often disagree about these human goods? And will these goods not often conflict with one another? Can one assume, as Bacon did, that biblical religion will guide understanding of the human goods to which human mastery of nature will be directed? Or do modern science and technology promote a materialistic and utilitarian view of the world that subverts religious belief while encouraging a hedonistic egoism? Can one still believe in the moral worth of human beings as spiritual creatures created in God's image? Or must science teach that human beings are only highly evolved animals? Even if Baconian science secures the technical means to master nature, can one trust that science to secure the moral ends of that mastery? Will human mastery of nature promote human nobility? Or will it produce a world of paltry pleasures and shallow souls? The future of science and technology as directed to the conquest of nature turns on how successful people are in thinking through such questions.


SEE ALSO Atlantis, Old and New;Experimentation;Progress;Scientific Revolution;Utopia and Dystopia.


Bacon, Francis. (2000). The New Organon, trans. Lisa Jardine, and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Bacon, Francis. (2002). The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Richard Foster. (1982). Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Dover Publications. History of Bacon's influence on English science.

Kass, Leon. (1985). Towards a More Natural Science. New York: Free Press. Neoconservative attack on Baconian mastery of nature.

Leiss, William. (1994). The Domination of Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. Critical history of the idea of mastery of nature.

Lewis, C. S. (1947). The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan Publishing. Criticism of Baconian mastery by a Christian apologist.

Maistre, Joseph de. (1998). An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon, trans. Richard A. Lebrun. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn. (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Feminist history and criticism of the idea of mastery over nature.

Peltonen, Markku, ed. (1996). The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Surveys scholarly studies of Bacon.

Urbach, Peter. (1987). Francis Bacon's Philosophy of Science. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing. Best study of Bacon's scientific method.

Wilson, Edward O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Zagorin, Perez. (1998). Francis Bacon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. General survey of Bacon's thought.

Bacon, Francis

views updated May 23 2018

Francis Bacon

January 22, 1561
London, England
April 9, 1626
London, England

Philosopher, statesman, and author

"The sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge…"

Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon made many contributions to the English Renaissance as a philosopher, statesman, and author. His advocacy of "active science" influenced the culture of the English-speaking world. He continued the family tradition of serving the royal court, and was made a nobleman during his career. His written works continue to be important in philosophy and history.

Pursues political career

Francis Bacon was born in London on January 22, 1561, at York House. He was the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509–1579) and his second wife, Lady Anne Bacon. Through the families of both parents Francis had important connections with the political and cultural life of Tudor England (the period in history when members of the house, or royal family, of Tudor ruled England; 1485–1603). His father was lord keeper of the great seal under Queen Elizabeth I (1503–1633; see entry), and his maternal grandfather had been tutor to King Edward VI (1537–1553; ruled 1547–53).

Bacon entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1573 and left in 1575 without earning a degree. The following year he accompanied Amias Paulet (c. 1536–1588), the English ambassador to France. This was Bacon's only trip abroad. He returned to England after the death of his father. Finding himself in difficult financial circumstances, he enrolled at Gray's Inn and became a barrister, or lawyer, in 1582. The previous year he had been elected member of Parliament (the main law-making body of Great Britain) for the Cornish borough of Bossiney, and he served in every parliament thereafter until 1621.

Bacon's public career began with his election to Parliament, where he displayed great talent. Apart from an appointment to the clerkship of the Star Chamber (a meeting place of the English monarch's councilors) in 1589, however, he was not given favor in the court of Elizabeth I. His ambition for high office was frustrated by the efforts of William Cecil (1520–1598), the father of Robert Cecil (1563–1612), who saw Bacon as a competitor for Elizabeth's favor. When Robert succeeded William as the chief minister to King James I (1566–1625; see entry) in 1603, he continued efforts to impede Bacon's professional progress. Bacon was determined to further his career, so he attached himself to Robert Devereux (1566–1601), earl of Essex, in 1591. Though he was still unable to secure a position within the government. In 1592, on the anniversary of the Queen's coronation, Essex presented a speech composed by Bacon. In this speech which praised knowledge, Bacon stated his lifelong theme: "the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge … now we govern nature in opinions, but are thrall to her in necessities; but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her in action."

When Essex was tried for treason (betrayal of one's country) in 1601 after a failed revolt, Bacon was assigned to prosecute his former patron. The job continued to haunt him years later, so much so that he felt compelled to defend himself in Apology in 1604. While his part in the fate of Essex has been criticized as an ungrateful betrayal, it has also been defended as a duty painfully performed.

