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The New Organon

Francis Bacon

The Great Renewal

Important Themes, Ideas and Arguments

Book One: Preface and Aphorisms I–LXXXVI

Summary

"The Great Renewal," as a whole, aims to restore the relationship between mind and nature. Age-old errors need to be corrected. A general renewal of the sciences is needed, starting from the correct foundations. Bacon explains his haste to publish a plan of his renewal of the sciences, and his own opinion of its great value.

In his Dedication to James I, Bacon links James's reign to the renewal of sciences. He hopes that James will help to build up a natural and experimental history on Bacon's model, so that philosophy and science can at last have secure foundations.

In his preface to the "Great Renewal," Bacon says that men exaggerate their resources and underestimate their power. We need to free ourselves from our devotion to ancient learning, particularly that of Ancient Greece. Contemporary science has stalled in pointless controversies. The popular nature of science means that great geniuses are often forced to bow to the judgment of the multitude. Traditional learning is barren of results, full of questions, slow to improve but claiming perfection. Few people have dared to go beyond received opinion. Those who engage in mechanical experiments lack a methodology or series of rules. Those who have concentrated on experience alone have achieved little. But logic has not proved useful to science either.

We need a sure method to guide us through the complicated forest of nature. A better and more complete use of the mind and the understanding is needed before we can properly investigate nature. Bacon claims that his method emphasizes humility, because it values things themselves. His method is valuable not because it draws on ancient authors, or because it refutes them. Rather, Bacon believes that he has united the rational and empirical faculties. Bacon prays that greater understanding does not draw men away from God, or cause atheism and pride to arise in them. Inquiries into nature are not forbidden by God, but knowledge must be used with charity, for the improvement of life. Bacon asks that people see his work as the foundation for human progress and empowerment, not as dogma. He asks them to put away their prejudices and participate in the great renewal. It is a task that cannot be accomplished in a lifetime. Also, people should consider how far they can criticize Bacon, as he in fact questions their very processes of reasoning.

Bacon's project consists of six parts: one) The divisions of the sciences, two) The New Organon, or the Directions for the Interpretation of Nature, three) Phenomena of the Universe, or a Natural and Experimental History towards the foundation of philosophy, four) The Ladder of the Intellect, five) Forerunner, or Anticipation of Second Philosophy, six) Second Philosophy, or Practical Science.

The first section is a summary of the current state of scientific knowledge. It may depart from current classifications. The second section is an account of the better use of reason in the investigation of things. Bacon seeks to apply an entirely different art of logic. His new logic differs in its end, order of demonstration and starting point. It uses induction rather than the syllogism. Men's minds are occupied by various idols, which must be combated. To establish the truth, reason needs to judge only by induction. Therefore the teaching that makes the mind receptive to truth refutes philosophies, proofs and natural human reason. When this has been achieved, the relationship between mind and the universe will have been established. The third section deals with the experience and natural history that must form the foundations of philosophy. A new kind of natural history is needed to shed light on causes. Bacon aims to describe not only free nature, but also nature subjected to the experiments of the mechanical, liberal and practical arts. He also gives a history of the various powers. Bacon's natural history, cleansed of foolish ideas and experiences, will provide a firm basis for understanding nature. In the fourth section, Bacon will give examples of investigation and discovery according to his method. This is essentially a detailed application of the second part. The fifth section has immediate value, like interest gained before capital is redeemed. It is an account of various discoveries made by the ordinary method of interpretation. It acts as a temporary shelter for the mind, but does not rely on Bacon's true method. The sixth and final section reveals and expounds the philosophy that comes from Bacon's correct form of inquiry. Bacon believes that the task is beyond him, however. Its completion will come in the distant future, and is not imaginable now. Knowledge of nature can be achieved only by obedience to her; more knowledge of Nature than can be achieved through work and inference is not possible. Bacon asks for God's protection for his work.

Analysis

Bacon begins with explanation and self-justification. He explains the genesis of his work by his own realization that the intellectual errors of the past need to be swept away. He writes in the first person, and identifies himself with his project absolutely. In a sense, he stakes his own reputation on it. In the preface, Bacon argues that he saw "every other ambition as lower than the work in hand." This perhaps gives an insight into the relationship between politics and philosophy in Bacon's life. Although he devoted a great deal of time to political business, at heart he believed that he made his greatest contribution to human life as a philosopher.

