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The New Organon

Francis Bacon

Book One: Preface and Aphorisms I–LXXXVI

The Great Renewal

Book One: Aphorisms LXXXVI–CXXX

Summary

Preface

Those who have claimed that everything can be known about nature have damaged philosophy and the sciences. Similarly, those skeptics who claim that nothing can be known have brought good arguments, but have not begun from good starting points or applied rules. Bacon's method on the other hand, is easy to formulate; it is to establish degrees of certainty, restrain sensation and generally reject the work of the mind that comes from it, and to construct a new route for the mind from the perceptions of the senses. The art of logic tried to achieve a similar thing, but it was too late. It fixed errors rather than revealing the truth. The one hope is to begin over again, and to control the work of the mind by machines. Human strength in any area cannot be increased without tools and machines.

We can carry out our design without belittling the ancients. Bacon has no intention of dethroning prevailing philosophy. There should be two sorts of learning, and two kinds of philosophers; one method for cultivating the sciences and a different method for discovering them. Bacon accepts that some people may not be clever enough to grasp the second method, or may have pragmatic reasons for supporting the first. Those who seek real knowledge of nature rather than opinion follow the second, however. One is called the Anticipation of Mind, the other the Interpretation of Nature. Would-be critics should follow Bacon's method first and eradicate their bad mental habits.

Aphorisms I–LXXXV.

I–X. Man is the interpreter and agent of nature; he understands Nature through facts or inferences. The intellect needs tools to prompt and guide its motions, just like the hands. Human knowledge and power are the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. Mechanics, mathematicians, physicians, alchemists and magicians meddle with Nature, with little effect. It is insane to think that things not yet achieved can be achieved with current methods. The creations of mind and hand look prolific, but in fact rest upon a few subtle deductions from a few known things. Current results owe more to chance than anything. The problems of modern science result from the fact that we mistakenly admire the mind without considering its true supports. The subtlety of nature exceeds that of the human mind.

XI–XX. Logic is useless for the discovery of sciences; it is harmful because it fixes errors rather than inquiring into truth. Syllogisms compel assent without reference to things; if the notions they are built on are unsound, there is no hope. The only hope is induction. There is nothing sound in the notions of logic and physics. Similar problems can occur with axioms formed by induction, but this is more common with syllogisms. Previous scientific discoveries fit into common notions; to understand nature better, axioms need to be better-grounded. There are two ways to investigate truth. The current, dialectical way goes from sense to general axioms, then finds intermediate axioms from these truths; the true way rises from sense upwards to general axioms.

XXI–XXXI. The intellect tries the other way, but cannot succeed without guidance. Both ways begin with sense and end in the general, but are very different. Only one deals fully with the particular, and rises step by step to what is truly known of nature. Axioms formed by argument are no good for discovering new results, but arguments can suggest new particulars. Current axioms come from limited common experience; therefore they do not lead to new particulars. Normal scientific reasoning is the anticipation of nature: true reasoning is the interpretation of nature. Anticipations can induce agreement more powerfully than interpretations. The use of anticipations is acceptable where assent is needed without reference to things. No great progress is possible through anticipations; a new beginning is needed.

XXXII–XLIV. The best way of teaching the new method is to introduce men to actual things, and get them to abstain from notions. Bacon's way initially agrees with the ancient skeptics, but it has different aims and ends. Skeptics destroy the authority of sense and intellect; Bacon aims to support these. Illusions and false notions will disrupt the access of truth, unless men arm themselves against them. There are four kinds of illusions: the idols of the tribe (illusions founded in human nature—human understanding merges its own nature with the nature of things and distorts them), the idols of the cave (the illusions of the individual man, due to his particular nature), the idols of the marketplace (illusions that arise from agreement and men's association with others—words and talk obstruct understanding) and the idols of the theater (illusions produced by philosophers who create false and fictitious worlds).

XLV–LII. Human nature invents order and regularity where often none exists in nature. Once a man's understanding has settled on something, he will use any argument to support it. Human understanding is most affected by things that strike the imagination quickly. It is ceaselessly active, and cannot grasp the idea of infinity. Emotion marks and stains the understanding in numerous ways. The greatest problem with human understanding comes from the weakness of the senses. Human understanding is carried away to abstractions. The idols of the tribe originate in the various limitations of the human spirit, or the influence of the emotions, or the weakness of the senses.

