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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The impatience of the humanists and English
Ramists with the disputative science of Scholasticism,
the naturalism of Italian thought in the Renaissance,
the practical elements of the magico-alchemical tradi-
tion, the revaluation of technical knowledge in the


works of the mechanists (meccanici) in the sixteenth
century, the ethico-political realism of Machiavelli, the
treatises on rhetoric and on the arts of discourse—all
these had a decisive influence on the cultural develop-
ment of Francis Bacon. But what makes his thought
modern is not so much his adhesion to the most pro-
gressive movements of contemporary culture as the
transformed function which Bacon assigns to learning.
He understands knowledge not as contemplation or
recognition of a given reality, but as a venatio, a hunt,
an exploration of unknown lands, a discovery of the
unknown. Bacon wished to be the buccinator or herald
of a new world, and his true greatness consists precisely
in this function of his as herald. He formulated no
revolutionary scientific hypothesis and contributed to
none of the discoveries destined to alter to any large
extent the horizon of modern science. But he did in-
quire into and wrote on the function of science in
human life, and worked out an ethics of scientific
research flatly opposed to the typically magical men-
tality dominant in his time. He tried to think up a new
technique of approach to nature, and laid the bases
of that encyclopedia of the sciences which was destined
to become one of the most important enterprises of
European culture. With energy and clarity he formu-
lated a number of theses which are now an integral
part of our civilization and which warrant our ranking
him, with Descartes and Galileo, among the founders
of modern thought. These theses are the following:
science can and should transform the condition of
human life on earth; science, even if it is internally
value-free, is not in reality indifferent to the values
of ethics and the reaches of political and social life:
it is an instrument constructed by man with a view
to the realization of the values of fraternity and prog-
ress; these values must be strengthened and reinforced
by that same science in which collaboration, humility
before Nature, and the will to be clear are the rule;
the logic of the humanists, constructed with a view
to persuasion, is to be replaced by a logic of invention
and discovery useful in the construction of works rather
than in the disputations of the learned; the extension
of man's power over nature is never the work of a
single investigator who keeps his results secret, but is
the fruit of an organized collectivity of scientists
financed by the State or by public bodies; in the his-
torical world, science always has a precise practical
function and every reform of learning is always a
reform also of cultural institutions and universities.

Many of these ideas seem familiar to us nowadays.
Nevertheless they were born of a long historical labor
and have had a revolutionary significance. To make
this clear it will be useful to consider briefly five salient
ideas or viewpoints in the Baconian philosophy to
which the later course of thought appealed, positively
or negatively, and which exerted a decisive influence
on the Enlightenment and on positivism. These con-
ceptions may be listed as follows: (1) the evaluation
of tradition; (2) the idea of science; (3) the revaluation
of technology; (4) the search for a method; (5) the
notion of natural history.

(1) Bacon was convinced that culture had entered
a period of radical crisis, had come to a “dead end,”
and that a new epoch was about to be born. However,
the vast change about to happen was not to affect only
philosophy or speculative thought, Bacon believed. It
was rather bound up with a whole series of material
factors which have modified man's way of life and must
consequently modify, too, their way of thinking. The
great inventions of the compass, the printing press, and
gunpowder, the new growth of the mechanical arts,
the voyages of exploration and geographical discover-
ies, and the new political conditions in Europe have
modified the conditions of living. It would be shameful
for men to be confined within the boundaries of the
ancient intellectual world after they have opened out
to infinity the boundaries of the globus mundi. Since
the conditions of the time are ripe, Bacon presents his
works as a child of the time (temporis partus masculus)
rather than of the mind of a genius. The considerations
developed in Temporis partus masculus (1602-03),
Cogitata et visa (1607), Redargutio philosophiarum
(1608), and then restated in different form in the major
works are not interpretable as a kind of invective or
polemical outburst: they are born of the consciousness
that a new age requires a new philosophy and a new
vision of the world, that it requires above all an end
to that attitude of veneration of the past which hitherto
has characterized culture. What Bacon attacks in the
ancient philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Cicero,
Seneca, Plutarch) and in those of the Middle Ages and
the Renaissance (Thomas, Duns Scotus, Ramus, Cardan,
Paracelsus, Telesio) is not a series of theoretical errors.
These philosophies can all be put on the same level
because they are all in reality products of ages that
had characteristics, purposes, goals different from those
of the modern age. It is not a question of attacking
or denying the glory of the traditional philosophers.
If we followed in their path, Bacon says again and
again, we should certainly come to results inferior to
those they arrived at. It is a question of rejecting their
goals and their methods, showing the historical char-
acter—historical, and therefore not eternal or super-
temporal—of these philosophies, making clear how the
limits of these philosophies are precisely the limits of
Greek civilization, close to the time of the fables of
the poets and poor in history, and of medieval civili-
zation, built by men of acute mind and too ample