Meets with trouble

Bacon was knighted (honored by the monarch for merit) when James took the throne, but it was his appointment as solicitor in 1607 that gave his fortunes the greatest boost. In 1608 he was named treasurer of Gray's Inn, where he maintained lodgings to the end of his life. He was finally appointed attorney general in 1613. Four years later Bacon was given his father's old position, lord keeper of the seal, and he ascended to the highest position in the kingdom, lord chancellor, in 1618. The same year he was also given the title of Baron Verulam, and in 1621 he became Viscount Saint Albans. He had reached the height of his career, only to be brought down by the political manipulations of his new rival, Edward Coke (1552–1634; see accompanying box).

Bacon's Political Fall

During the height of his political career, Bacon managed to have his new chief rival, Edward Coke, dismissed as chief justice of the King's Bench in 1616. Despite Bacon's apparent abilities, he was still overshadowed by a royal favorite, this time a man named George Villiers. Villiers was named marquis and subsequently duke of Buckingham by James I. The new duke of Buckingham soon found himself involved in controversy, as royal monopolies (companies that dominate the market to prevent competition) that made their money from indirect taxation had alienated much of the nobility. Coke was elected to Parliament in 1621 and soon led an attack on the monopolies. This move threatened Buckingham's position. To save one of his chief officers, James I reluctantly allowed Coke to charge Bacon rather than Buckingham with bribery and corruption. These charges were essentially unjustified. Bacon had done no more than accept the usual fees of office, and no one could prove that his judgment had been affected by accepting these fees. His fall was dictated by politics. Among the penalties levied on Bacon was forced resignation, a fine of forty thousand pounds, imprisonment in the Tower of London (a prison for members of the royalty and nobility), and a prohibition from serving in Parliament. The fine, imprisonment, and the prohibition from holding office were not enforced, however.

Writes on new method

Bacon's first publication, in 1597, was a collection of ten essays mainly devoted to aphorisms (concise statements of truth or sentiment) on political behavior. These were expanded and twenty-nine new essays published with them in 1612. A still further enlarged edition, including fifty-eight essays, appeared in 1625. Between 1603, when he was knighted, and 1607, when he was appointed solicitor general, he published The Advancement of Learning (1605) in hopes of moving James to support science. In 1623 this work was expanded as De augmentis scienarium (On the wisdom of science) Bacon published De sapientia veterum (On the wisdom of the ancients), an interpretation of ancient myths, and The Beginning of the History of Great Britain in 1619. The following year he wrote the Novum organum (New method) as Part II of The Great Instauration. The entire project was never completed, and the only existing part is in itself incomplete, but Bacon's reputation as a philosopher of science rests mainly upon it. The plan for the renewal of the sciences had six parts: a survey of existing knowledge, Bacon's inductive logic (method of arriving at a general conclusion on the basis of particular facts), an encyclopedia of all natural phenomena, examples of the new method's application, Bacon's discoveries, and an exposition of the new philosophy that would finally emerge. His new philosophy was based on a critique of the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) and his followers. Bacon wished to produce a critical method for achieving knowledge. He divided human reasoning into two distinct processes or "moments": invention and judgment. He then showed how these two principles were related, formulating complicated new theories.

Bacon was also interested in educational reform, and he stressed the practical aspects of science. Despite being a contemporary of the Italian astronomer Galileo (1564–1642; see entry) and other founders of modern science, he knew little of their achievements. Instead, he based his ideas on classical sources and his contributions to science were limited to theories he described in his books. Bacon himself did not make scientific observations or conduct experiments, but he felt that Aristotle's system was not suited to discovery of new truth. Bacon also rejected the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 348 b.c.) because they turned the mind inward upon itself, "away from observation and away from things." Bacon's new method emphasized "the commerce of the mind with things." Science was to be experimental, to take note of how human activity produces changes in things and not merely to record what happens independently of what people do. In addition, science should be a practical instrument for human betterment. Bacon's views are best summed up in the section of Novum organum titled "The New Philosophy or Active Science": "Man is the helper and interpreter of Nature," he argued. "He can only act and understand insofar as by working upon her he has come to perceive her order. Beyond this he has neither knowledge nor power."

Petrus Ramus

Scientific method in the Renaissance was also influenced by the French philosopher Petrus Ramus (Pierre de La Ramée; 1515–1572). Ramus was an educational reformer and humanist (scholar who studied ancient literature and languages with an emphasis on human achievement) who reacted against the Aristotelian logic (system of thought based on reason) he had been taught at the University of Paris. Ramus especially wished to revive the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and physics. He wanted to show that they could be put to practical uses. He thought Aristotle's theories on physics were too complicated for educational purposes. Ramus recommended starting with Aristotle's works on mechanical problems and meteorology and biology. He also thought classical texts on mathematics and natural history should be part of the university curriculum. He placed great emphasis on method, but what he meant by this was more a method of teaching than of conducting scientific study.