LIII–LVIII. The idols of the cave originate in each man's mind and body, his education, and chance events; they are complex illusions. Men fall in love with particular facts or ideas, and become enslaved to them; Aristotle's reliance on logic is a good example of this (see also Gilbert and magnetism). The key difference between minds is that some perceive differences between things, and some notice similarities; both types can go to extremes. Some minds embrace antiquity, others novelty. The truth should be sought from the light of nature, however. Understanding needs to be penetrating and comprehensive to banish the idols of the cave. Every student of nature should be suspicious of whatever captures his imagination.

LIX–LX. The idols of the marketplace are the most troublesome, because they come from the agreement about the meaning of words. Men believe that their reason controls words, but words also frustrate the understanding. Hence many controversies end with disputes about the definition of words. But beginning with definitions does not solve the problem. It is necessary to look at particular instances and their order to form notions and axioms. Two sorts of illusion are imposed on the understanding by words: names of things that do not exist, or names that are badly defined. Illusions of the first kind can easily be rejected; illusions of the second kind are more complex, and are caused by unskillful abstraction.

LXI–LXVII. Idols of the theater are openly introduced in false theories. Bacon will merely discuss their general types. In philosophy, either too much is made of too little, or too little of too much. Sophistic philosophers are diverted from experience by the variety of common phenomena that have been examined badly; they rely on reflection for the rest. Empirical philosophers derive their philosophy from a few experiments, and twist the rest to fit that pattern. Superstitious philosophers mix theology and traditions. The best example of the first type is Aristotle, who pretended to derive his philosophy from experience, unlike Aristotle's current followers (the scholastics) who have abandoned it entirely. Empirical philosophy generates more distorted notions, because it is based on a handful of experiments. The corruption of philosophy by superstition causes a great deal of damage. Modern attempts to base natural philosophy on Scripture are foolish and dangerous. The mind is mislead by the example of the mechanical arts into assuming that bodies are changed by composition and separation, hence the fiction of the elements, and of qualities of things. Philosophies that make pronouncements too readily or question everything are dangerous. Aristotle made pronouncements on everything, and stifled the understanding. The skeptic tradition of Plato, Carneades and Pyhrro turned men away from the path of inquiry. We must not detract from the authority of the senses, but assist them.

LXVIII–LXX. All of these idols must be rejected. Bad demonstrations support and defend the idols. The demonstrations we use in the progress from the senses to axioms are faulty in four ways: one) the senses are faulty, two) notions are poorly abstracted from sense impressions, three) induction is poor if it reaches the principles of the sciences without exclusions or dissolutions, four) the method of discovery that sets up general principles and tests intermediate axioms by these principles is the mother of all errors. Experience is the best demonstration of all. But current methods of experiment are poor; men do not take experience seriously enough. Even if they do manage to construct some science on their experiments, they are too keen to rush to a practical application, and so miss the greatest prize. We need to find true axioms from good experiments, which will then benefit practice.

LXXI–LXXVII. Certain signs indicate that modern philosophy is inadequate. Nearly all science comes from the Greeks. But Greek wisdom was prone to disputation and rhetoric, which obstructs the search for truth. Therefore, the signs from the beginning of philosophy are not good. Philosophy has produced few experiences that have improved the human condition. The sciences, which are founded in opinion, have developed little; the mechanical arts, which are linked to nature, have progressed greatly. Philosophers all too frequently discourage others by claiming that many things are unknowable or impossible. Disagreements show that philosophy is not well-founded, and is merely a path of error. The idea that a great consensus exists around the work of Aristotle is wrong; the work of older philosophers survived, and those who enslaved themselves to Aristotle did so from prejudice and the authority of others.