The dedication to King James I of England is an attempt to flatter James and gain personal advancement. James's intellectual interests (he wrote books on witchcraft, theology and tobacco) were well known, and he saw himself as a model of a scholar-prince. Bacon attempts to gain personal advancement (always a major concern), but also patronage for his great scientific project. The work, which was involved in his scheme to "renew" the sciences, would have been vastly expensive, and certainly beyond the means of the permanently indebted Bacon. In this preface and in letters written to James at the time, Bacon imagines prince and philosopher collaborating on this project, with James suggesting useful revisions. The King admitted, however, that Bacon's "last book, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding." This is an opinion unfortunately shared by some modern readers. The remainder of the section is essentially an outline of Bacon's broader project. It represents the beginning of his fierce polemic against authority and traditional learning.

Bacon was not the first writer to break with the "ancients," or classical Greek and Roman authors, but it is important to recognize how radical his suggestions were. Most of the European education system from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance was built on a foundation of classical texts. For a long time, the writings of Aristotle were the key source of knowledge about the natural world. The idea that the best way to study nature was by experiments and experience was not self-evident and had to be invented. A great deal of scholarship in the arts and sciences consisted of commentaries on classical texts. Considerable effort was expended in trying to reconcile ancient wisdom with modern experience.

The concept of authority is central to this deferential treatment of the past. Authors who were particularly famous or celebrated were given a high intellectual status. They had a power beyond the force of their arguments. Their teaching was accepted as true on little external evidence. For many writers, citing authority was enough to clinch an argument. The fact that Aristotle believed that some people were "slaves by nature" could be an argument for the oppression of indigenous peoples, for instance.

Various texts had the kind of authority that the Bible retains for some people today. The establishment of this authority was not simple, however. It was a gradual process with many arguments. The force of Bacon's attack should not blind us to the fact that considerable scholarly effort went into erecting the apparatus of authority.

Bacon seeks to destroy this apparatus completely. He makes it clear that he does not want to argue with the ancients about nature and science, but rather to ignore them altogether and start afresh. He calls for a completely clean slate, as far as such a thing is possible. This call for renewal in a way exempts Bacon from immediate criticism, as he cleverly makes clear. Other philosophers cannot criticize him using the principles of the old system, he argues, because he does not recognize them. Instead, they should read his new work carefully, and work within his new method. This is a clever, but not necessarily convincing, argument intended to diffuse criticism. Critics could of course argue that they judged his system from some universal viewpoint, or that his system is no more valid than theirs.

Bacon calls his work "natural philosophy" to emphasize the role that the practical study of nature has in it, but his project is only similar to, not identical with, modern "science." A key difference is that Bacon's new method operates within a Christian context. This argument may seem strange to modern readers, who are used to the idea of a conflict between science and religion. To Bacon and his contemporaries, there is no contradiction between the idea that God created the world, and the use of scientific methods to investigate the world. Indeed, the prerequisite of a good philosophical method for investigating nature is that it does not challenge the existence of God. One could argue that Bacon is merely covering up his true position, but this misses the point. To most seventeenth century thinkers, a "scientific" method was a way of investigating God's creation.

Bacon's plan of the "Great Renewal" is a clear statement of his aims for the project. Apart from The New Organon itself, however, little of the whole enterprise was completed. The third section of the renewal was perhaps the most ambitious; it was intended as a huge data-bank of information about the natural world. It would require a huge effort to complete, but would allow the investigator to base his induction on firm foundations. It is for this project that Bacon hopes to gain royal patronage. The fourth section is vaguely described, but appears to be a series of examples of the inductive method giving partial explanations of natural phenomena. These preliminary explanations and systems would be replaced by the kind of total explanation of the natural world that Bacon imagines in the sixth section. The fifth section is intended as a kind of lure for wealthy investors who need to turn a quick profit. In order to encourage investment in his wider project, Bacon aims to reveal discoveries with immediate practical and commercial value to reward potential backers. He is clear that his grand philosophical system needs financial backing, and that it must be "marketed" in a skillful way if it is to succeed. Perhaps the key message of this section is that The New Organon is very much a work in progress. It forms part of a broader project that was never completed, and is itself fragmentary.

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by anon_2223129944, November 27, 2014

"Bacon's scathing attack on current philosophy and on the scientific method."
As I recall, Bacon attacked the philosophical thinking and scholasticism of his day, but his work DESCRIBED what has become known as the scientific method, which had not been formalized previously. Also, while he emphasized beginning with inductive reasoning, he warned AGAINST leaving off at gathering data and generalizing from it. Not only was (as noted) experimentation important, but so was DEDUCTIVE reasoning, in its proper place. Bacon also suggested t... Read more

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