In retirement Bacon produced a great number of other works: expanded editions of the Essays (1625) and The Advancement of Learning, (1623) Historia naturalis et experimentalis (Natural and experimental history; 1622), a collection titled Apothegms New and Old (1624), a translation of the Psalms (book of poems in the Bible), and a utopian fable (story about a perfect society featuring animal characters), The New Atlantis (1627). Over the centuries many historians have argued that some of the plays attributed to the great Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry) were actually written by Bacon. Unlike a number of his peers, Bacon's importance was recognized by his contemporaries. His significance to the development of modern science was not so much the specific method he formulated but his arguments against what he called the "idols of the mind," which were popular philosophical and scientific theories of the time. He made a lasting contribution with his theory that inquiries should not be made by first principles, or fixed ideas, but instead by first perceptions, and that conclusions should be drawn through progressive stages of observation and experiment.

Bacon spent his last years in bitter retirement, but he was characteristically productive. He attempted to win royal favor again with History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622), now regarded as a classic of Renaissance history. Yet he was unable to gain another royal appointment for even a minor office. In 1606 he married fourteen-year-old Alice Barnham, the heiress of a London alderman. The marriage was childless. In his last months Bacon discovered that Alice was having an affair, so he excluded her from all but her legal portion of his will. He died at Gray's Inn on April 9, 1626.

For More Information


Maurier, Daphne du. The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.

Web Sites

Donnelly, Darri. The Essays of Francis Bacon. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

"Francis Bacon." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

Bacon, Francis

views updated Jun 27 2018


BACON, FRANCIS (15611626), Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans; English statesman, essayist, and philosopher of science. A major political figure in early Stuart England, Bacon drew a visionary picture of the role and practices of the science of the future. This science was to be experimental, and Bacon advocated setting up public institutions for its pursuit. Written in the conviction that science, properly conducted, would lead to the improvement of the material conditions of life, his major works are at the same time philosophical discourses and recommendations for public policy.

Bacon was born of distinguished parents. His father was lord keeper of the great seal to Elizabeth I, and his mother was the niece of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's lord treasurer. In 1573 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and two years later was enrolled briefly as a law student at Gray's Inn. His father's death in 1579 left Francis, the youngest son, comparatively poor, and he embarked on a career in law and politics. In 1584 he became a member of the House of Commons, where he sat until his elevation to the House of Lords in 1618. Despite wide knowledge, great ability, and influential friends, Bacon never achieved high office under Elizabeth, but after the accession of James I in 1603 he became successively king's counsel, solicitor general, attorney general, lord keeper, and lord chancellor. Then, in 1620, he was found guilty of taking a bribe and was removed from public office. He spent the remainder of his life working on a vast project: to provide both a new foundation for knowledge and a program for its acquisition.

This project had occupied him since he first entered Parliament. An essay written in 1584 has not survived, but from 1594 we have Discourse in Praise of Knowledge, a contribution to an entertainment devised for Elizabeth. Its themes, the sterility of traditional Aristotelian philosophy on the one hand and the lack of progress in empirical endeavors like alchemy on the other, reappeared in The Advancement of Learning (1605); book 1 of this work contains a defense of learning, and book 2 a catalog of the branches of knowledge, with a commentary showing where each is deficient. An expanded version, in Latin, was published in 1623 as De augmentis scientarum. Bacon thought of this version as the first section of his "great instauration" of the sciences, of which the second part, Novum organum (The new organon), had already appeared (1620). Posthumously published, though written in 1610, was New Atlantis ; here, in the guise of a traveler's tale, Bacon depicts his ideal scientific community. The science he proposed was to be both experimental and systematic: "The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own" (Novum organum 95). Similarly, adherence to proper principles of induction would yield scientific knowledge from experimental findings.

Bacon's methodology of science has been criticized for its rejection of those speculative hypotheses that contribute essentially to progress; he is also faulted for his dismissal of the use of mathematics in science. But these criticisms are made with hindsight: when, in 1662, the Royal Society was founded along Baconian lines, its early members, including speculative natural philosophers like Robert Boyle, were lavish in their praise of him.

In his lifetime, however, the works most widely read were De sapientia veterum (Of the wisdom of the ancients, 1610), which puts forward rational reinterpretations of classical fables and mythology, and his Essays. The essays, appearing in several editions between 1597 and 1625, are aphoristic in style and worldly in content; like Machiavelli, whom he admired, Bacon sought to describe the political world as it is rather than as it should be. He described the essays as "recreations of my other studies," but they may also be regarded as supplying material for "civil knowledge," a branch of "human philosophy" in Bacon's scheme.

