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The New Organon

Francis Bacon

Book One: Aphorisms LXXXVI–CXXX

Book One: Preface and Aphorisms I–LXXXVI

Book Two: Aphorisms I–XX1

Summary

LXXXVI–XCII. Men's childlike wonder at the arts and sciences has been reinforced by those who teach them. The reputation of the old ideas has been boosted by the empty claims of the supporters of new, practical natural philosophy. Arrogance, contempt, and lack of ambition have harmed the sciences. People claim that what they cannot achieve is impossible. Superstition and the blind zeal of religion have always hampered natural philosophy. In fact, natural philosophy should be the most powerful ally of religion. The manners and customs of schools and universities are inimical to the progress of the sciences. The lack of reward for discoveries also deters people; generally, those princes who control rewards are not learned. The greatest obstacle to progress, however, is the lack of hope, and the assumption that it is impossible.

XCIII–C. We must begin from God, who is the author of all things. Past errors and current methods give cause for hope, as they are so bad that they can only be improved upon. Empiricists are like ants; they accumulate and use. Rationalists spin webs like spiders. The best method is that of the bee; it is somewhere in between, taking existing material and using it. A pure form of natural philosophy is yet to be found. No one has yet done away with the jumble of common opinions and ideas, but if someone were to do so, great things could be achieved. The foundations of experience are weak; we can hope for better results when natural history (which is the foundation of natural philosophy) has been better organized. Further progress in science will be possible when we acquire illuminating experiments that reveal axioms rather than giving immediate profit. We need a new stock of experiments, and new methods and rules for proceeding.

CI–CXV. Experience needs to be written down to be really useful. Particulars need to be organized into tables of discovery relevant to the object of inquiry. More important things can be expected from axioms drawn from these particulars by a sure method. We must not allow the mind to proceed from particulars to general axioms, and then use those axioms to explain the particulars. Instead, we need to follow a kind of ladder, from particulars through intermediate axioms to abstract general axioms that are limited by the intermediate stage. A different form of induction is needed; it must not proceed by simple enumeration. It must separate out a nature by exclusions and rejections. This kind of induction can really define concepts and discover axioms. If the axiom being formed by this kind of induction has a wider scope than the particulars in question, then we should ask whether it points to new particulars. When these kind of axioms emerge, then a well-founded hope will appear. Other things may also give hope. Many more and better things can be hoped for from concerted human effort than from mere chance. It is very likely that many things remain to be discovered that we cannot currently imagine. The sheer number of particulars should restore hope; there are fewer things in nature than there are mental fictions. Bacon offers himself as a good role model; he has expanded knowledge whilst pursuing a political career. He seeks to remove despair, which has greatly delayed the progress of the sciences. This section, the destructive part of the Instauration, has rebutted native human reason left to itself, demonstrations and theories. This rebuttal has come from signs of causes. It is now time to approach the method of interpreting Nature. The purpose of the first book is to scrape the mind clean; Bacon now intends to set it in a favorable position towards his argument. He intends to create initial good impressions of what he will present, even before their real nature is known.

CXVI–CXXVIII. Bacon says he is not trying to found a new sect in philosophy. He is not working on matters of opinion, but trying to discover whether he can lay better foundations for human greatness and power in truth. He is not proposing a universal or complete theory, and does not expect to live to complete the final parts of the Instauration. His method is to draw causes and axioms from experiments, and from them new experiments. Those with the ability to do so can perform the experiments he describes and gain immediate results, but Bacon has larger concerns. If his natural history contains some mistakes, then that is only to be expected. His natural history may contain some common things, but this is because they are important and often neglected. Foul and mean things are also included; nothing is unworthy of inclusion. Bacon is interested only in enlightening experiments, not in productive ones; power over nature cannot be gained if we are uninterested in subtle or small matters. Bacon's method makes all intellects equal if they follow it; it is a product of its time rather than of his particular genius. It might be objected that Bacon has not declared the true goal of the sciences. Truth and usefulness in this inquiry are the same thing, but the goal of creating a true picture of the world is most important. Those who believe that Bacon will merely end by reproducing the methods of the ancients are mistaken; their methodology was flawed and fundamentally different. The idea that his hesitation to make judgments results in a lack of conviction is wrong. Rather, Bacon's method assists the senses and regulates the understanding. He also intends to perfect the sciences of ethics, logic and politics. He does not intend, however, to destroy the arts and sciences that he uses. The current disciplines should continue to provoke discussion, but little progress can be made until his new method is adopted.

CXXIX–CXXX. Bacon discusses the excellence of the Purpose. First, the introduction of remarkable discoveries holds first place amongst human actions. Political benefits are short-lived and limited compared to discoveries. The force and power of discoveries is evident in the three recent inventions that have changed the modern world; printing, gunpowder and the nautical compass. There are three forms of ambition; personal ambition, ambition for one's country, and the ambition to extend the power of the human race over the universe of things, which is the most majestic. Objections that the arts and sciences may lead to luxury and evil are unfounded. Right reason and sound religion will ensure the correct use of man's right over nature. It is now time to lay out the actual art of interpreting nature. Interpretation is the true and natural work of the mind once obstacles have been removed; it could be arrived at through intelligence, restraint and by laying aside received opinions. Bacon hopes that his work will speed up the process, however.