leisure (confined moreover to convent cells), who
sought impiously to reduce theology to a science and
wrote commentaries far more obscure than the sacred
texts they professed to interpret.

(2) Science, as Bacon conceives it, must abandon the
terrain of chance, of the arbitrary, of the hasty synthe-
sis, and must proceed on the basis of an experi-
mentalism constructed not ex analogia hominis but ex
analogia universi.
John Dewey has very justly written
that many misunderstandings of Bacon's thought would
have been avoided had proper notice been taken of
the emphasis Bacon places on the social factor both
in the search for knowledge and in the goal of knowl-
edge. Bacon did not succeed in carrying out any of
his numerous projects for a reformation of cultural
institutions, but he insisted at length on the public,
democratic, and collaborative nature of scientific in-
quiry. The conception of science as resulting from a
series of individual contributions to a communal suc-
cess, the patrimony of all, put Bacon in a position of
radical conflict on the one hand with the debater's
science of Scholasticism, on the other with the magical
mentality largely dominant in the culture of the
Renaissance. Against Cardan, against Agrippa, against
many of the Renaissance naturalists Bacon carried on
an unrelenting polemic. In the Redargutio philos-
and then in the general preface to the
Instauratio magna, he struck with singular penetration
and power at the roots of the characteristic attitudes
of magical alchemy. If among innumerable falsities
magic and alchemy come to some results, that still
happens out of love of novelty and for the sake of
exciting wonder, not with a view to the benefit of
humankind. Philosophy tends, through demonstrations,
to make things seem less wonderful and miraculous
than in reality they are; magic and imposture on the
contrary make things seem more wonderful than they
are in reality. Men must continue the attempt charac-
teristic of magic, to make themselves masters of nature,
but must reject the methods and the procedures magic
has linked to these attempts. Every attitude which
would substitute the wisdom of one man for the orga-
nized efforts of humanity is to be rebuffed. Every
doctrine that places science in the service of some one
man rather than in the service of the whole human
race is to be rejected. Bacon accordingly interprets
magic as imposture, as a craving for applause, a mania
for greatness and fame. For technique and its sweat
and laboriousness magic pretends to be able to substi-
tute some easy arrangement of bodies. But the inter-
pretation of the oracles of nature demands an infinite
patience, and the pages of the great book of nature
are to be read with humility and reverence. To learn
to read in this book means renouncing the pretence
of miracle-making to amaze the vulgar; it means to
become as little children. Magicians and alchemists
repeat the same gestures endlessly, put their trust in
an inalterable ritual. Magic and alchemy are by nature
uncollaborative and unprogressive: they cannot take
form as sciences because they assign excessive weight
to individual action and judgment and are incapable
of growing by their own internal strength. The phi-
losophers and scientists and magicians of the Renais-
sance had, it is true, energetically insisted on the value
of “experiments,” as against the bookish culture of late
Scholasticism, and had underlined the practical value
of all research. But they had continued to conceive
the work of science as the fruit of solitary labor, as
the privilege of exceptional personalities, as the prod-
uct of collaboration by the “enlightened” which re-
quired special and secret means of communication and
mysterious initiations. Della Porta, Cardan, Agrippa,
and Paracelsus moved on this terrain. Bacon proposed
a different portrait of the scientist, founded on a differ-
ent conception of science. Science is not a series of
thoughts jotted down, but methodical and systematic
thought. It is not a simple appeal to experience, it is
not only rejection of the authorities, it is not only
observation. Science is not the intuition of a solitary
genius, but is research and the institutionalizing of
research in specific social and linguistic forms.

