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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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The reflections presented by Bacon in De sapientia
(1609) and De augmentis (1623) on the wisdom
of the ancients, on the fables of the poets, on language
and poetry were to exercise a decisive influence on
the Scienza nuova (1725-44) of Giambattista Vico,
work which was meant to be an “application to
human affairs” of Bacon's method. The Baconian theses
concerning symbols and real characters were to have
an audible echo in the English theorists of universal
language, from John Wilkins to George Dalgarno, and
subsequently in the linguistic doctrines of Condillac.
The doctrines on methods of communicating style for
scientific works were profoundly to influence English
prose. But above all the grand themes of Bacon's phi-
losophy—the criticism of tradition, the idea of prog-
ress, the revaluation of technology, the project of a
history of the arts—were to inspire some of the chief
spokesmen of European thought. The new science as
separate from religion, as renunciation of the endeavor
to determine essences, as “historical,” descriptive, and
phenomenal knowledge of the world, as outcome of
the conjunction of theory with the practice of artisans,
as human instrument for the domination of the world:
on these typically Baconian themes Mersenne and
Gassendi, Boyle and the “virtuosi” of the seventeenth
century join hands. To become fully aware of the
powerful influence exerted by Bacon's doctrines, it
suffices to read the pages devoted by Gassendi to natu-
ral history (Exercitationes, in Opera, Lyons [1658], III,
107b) or the Considerations touching the Usefulness
of Experimental Natural Philosophy
of Robert Boyle
(in Works, London [1774], III, 392ff.), in which the
anatomy-theater and the workshop of the artisans are
contrasted with the libraries of the humanists. In 1653,
writing to Peiresc, Mersenne proposed an academy
which, founded on the ideal of cooperation among the
wise, should gather together all the learned of Europe.
The advancement and progress of the sciences through
collaboration—this was the common goal appealed to
by the first modern scientific academies: The Accade-
mia del Cimento (1657), the Royal Society (1662), the
Académie des Sciences (1666). And to this vision of
vast collaboration, of a self-nourishing research grow-
ing through the work carried on in a whole series of
scientific institutions, Fontenelle and Pascal conjoined


a new conception of history as product of a common
labor, as resultant of the efforts of many generations,
as a slow accumulation of experience always further
integrable and perfectible. In a famous page of John
Wallis' describing the first meetings in London of the
cultivators of natural philosophy (1641), the name of
Bacon is already linked with that of Galileo as one
of the two founders of the “new and experimental
philosophy” beginning to be cultivated in Italy, France,
Germany, and England. Among the first tasks of the
Royal Society we find the compilation of faithful rec-
ords of all the works of nature and the arts, and the
study of the effect of experiments on the manual trades.
The rejection of the sterility of the old philosophies
coincided with the demand for a simple, clear, acces-
sible language. That “Verulamium design” about which
John Beale had written to Robert Boyle in July 1666
(Boyle, Works, London [1774], VI, 404) gathered even
more numerous adherents throughout Europe. Not only
in England but everyone in France, Germany, and Italy
who was working on a new science invoked the name
of Bacon. The Initia et specimina novae generalis pro
instauratione et augmentis scientiarum,
a work of
Leibniz, reveals in its very title its unmistakable Baco-
nian inspiration; in this work Leibniz urges the neces-
sity of gathering up in one organic body of knowledge
the piecemeal “know how” of technicians and artisans
(Die Philosophische Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm
ed. C. I. Gerhardt, 7 vols., Berlin [1875-90],
VII, 69). And in his Discours touchant la certitude et
l'art d'inventer
(ibid., 181-82), Leibniz explicitly re-
vives the project of a great encyclopedia of the arts,
based on a conception of science and progress which
challenges Descartes' willful “solitude” and recalls
Bacon for support. But the appeal to Bacon was also
significant and important with respect to method be-
cause despite all the criticisms that can be levelled
against the scientific methodology of the Novum or-
one very obvious thing must not be forgotten:
the science of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
was at once Galilean and Baconian and Cartesian.
Boyle's law on the volume and pressure of a gas at
constant temperature and Galileo's law of falling
bodies seemed to be “truths” independent of the
different methods employed in determining them. The
“romance of Cartesian physics,” as Christiaan Huygens
called it, continued to wield its influence in European
culture for more than a century. Boyle, the founders
of the Royal Society, Gassendi on the continent, and
Newton himself felt themselves to be followers of
Bacon and continuing his lead. When Newton, in op-
position to Descartes and Galileo, regarded mathe-
matics not as “the queen of the sciences” but as a
method and instrument for the clarification of experi
ment, and when he rejected the vision of Nature as
mathematical in essence, he revived, though on a very
different level, some very characteristic Baconian po-
sitions. In any event, the distinction between the so-
called two methods of scientific research (the mathe-
matico-deductive and the experimental-inductive) was
felt to be as real in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. The “myth” of Bacon, it is well to remember,
was not an invention of nineteenth-century historians
but an operative reality for the British scientists and
the French philosophes of the Age of Reason—even
though, in point of fact, the distinction was not in-
variably pure and clear; some passages in Descartes
and Galileo on the two methods remind one very much
of Bacon, and Bacon himself provides a fair number
of examples of “hypotheses” or “anticipations of na-
ture.” Finally, it ought to be remembered by exces-
sively severe critics of Baconianism that the progress
of modern anatomy, embryology, botany, zoology, and
mineralogy was intimately associated with a Baconian
insistence on observation and experiments, and with
a conviction that the immense variety of the forms of
nature can be ordered, classified, and described. Here
too, of course, the need to formulate hypotheses soon
became clear. The Baconian identification of science
with experiments was seen to be one-sided. Never-
theless, the demand for experiments and the mistrust
of audacious hypotheses played a historical role of
crucial importance.