LXXVIII–LXXXV. The causes of error, and why men have stuck to these errors: (One) Only three periods showed high learning; the Greeks, the Romans, and modern Western Europe. The lack of progress in science is due to the small amount of time given to it. (Two) Natural philosophy always occupied only a small part of intellectual efforts. (Three) Natural philosophy has been treated as a passage or bridge to other things. (Four) People do not understand that the goal of natural philosophy is to endow people with new resources and discoveries. (Five) The path to knowledge men have chosen is unsuitable. (Six) This is compounded by the idea that the mind's power is decreased if it is involved in experiments. (Seven) Reverence for antiquity and "great men," and the consensus derived from them also frustrates progress. (Eight) The abundance of actual works provided for the human race discourages further effort.

Analysis

In the Preface, Bacon charts a middle path between absolute knowledge and absolute doubt. The original "skeptics" to whom he refers are ancient Greek philosophers who questioned the possibility of knowledge about reality. Skepticism continued to flourish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Richard Popkin has identified the response to skeptic arguments as a major force in early modern philosophy. Fundamentally, a skeptic asks, "what do I know?" and then "how do I know that?" The skeptic position is one of radical doubt about all subjects, which may extend to doubting man's ability to know anything. Bacon feels a great deal of sympathy with the skeptic position, and indeed identifies his own philosophy with a milder form of skeptic doubt. However, he also believes that skepticism fails to pay enough attention to things in nature; doubting as a strategy is valid, but philosophy must begin with nature itself.

Bacon's claim that his method is a "machine" stems in part from his refutation of Aristotle. In answering Aristotle, he seeks to write a "new" Organon, that will update Aristotle's machine for rational thinking for the modern age. Bacon believes his own theory acts like a machine because it allows the investigator to follow and repeat a series of predetermined steps that will produce a certain result. The individual who performs these operations is less important than the method itself, which will produce valuable results if followed correctly. In a way, the steps of Bacon's method act like artificial thinking. Bacon defines his position carefully here. He claims not to attack the ancients, and presents his own Interpretation of Nature as being so reasonable that no one could refuse it.

The fact that both books of the New Organon are structured in the form of aphorisms is important. Aphorisms, or short pithy phrases, emphasize the work's provisional and unfinished quality. Bacon later argued that "Delivery by aphorisms…tries the writer, whether he be light and superficial in his knowledge or solid…. A man will not be equal to writing in aphorisms, nor indeed will he think of doing so, unless he feels that he amply and solidly furnished for the work," (Latin version of the Advancement of Learning). Aphorisms engage the reader's attention, and allow Bacon to construct his argument in neat sections.

Aphorisms I–X offer a definition of Man's relationship with Nature, and explore the problems with current methods of investigating nature. We cannot hope for absolute power over nature, Bacon argues; we can only guess and consider how it works. Man must obey the power of Nature; Bacon makes it clear how the relationship of investigator and subject is weighted. Current methods are problematic because they lack imagination, and fail to follow any kind of rigorous methodology. What is needed is the kind of "machine for thinking" that Bacon goes on to describe.

In Aphorisms XI–XX and XXI–XXXI, Bacon introduces his first real discussion of logic. He contrasts the Aristotelian syllogism with inductive reasoning. The main problem with the syllogism is that it proceeds straight to general axioms from the things that exist in nature. It supplies the steps in between afterwards. Induction, on the other hand, questions and examines the things themselves. Only then does it proceed to more general statements, in a methodical way. The link between syllogisms and argument is a bad one, Bacon argues. The philosophical tradition of dialectic, which Bacon sees as the needless splitting of hairs, leads to little progress. The only value of philosophical argument is in suggesting new areas to consider.

Bacon uses the term "anticipation" to describe the operation of syllogisms, because they jump ahead, or anticipate, from concrete things to general propositions. "Anticipation" essentially imposes a "meaning" on nature by missing out several key stages in the process of interpretation. Anticipations can be useful if you are more concerned with winning an argument than finding the truth; Bacon feels that Aristotle is particularly guilty of this crime.

In Aphorisms XXXII–XLIV, Bacon's relationship with the ancient skeptics becomes important again. As the skeptic position of doubt is often based upon uncertainty over whether our senses can give a true picture of reality or allow us to know things, Bacon attacks them for undermining the importance of the senses. Bacon's own position is that the senses can give an accurate picture of reality, but only if they are used and "supported" in the proper manner. For this reason, he is often identified with the "weak" form of skepticism, which is less pessimistic about the possibility for knowledge. This section also introduces the concept of the four idols. The idols, or illusions, represent the psychological, linguistic and philosophical barriers to progress in scientific investigation. Together, they comprise a barrier that must be broken down before any meaningful progress can be made.