(3) The course of history was profoundly changed,
according to Bacon, by mechanical inventions. His
protest against the sterility of the traditional culture
appears to be founded on the contrast between the
mechanical arts and speculative philosophy. The sci-
ences, he writes in the Novum Organum (I, Preface),
have remained unchanged for two thousand years
almost, while the mechanical arts, as if pervaded by
a vital spirit, continually grow and advance. In the
dialectical exercises of the medieval schools, in the
rhetorical exercises of the humanists, every assertion
remained what it was, unchanged; and every question
remained unresolved, as if transfixed. The intellectual
sciences stood like statues worshipped and celebrated,
while the progress of the technical arts is so swift that
it even surpasses the desires of men. This progress
depends on the fact that in the mechanical arts there
is no room for the dictatorial power of an individual:
in these arts the minds of many collaborate. The figure
of the master is replaced by that of the inventor, the
image of the sage by that of the investigator who adds
something to the work of those who preceded him (De
augmentis..., Works,
I, 457-58). The Baconian revalu-
ation of technology and the mechanical arts, central
to the new culture, entailed the rejection of that con-
ception of science which, though cracked in a thousand
places, had remained alive and operative for centuries:


a science which is born only when the necessities of
life have already been procured and which then de-
velops into a disinterested contemplation of truth. In
a very large sector of European thought, during an-
tiquity and the Middle Ages, the distinction between
slaves and free men was identified with the contrast
between manual labor and intellectual work, between
practical knowledge and rational knowledge, between
technology and science. Thus the Baconian distinction
between “ancients” and “moderns” takes on, from this
point of view, a more exact meaning; to fall under the
spell of tradition means to accept one of the charac-
teristic dogmas of the past: the transformation of one's
own inadequate technique into a theory of being. The
ancients put “beyond the bounds of possibility...
whatever is beyond their own or their master's knowl-
edge or reach” (Novum Organum, I, 75). The Aristo-
telian philosophy of nature was constructed on the
basis of inadequate and insufficient instruments of con-
trol and guidance. To the “thus far and no further”
of the ancients Bacon opposes the “there is more be-
yond” of the new science; the “inimitable thunderbolt”
(inimitabile fulmen) can now be imitated. Taking the
mechanical arts as a model for culture, it is then possi-
ble to bring to birth a type of learning which, unlike
the ancient kind, is capable of progress. But Bacon
never thought of reducing science to technology. In
the new culture the work of the mechanics and em-
pirics was to unite with that of the theorists so that
“the kind of Mechanics often merely empirical and
operative” would be surpassed (De augmentis...,
Works, I, 572). In any case, collaboration between
science and technical arts was to take the place of
chance and gross observation. For more than twenty
years the Lord Chancellor drove home a double cri-
tique, for which he fought, so to speak, “on two fronts”:
against the inadequacies of the work of the empirics
and against the arbitrariness of the doctrines of the
rationalists. The transformation of reality and the
instauration of the regnum hominis cannot be entrusted
solely to the fire of the laboratories and the work of
the shops, but must depend on reason capable of oper-
ating with the aid of instruments. As he writes in the
Cogitata et visa: “In both the arts and sciences there
is a universally accepted cleavage into the Empirical
and the Rational or Philosophical.” But in Bacon's view
these twin attitudes have not up to now been properly
mingled and combined. The Empirics are like ants;
they gather and consume. The Rationalists are spiders
spinning webs out of themselves. But the bee combines
both functions. It gathers its material from flowers of
garden and field, and digests and transforms them by
a faculty of its own.

This is the type of true philosophy. It takes the
matter furnished by natural history and mechanical
experience and stores it in its memory, but not before
it has been transformed and wrought upon by the
understanding. Bacon is, of course, aware that some
Empirics disclaim the title of Empiric pure and simple,
and some Dogmatists are ambitious to be thought
determined and intelligent experimentalists. But,
whichever group they belong to, these pretensions are
only evidence of their wish to have a reputation above
their fellows. In fact the divorce between the two
activities, speculation and experiment, has always ob-
tained. But if the two could be joined in a closer and
holier union, the prospects of a numerous and happy
issue are bright indeed.