Analysis

LXXXVI–XCII. Here, Bacon analyzes the factors acting against the new natural philosophy. The role of universities and colleges in propagating what Bacon believes to be false philosophy is considerable; the major institutions of learning in the seventeenth century were the source of the educated elite of European society. Bacon's own education at Trinity College, Cambridge presumably made him aware of the dominance of Aristotelian philosophy and the works of the "ancients" in general. Universities continued to teach Aristotelian doctrines up to the late seventeenth century, however, although new developments slowly made an impact. Bacon is hostile to many new developments that challenge traditional interpretations of nature, however. This hostility is in part criticism of his intellectual competitors, but it also reflects his keen awareness of the difficulty of his task. Flashy new systems that fail to deliver complete reform discredit the concept of the Great Renewal and might endanger the whole project. Bacon is keen to guard against this possibility.

Bacon continues his emphasis on the importance of religion in these aphorisms. Natural philosophy when practiced correctly should support religion, but zealotry, which for Bacon probably means extreme Protestantism, can inhibit it. He is deeply opposed to the idea that religious opinion should limit the possibilities for investigation.

The mention of reward is a fairly unsubtle appeal to James I. He implies that, as James is both learned and in the position to support such a scheme, it is almost his kingly duty to do so. Bacon's other career as a courtier in search of personal patronage almost seems to spill over into his philosophy at this point.

The key idea from this section is hope. Bacon's analysis of current philosophy aims to reveal good reasons to hope for improvement.

XCIII–C. The idea that scientific inquiry must begin with God is unfamiliar to modern scientists, but Bacon should be taken seriously when he argues for it. He does not necessarily mean that his inductive method should be used to prove the existence of God, but rather that any investigation of nature must see it as created by God. Assuming that nature comes from God also sets a limit on any inquiry; there are certain things about nature that cannot be known because we cannot understand the mind of God. This is arguably what Bacon means when he refers to man as being obedient to nature.

The image of the ants and bees is a neat way of stating Bacon's argument that his method represents a middle way between empirical (or evidence-based) inquiry and overly theoretical philosophy. The key, as he has already suggested, is to clear the floor of bad philosophy and common opinion, in order to establish his new method. The two main features of this method will be a comprehensive natural history that represents all the known facts about nature, and good experiments. Bacon places great value on experiments as a way of investigating nature: Aristotle and his disciples, on the other hand, have carried out very few experiments at all. Those that they do perform are intended to confirm existing views. Bacon rejects this idea absolutely; his experiments are meant to reveal new facts about nature.

CI–CXV. Bacon begins to set out his scientific method. Particulars are facts or pieces of experience; they are set down methodically in tables of experience that contain all the relevant facts relating to a particular nature, such as heat. By excluding or rejecting certain characteristics, a true nature can emerge. By this process of exclusion, the investigator can formulate axioms about his subject.

Various factors point to the viability of Bacon's project, which he details. To an extent, Bacon is like a philosophical salesman presenting his project to potential customers. His immense personal self-confidence is evident in his use of himself as an example of the possibilities of science.

These aphorisms signal the beginning of a positive, rhetorical section of the New Organon. Bacon begins to prepare the ground for a detailed explanation of his own theory, after demolishing those of others. The fact that he notifies the reader of this development highlights the tentative, provisional nature of his project. He is so eager to convince the reader of the value of his system that a special section is needed for the purpose.

CXVI–CXXVIII. Bacon's opposition to what he calls philosophical sects is clear. Past philosophical movements like the scholastics, the skeptics or the ancient academies achieved little, in his opinion; he is keen to dissociate his system from their failures. He makes it clear that his aim is not to gain disciples, or even to complete his project. Rather, he intends to convince the educated public of its value. This explains in part his decision to publish the New Organon at an early stage in the project.

His defense of his concept of natural history is based on the idea that it must include every detail about nature to be valuable. The "profane" things to which he refers might include a history of sex, or a history of smells, both of which feature in his provisional outline for a natural history at the end of the work. Natural history includes the natural world in its entirety, but also all human modifications of it, such as machines and technology.

This section reveals a complex relationship between Bacon's view of knowledge and practical benefit. He knows that the people he is trying to interest in his project will want immediate practical benefits, such as new inventions, but he does not rate such innovations highly. Knowledge alone is Bacon's chief aim.

The idea of equality is an important one here. All investigators are essentially the same if they follow Bacon's method. It is like a machine in that its operator needs no special skill. This contrasts with alchemy and other seventeenth century "sciences" criticized by Bacon, in which the individual's art or skill were seen as vitally important. When the alchemist's experiments failed, he thought that it was not because his method was faulty, but because his techniques and skills were not good enough. By removing this element of skill from the process, Bacon seeks to bring natural philosophy within the reach of all educated people.

Bacon also answers some of the potential objections to his method. He reveals the true extent of his reform project, which will eventually extend areas such as ethics and politics. His argument that his system can coexist with the present disciplines of natural philosophy should not necessarily be taken at face value. Although he admits that his own method can be difficult to follow correctly, he might hope that it will eventually dominate.

CXXIX–CXXX. Bacon praises his own aim even more. He intends to encourage others to support his project. He praises the value of discoveries, which to him mean both practical inventions and new knowledge. His three examples of great inventions are well-known. The benefits of gunpowder, printing and the compass are considerable; they changed the communication of information, warfare and navigation. Bacon lived at a time of great political and cultural change; the development of modern state systems in the seventeenth century, for example, owes much to his three great inventions. For all his suspicion of their overall value, Bacon was keenly aware of the power of technological advances.

Bacon believes that he has now removed any obstacles, and convinced the reader of the value of his project. In Book Two, he attempts to set out his method in more detail.

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