Bacon's views on religion are problematic. Although the first edition of the Essays included his Meditationes sacrae (Sacred meditations), in the essays themselves religion is viewed merely as a useful social cement, contributing to the stability of the state. And, along with Aristotelian philosophy, Bacon rejected the scholastic tradition within theology. Repeatedly he emphasized the necessity of a divorce between the study of science and of religion: the truths of science are revealed in God's works, the truths of morality and religion by God's word, that is, in sacred scripture. Fact and value become apparently dissociated. But those commentators who claim that Bacon's frequent protestations of faith were either politic or ironical must deal with the recurrence of theological elements within his thought. For example, his inductive system rests on a belief that the surface of nature can be made transparent to us, provided we rid ourselves of the misconceptions ("idols," Bacon calls them) that are the product of our fallen state; proper inductive procedures will, at least partially, restore the "commerce between the mind of man and the nature of things" to its original condition, that is, to its condition before the Fall. Again, Bacon's New Atlantis is suffused with a mystical Christianity, which, it has been persuasively argued, owes much to the Rosicrucian movement. Of course, such religious elements are open to reinterpretation, as Bacon's own reinterpretation of the myths of antiquity shows. And although certain eighteenth-century religious ideas, like the "argument from design" for God's existence, are prefigured in Bacon's writings, it was his insistence on the autonomy of science, as well as his systematic ordering of its various components, that earned him the admiration of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and d'Alembert. They rightly saw him as among those who made the Enlightenment possible. For good or ill, he was also a herald, not only of the technological age that succeeded it, but also of the compartmentalization of experience characteristic of our culture.


The standard edition of Bacon's Works (London, 18571874) was edited by James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath; volumes 17 contain the works, together with translations of all the major Latin works into English; volumes 814 contain a life, letters, and miscellanea. All important works appear in English in Philosophical Works, edited by J. M. Robertson (London, 1905). Noteworthy among editions of individual works is a scrupulously annotated edition of The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis, 3d ed., edited by Arthur Johnston (Oxford, 1974). Three interesting and previously untranslated minor works appear in Benjamin Farrington's The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Liverpool, 1964), together with a valuable monograph on Bacon's thought. A useful, albeit adulatory, account of Bacon's philosophy is Fulton H. Anderson's The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1948; reprint, Chicago, 1971); more critical is Anthony Quinton's Francis Bacon (Oxford, 1980). Paulo Rossi's Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (Chicago, 1968) offers an intriguing study linking Bacon's thought with the hermetic tradition. Other aspects of Bacon scholarship are covered in Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon, edited by Brian Vickers (Hamden, Conn., 1968).

R. I. G. Hughes (1987)

Bacon, Sir Francis

views updated May 18 2018


Sir Francis Bacon was an English lawyer and statesman whose philosophical theories and writings influenced the development of scientific

and legal thought in Great Britain and the United States.

Bacon was born in 1561, the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the lord keeper of the great seal, and Lady Ann, whose brother-in-law was Baron Burghley (William Cecil), the first minister to Queen Elizabeth I. Bacon, like his father, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he enrolled at the age of twelve. In 1576 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London, which were institutions established for legal education. He also spent time in France as a member of the English ambassador's staff, before his father's sudden death required him to return to England and resume his legal education so that he could support his family. After completing his studies, Bacon became a barrister in 1582 and then attained the posts of reader (lecturer at the Inn) and bencher (senior member of the Inn).

In 1584, at the age of twenty-three, Bacon was elected to the House of Commons, representing Taunton, Liverpool, the county of Middlesex, Southampton, Ipswich, and the University of Cambridge. In 1594, he argued his first major case, Chudleigh's Case (1 Co. Rep. 1136, 76 Eng. Rep. 261 [K.B. 1594]), which involved the interpretation of complex inheritance statutes. He also began writing about science and philosophy and started work on his first major volume, Temporis Partus Maximus (The greatest part of time), though the book, along with many of his earliest works, was never published and so disappeared.

Through his friendship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Bacon became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth I and he eventually became her counsel around 1600. As counsel, Bacon later took part in the prosecution of Essex, from whom he had become estranged, for treason, and for these efforts Bacon was knighted in 1603. In 1605, he published his first book, The Advancement of Learning, a collection of essays on philosophy that he dedicated to King James I. Later the same year, he married Alice Barnham, the daughter of a wealthy London politician.