(4) The new logic of the sciences (Novum Organum
), as Bacon conceives it, is not only a
method of inquiry. The interpretation of nature (inter-
pretatio naturae
), which is founded on induction and
its method of elimination and which aims at the deter-
mination of forms, is closely linked with the expurgatio
whose task it is to liberate the human in-
tellect from the prejudices (idola) deriving from the
spontaneous and uncontrolled operations of reason,
language, and traditional philosophies. Many com-
mentators, beginning with Hegel in his History of
have identified the whole work of Bacon
with the second book of the Novum Organum, which
contains the famous doctrine of the Tables (tabulae)
and Instances (instantiae). But rather than expound that
doctrine it will be more useful to set out some consid-
erations of a general nature touching the Baconian
method. Bacon held that one of the essential tasks, if
not indeed the task, of scientific inquiry was to remedy
the poverty of factual information. The draft of a logic
of scientific inquiry, at which Bacon had worked since
1603 and which found expression in the second book
of the Novum Organum, was interrupted because he
was convinced that the construction of perfect tables
was the decisive element for the advancement of sci-
ence. The fourth part of the Instauratio magna, which
was to carry out the work of ordering the varied con-
tents of natural histories, came to seem to Bacon more
important than his new logic itself. The gathering of
materials for research seemed to him more urgent than
any perfecting of the theoretical apparatus of the sci-
ences. But Bacon had reached these conclusions in a
special historical setting. Replacing the traditional
collection of rhetorical topics, applying the art of
memory to ends different from the traditional, con-
ceiving the tabulae as a means of ordering with whose
help memory prepares an organized reality for intel-
lectual work, and making use of Ramus' rules in the
endeavor to determine forms, Bacon introduced into
his logic of science many elements drawn from the


dialectico-rhetorical tradition of the Renaissance. From
the viewpoint of his method he was much closer than
he realized to the conceptions of dialectic entertained
by Ramus or Melancthon when they conceived it as
the means for the orderly disposition of ideas, estab-
lishing order in a reality which presents itself as some-
thing chaotic. The Baconian conception of scientific
method, despite all that is distinctive about it, still
moves on the terrain of the Ramist definition of dispo-
as apta inventarum rerum collocatio. Method, for
Bacon, is a means of ordering and classifying natural
reality. It is not a matter of chance that Bacon de-
scribed it as a thread (filum) capable of guiding man
through that forest (silva) and intricate labyrinth called
Nature. The chief limitations of the Baconian method
derive no doubt from the fact that Bacon had a very
meager awareness of the function of hypotheses, ab-
stractions, and mathematics in scientific research. But
even this want of understanding, which led him to
value “mechanics” like George Agricola higher than
“theorists” like Copernicus and Galileo, is closely con-
nected with the image of logic as the means of putting
order into the natural “forest.” The Platonic and Gali-
lean image of a world logical and mathematical in
structure, created by a “geometer God” who carried
out the creation by number, weight, and measurement
(numero, pondere et mensura), was undoubtedly to be
more fertile for the development of modern physics
than the Baconian image of Nature as a labyrinth in
which man moves with toilsome difficulty, uncertain
whether the constructions of his mind correspond to
the structures of reality. The Platonic image of nature
and the doctrine of the economy and simplicity of
nature led to a type of questioning which was much
more fruitful than the Baconian, which operated on
the basis of models taken from the tradition of rhetoric.

(5) Natural history, for Bacon, is a history at once
of free nature and of nature modified and transformed
by the hand of man. Making the history of techniques
an integral part of natural history, Bacon rejected the
traditional opposition of nature and art. Art is not an
“aping” of nature, and the products of art are not
essentially different from the products of nature. The
progress of science and the amelioration of the condi-
tion of mankind demand therefore, according to Bacon,
that the knowledge of the technicians, excluded by
age-old tradition from the field of science and natural
philosophy, be imported into that field. The methods,
the procedures, the operations, the language of the
mechanical arts have been maintained and perfected
outside the world of the official culture, in the circles
of the engineers and architects and skilled artisans and
makers of machines and instruments. These methods,
these procedures, these operations, these languages
must become subject-matter of reflection and study.
Only in this way, with the help of academies and
scientific societies, can the experientia erratica of the
mechanics, the limited observations of the artisans, the
daily labors of those who transform nature with their
hands be rescued from chance and pure empiricism
and lead to a unitary, systematic corpus of knowledge.