The taste for observations and experiments, the tri-
umph of experimental over theoretical physics, the
slackening of interest in geometry, and the inadequacy
of Cartesianism—all these contribute to explain the
extraordinary prestige of Baconianism among the men
of the Enlightenment, even though there were funda-
mental differences between the judgments of
D'Alembert, the firm Baconianism of Diderot, the
scrupulous analyses of Alexandre Deleyre in his Ana-
lyse de la philosophie du Chancelier François Bacon

(Amsterdam and Paris, 1755), the judgments of Vol-
taire. In the twelfth of his Lettres Philosophiques Vol-
taire proffers a very acute judgment, that Bacon
erected the grand edifice of modern science with the
help of a scaffolding (the Novum Organum) that seems
today no longer usable. In point of fact the Bacon
of the Encyclopedists is not the theorist of method.
He is the philosopher who first proclaimed the cultural
value of technology, who destroyed the prejudices
against the mechanical arts that (as Diderot wrote
under the heading Art in the Encyclopedia) filled the
cities with indolent contemplators and the countryside
with ignorant petty tyrants. Bacon becomes the theorist
of the necessary interdependency of the sciences and
the technical arts, the author of the first great encyclo-


pedia of modern times, the philosopher who first
grasped with clarity the necessary union of theory and
practice, the social function of scientific knowledge,
its power to transform the world, to enlighten men,
and to make them happier.

The reaction in romantic and spiritualist circles to
the Enlightenment's exaltation of Bacon came in tones
of decided asperity. Joseph de Maistre, for example,
saw in Bacon the spiritual father of all the enemies
of humankind. But it was especially the appraisal of
the spiritualist chemist Justus von Leibig (1863) that
determined subsequent evaluations of Baconism. Many
of his hasty and superficial judgments (for example, his
judgment of Bacon's attitude to Copernicus) became
commonplace. But the prestige of Bacon perhaps
reached its lowest level when, on the basis of an identi-
fication of the history of ideas with the history of the
problem of knowledge, the whole of the works of
Bacon was reduced to Book II of the Novum Organum.
Bacon came then to be seen only as the constructor
of a vast logical machine destined to remain unused,
or only as the precursor of the inductive logic of John
Stuart Mill. In a historiography of Hegelian ancestry,
which proceeded by way of successive self-transcend-
ings and saw in English empiricism only the prepara-
tion for the Critique of Kant, it was not difficult to
come quickly to a judgment of Baconian bankruptcy.