In Aphorisms XLV–LII, Bacon shows that the idols of the tribe are shared by all people, and are what might be called common psychological faults. They stem from the way the human mind operates and processes information from the senses, and the way the senses provide that information. The human mind tends to impose an order on things, and develop fixed ideas, and is heavily influenced by emotion. Bacon draws on a long tradition of opposing the emotions, or passions, to reason and the mind. Many authors argue that reason, and even controlled is adversely affected by emotion. Bacon does not see these mental obstacles as problems that can necessarily be solved, however. As they are an integral part of human understanding, all we can do is attempt to recognize them and compensate for their effects. In Aphorisms LII–LVIII, Bacon shows that there is a greater chance of resolving the problems caused by the idols of the cave, because they affect the way in which an individual thinks. Different minds work in different ways as a result of their unique experience. To avoid the effects of the idols of the cave, such as a tendency to draw complicated distinctions, or rely excessively on experience, an awareness of one's own thought processes and a great deal of rigor are necessary.

In Aphorisms LIX–LX, the phrase "idols of the marketplace" is a translation of the Latin idola agorae. The agora in ancient Greece was the public forum, where citizens talked politics and traded. Problems of language and discussion are therefore central to this particular idol. Bacon has a keen awareness of the complex nature of words; they act as symbols of concrete things and abstract ideas, but they can deceive us if we do not understand the relationship between the symbol and object or idea. Carefully defining all the words used in an investigation does not always work. We need to think deeply about the way such definitions are formulated. The idea that knowledge and our ability to produce it depend on terminology is very important to Bacon.

In Aphorisms LXI-LXVII, Bacon spends a large amount of time dissecting the idols of the theater, because they form the foundations of the "authority" that he wants to demolish. The idols of the theater are the most dangerous, but also arguably the easiest to combat. They are false philosophies, and are therefore written by men rather than written into human nature. The three kinds of false philosophy that Bacon identifies (sophistic, empirical and superstitious) are equally bad. The key problem with each is their founding principle: sophistic philosophy is founded on argument, empirical philosophy on limited experience, and superstitious philosophy on superstition. Bacon argues that philosophy should be founded on sound method and on nature. He makes an interesting point about religion here; although he situates his philosophy within a generally Christian framework, Bacon does not want to use Scripture as a foundation for science. The Bible is, after all, another kind of authority that should be challenged and proper investigation looks only at Nature as God created it.

In Aphorisms LXVIII–LXXXV, Bacon provides a critique of the development and structure of modern philosophy. The problems represented by the idols of the theater are not temporary, but stem from the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. Bacon has no great fondness for the Greeks, seeing them as full of talk but unable to act or investigate properly. Their legacy is an emphasis on argument and discussion at the expense of advances and practical benefits. Bacon also seeks to undermine the idea that contemporary philosophy represents a consensus around the writings of Aristotle. This is part of his strategy to overturn his authority; not only does he attack Aristotle's logic, but he also denies that it is particularly coherent. Bacon is correct in identifying a variety of Aristotelian philosophies, however. Although contemporary universities taught Aristotelian doctrine, a wide variety of interpretations existed. Later, many supporters of "modern" natural philosophy would continue to use Aristotelian categories. To argue that "Aristotelian" philosophy represented only one set of ideas is a mistake.

Aristotle aside, the history of philosophy for Bacon is a catalogue of errors. All the items on the list that he provides share a common theme; scientific investigation has failed to progress because it has not recognized the true role of natural philosophy. Only when natural philosophy is seen to offer vast potential benefits to mankind will it be taken seriously and really develop.

These initial aphorisms attempt to clear the ground for later arguments. In this history of philosophy, Bacon reveals the long-standing problems that have prevented progress. When these obstacles are removed, real advances in learning will be achieved. Bacon rejects almost all of contemporary thought and philosophical tradition, from Aristotle and the scholastics to Plato, Carneades and the skeptics. He is now almost ready to outline his own ideas.

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