Bacon continued to curry the king's favor by assisting James in his plans to unite Scotland with England, and was named to the post of solicitor general in 1607. He also continued to write, publishing in 1609 The Wisdom of the Ancients, in which he analyzed the meaning of ancient myths. Seeking promotion to attorney general, Bacon advised the king concerning affairs of state and the relationship between the Crown and Parliament. He successfully engineered the ouster of the chief justice of the common pleas, sir edward coke, a longtime rival who had earlier occupied solicitor and attorney general posts that Bacon had sought. Bacon finally became attorney general in 1613, which enabled him to continue his feud with Coke. He eventually prosecuted Coke for his role in the case of Edmond Peacham, a clergyman charged with treason for advocating rebellion against oppression in an unpublished treatise, leading to Coke's dismissal in 1616. Bacon continued his service to the king and was appointed lord keeper of the great seal in 1617. A year later, he became lord chancellor of England, a post he held until 1621.

"Judges must be aware of hard constructions and strained inferences, for there is no worse torture than the torture of laws."
—Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon, a man of great intellect and energy, was often torn between his ambitions for higher office and his keen interest in science and philosophy. Though he was primarily concerned with his service to the Crown during most of his adult life, he did devote time to the study of philosophy. He was an early proponent of inductive reasoning, the theory that by analyzing observed facts, one can establish general laws or principles about how the world works. This theory is the opposite of deductive reasoning, which holds that one can draw specific conclusions by reasoning from more general premises. Bacon believed inductive reasoning to be more useful because it permitted the development of new theories that could be more generally and widely applied to a variety of situations. The legal systems of many countries, including the United States, were eventually grounded on the application of general laws derived from specific fact situations to govern conduct.

Bacon was likewise a strong believer in empiricism, the belief that experience is the most important source of knowledge. According to Bacon, scientists should try to learn about the world by using information gathered through the senses rather than by using reason or rules set forth by religious or political authority. Empiricism, like inductive reasoning, also influenced the development of later legal philosophies, in this case theories that viewed the law and justice as emerging from social life and experience.

Bacon was a prolific writer throughout his life, authoring a number of works expounding his theories. The Novum Organum, his most well known and widely read philosophical work, was published in 1620. The Instauratio Magna (Great instauration, from the Latin word instaurare, "to renew or begin afresh") was a comprehensive plan in which Bacon attempted to reorganize and redefine the sciences; it also contained his views concerning logic and scientific experimentation. In his philosophical writings, Bacon argued that the mind should be purged of what he termed idols, or tendencies to err. These idols, he maintained, arose from human nature, individual experience, and language. In addition, Bacon kept an extensive diary, which was discovered after his death. The notebook, known as the Commentarius Solutus (Loose commentary), contained his notes about, among other things, his debts, his garden, and his health.

Later in his life, Bacon began to fall out of favor with the Crown. In 1618, the king criticized him for interfering in the marriage of Coke's daughter. In 1621, Bacon was charged with accepting a bribe concerning a grievance committee over which he had presided. Bacon admitted in a full confession that he had received gifts, but denied that they had influenced his judgment. Though he begged for mercy, Bacon found the king unsympathetic to his case and was forced to resign his office. Bacon was sentenced to a stiff fine (which was later suspended), imprisonment in the Tower of London (which actually lasted only four days), exclusion from holding any state office, and prohibition from coming within the vicinity of the Court of King's Bench.

Following his ouster from the court, Bacon returned to his large estate at Gorhambury, in rural England, to devote all of his energies to research and writing. He prepared digests of the laws and wrote a history of Great Britain and its monarchs. He planned to write six separate natural histories, but only two were completed: Historia Ventorum (History of the winds), which was published in 1622, and Historia Vitae et Mortis (History of life and death), which appeared the following year. He also wrote the History of Henry VII, published in 1622. In 1621, he enlarged his volume of Essays, which he had first published in 1597, and in 1627, he published The New Atlantis. He also corresponded with Italian philosophers and sent his work to them. Over the years, some writers have suggested that Bacon may have been the true author of William Shakespeare's plays, but because no concrete proof has been offered, the theory has been discounted by most scholars.

Sometime around 1623, Bacon, in ill health, was finally granted an audience with the king,

but he was not granted a pardon for his offenses. In London, on April 9, 1626, he died of bronchitis he contracted while conducting experiments on the effects of refrigeration on poultry.

further readings

Bowen, Catherine D. 1963. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hogan, John C., and Mortimer D. Schwartz. 1985. "A Translation of Bacon's Maxims of the Common Law." Law Library Journal 77 (fall): 707–18.

Whitney, Charles. 1986. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Zagorin, Perez. 1998. Francis Bacon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.


Coke, Sir Edward; Inns of Court.

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