Baconianism occupies a peculiar position, too, in that
species of romantic exaltation of science known as
positivism. Instead of a real resumption of the great
themes of the philosophy of Bacon one finds in Comte
an attempt to make of Bacon a clever but confused
anticipator of the positivist philosophy. Baconism is
identified with empiricism and utilitarianism. Whewell
and Mill, on the other hand, limit themselves to pro-
posing corrections of the logic of the Novum Organum.
Very much more sustained and stimulating is the dis-
cussion undertaken by the pragmatists. There is hardly
need to recall the Baconism (not always, however,
sufficiently recognized) of John Dewey, and his insist-
ence upon the social nature of science, his conception
of modern thought as originating in the adoption by
inquiry of the procedures and aims of productive labor,
his conception of a “reconstruction in philosophy” as
a realized expression, in modern times, of the aspira-
tions which were the aspirations of Bacon. Dewey,
different in this from less discerning pragmatists, sees
clearly the inadequacies of every interpretation of
Baconism as utilitarianism. To see in the Baconian
exaltation of “works” the expression of a utilitarian
position means in fact to leave altogether out of ac-
count the thesis, many times formulated by Bacon, of
a full and total coincidence between truth and working;
it means not to take seriously his repeated affirmation
that only truth is capable of producing fruit and works.
Opera ipsa pluris facienda sunt, quatenus sunt veritatis
pignora, quam propter vitae commoda
(Works, III, 612):
to ask whether scientific truths depend upon the pro-
cedures employed to determine them or upon their
fecundity is for Bacon a meaningless dilemma: a scien-
tific truth is always fecund and its fecundity depends
exclusively upon its truth. A practicality without truth
is for Bacon arbitrary and chance-dominated, incapable
of progress and development. What concerns him is
that theoretical progress and the general “advance-
ment” of the condition of humanity should not be
considered separately or even as flatly opposed to each
other, as had been the case in philosophy ever since
the days of Plato.

The thesis of a Bacon “vulgarly utilitarian,” pro-
pounded by reactionary nineteenth-century thought,
has been restated in this century, in much subtler form,
by the proponents of the “critical theory of society.”
Taking up again the themes of Husserl's criticism of
Galileo in Krisis, Adorno and Horkheimer (Dialektik
der Aufklärung,
1942) saw in Baconism the typical
animus of modern science, indistinguishable from
technology, intent upon the exploitation of nature and
total instrumentalization. According to these writers,
it is the scientific and technological enthusiasm of the
Lord Chancellor that lies back of the materialism, the
mercantilization of culture, that leads to modern in-
dustrial society, realm of alienation and conformism
and standardization and the destruction of all human
values. Once again Bacon is reduced to a symbol, and
the reduction, once again, is carried out at the cost
of an extreme simplification: since for Bacon the foun-
dation of the regnum hominis, the restoration of the
dominion of man over nature had meaning only if
realized in a definite religious, political, moral, and
cultural context. Even today it can be a salutary lesson
to recall the central ideas of Baconianism—and so
prevent the analysis of the alienating and inhuman
aspects of the contemporary world from issuing in a
decadent and pessimistic revulsion from work and
civilization, or in a mystical awaiting of a mythical
future in which the “pleasure principle” will have
triumphed at last over the “reality principle.”

A good many criticisms of modern industrial society,
science, and technology appear to rest on the convic-
tion that man can realize himself without dominion
over nature. Many of these criticisms resolve them-
selves often in an exaltation of subjectivity, a plaint
for the primitive and mythical, a nostalgia for the days
of a “wisdom” or “total knowledge” founded on meta-
physics, theology, or the practices of shamans. Many


of these critics, who in point of fact derive their ideas
from Heidegger, are fond of referring to the texts of
Karl Marx. They too easily forget that Marx applauded
not only the radical criticism of civilization of Rous-
seau's first Discours but also the celebration of work
and technical skill in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis.
Bacon never believed that science and technology, as
represented the salvation of man. The liberation
of man—and in this too he is modern—can be painfully
achieved (by ways far more complicated than he was
able to imagine) only through the labor, the works,
the well-being of the whole of humanity.