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The New Organon

Francis Bacon

Important Quotations Explained

Outline of a Natural and Experimental History

Key facts

The only course remaining was to try the thing again from the start with better means, and make a general Renewal of the sciences and arts and of all human learning, beginning from correct foundations. This might seem, on approach, to be something illimitably vast and beyond mortal strength, and yet in the treatment, it will be found to be sane and sensible, more so than what has been done in the past. For one can see an end to it. Whereas in what is currently done in the sciences, there is a kind of giddiness, a perpetual agitation and a going in a circle.

This quotation, from the very beginning of the work, sets out Bacon's ambitions for the New Organon. He hopes to erase all the philosophical errors of the past and, on the basis of his inductive method, begin again with a Great Renewal. There is a degree of pride, and perhaps even arrogance, in his claims. Bacon was never one to underestimate his own philosophical or political abilities; the project may seem enormous, but he feels that it is within his grasp. Actually, in his plan for a natural history Bacon is more circumspect, hoping that other educated men will assist him in the immense task of information-collection that he proposes. The final sentence is both a critique of contemporary scientific practice and a sly Biblical reference. Elsewhere in the work, Bacon quotes a prophecy about the Last Days from the book of Daniel, "many shall come and go, and knowledge shall be increased". The "agitation" in this passage links to the imminent Second coming (or the end of the world) that many contemporaries found in the Daniel passage. Millennial prophecies were commonplace in the seventeenth century, and it was not at all unusual to link knowledge and science to prophecy. Many scholars have explored the link between science and millennial prophecies in this period.

Here we give leave and permission to anyone who is better suited to mechanical things, and better trained, and ingenious in deriving results from mere acquaintance with experiments, to undertake the difficult task of gathering a good crop from our history and from our tables as he passes by, taking an interest payment for the time being until the capital can be had.

Bacon's metaphor of capital and interest is very appropriate, given his own permanent debts. He uses it to show the relationship between the immediate and long-term benefits of his work. In the short term, he believes that the information he proposes to gather and analyze can be used for practical ends, such as perfecting new inventions or improving industry. This might be valuable for some people, but the real benefits to mankind are far greater; Bacon believes that by completing the project men can improve their lives vastly and gain real knowledge about nature. He does not criticize those with practical skills and talents, as his method depends on accurate and effective experiments. However, he does believe that their goals—immediate practical benefits and financial gain—are not the most important.

Neither the bare hand nor the unaided intellect has much power; the work is done by tools and assistance, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand. As the hand's tools either prompt or guide its motions, so the mind's tools either prompt or warn the intellect.

The tools of the mind that Bacon refers to here are those of the "machine for thinking" that he sets out in the New Organon. As the mind tends to wander and miss the point when left unguided, the various steps of Bacon's scientific method lead it through the process of investigation. The tools of induction prompt the mind into investigating carefully, and warn it against moving immediately to general axioms. Bacon argues that his mental tools can be used by anyone with a little intelligence; by prompting and warning, they take individual error out of natural philosophy.

The illusions and false notions which have got a hold on men's intellects in the past and are now profoundly rooted in them, not only block their minds so that it is difficult for truth to gain access, but even when access has been granted and allowed, they will once again, in the very renewal of the sciences, offer resistance and do mischief unless men are forewarned and arm themselves against them as much as possible.

The "illusions" to which Bacon refers are the four idols. They obstruct truth and prevent a proper investigation of nature because they act at several different levels. Idols of the tribe affect sense perception and the basic building blocks of truth. Idols of the cave affect individuals in unique ways, producing a different obstacle in every investigator. Idols of the marketplace obstruct the communication of whatever truth is uncovered. Idols of the theater are the most sophisticated and dangerous; they represent untruths turned into philosophical systems that acquire great authority. This authority prevents the renewal of the sciences from succeeding. The only way to guard against this threat is to make a clean break with past explanations, and use Bacon's method of induction in order to prevent the illusions of language, education and sense-perception from interfering with the search for truth.

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