Biographical context

One of the greatest challenges facing biographers of Bacon is to reconcile his political and philosophical careers. Francis Bacon was a skillful political operator who fell from grace and who was ultimately charged with corruption. He was also a serious philosophical and scientific writer. Many early biographers preferred to gloss over his unsavory reputation, or rigorously separate the two parts of his life. The truth is perhaps not so simple; Bacon's two lives were always linked.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 in London. He was the fifth son of Elizabeth I's Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon. He had many important family connections amongst the upper strata of Elizabethan society. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, with his brother Anthony, then at Gray's Inn in London. From 1576–79 he traveled with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador to Paris. At his father's death in 1579, Bacon was penniless and he decided to follow a legal career. He became an MP in 1580, in 1584, 1586 and 1589; the next decades of his life were a constant search for patronage and position. His patron the Earl of Essex unsuccessfully campaigned to have him made Solicitor General in 1595. After Essex's rebellion in 1601, Bacon escaped prosecution. He was knighted by James I in 1603, and began to gain favor with the new King; he became a Privy Councillor in 1616.

Bacon acquired James's favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, as a patron. James was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and created Viscount St. Albans in 1621. Later that year he was impeached by the House of Commons for accepting bribes. Disgraced, Bacon retired to the country. He died in 1626. A persistent rumor claims that he died after catching cold from stuffing a chicken with snow to investigate the effects of freezing.

Many of Bacon's major works were written whilst he held public office, but his most productive period came after his fall from power. His Essays appeared in 1597, and in later enlarged editions in 1612 and 1625. The Advancement of Learning was published in 1605; Bacon intended to gain favor with James by dedicating the work to him. It appeared in Latin translation in 1623. De Sapientia Veterum (Wisdom of the Ancients)appeared in 1609. The New Organon was first published in 1620. The History of Henry VII was published in 1622, after an unsuccessful attempt to use it to regain the King's favor. Bacon's chaplain William Rawley published many of his papers posthumously.

Historical and philosophical context

Bacon's most immediate philosophical context is that of Aristotelian philosophy, which was still one of the prevalent intellectual currents of Bacon's day. Aristotle's Physics, which emphasized the role of a complex system of causes, form and matter, offered a theoretical rather than experimental picture of the natural world. Medieval Aristotelian philosophers, collectively known as the scholastics, sought to interpret and update Aristotle's system. However, absolute consensus around Aristotle clearly did not exist, even in the universities. When Bacon was at Cambridge, attacks on Aristotle's logic by the French thinker Ramus were being debated. Recent scholarship emphasizes the wide range of opinions that can be classed as "Aristotelian."

Bacon was by no means the first thinker to react against Aristotle, but to understand his reaction one must recognize the importance of Aristotle in early modern intellectual life. This reaction was indeed a severe one; Bacon's key aim throughout The New Organon was to replace what he believed to be Aristotle's universal truths with the idea that truth had to be discovered.

Bacon's involvement with contemporary experimental philosophy is also important. From comments in The New Organon itself, and from his letters, we know that Bacon took a keen interest in scientific developments and discoveries, despite his criticism of purely "empirical" philosophy. His discussions of Galileo's theory of tides, Gilbert's concept of magnetism, and of the use of the recently-developed microscope, show a philosopher in touch with contemporary developments. Bacon also performed and directed his own experiments, some of which were more successful than the chicken-freezing enterprise that hastened his demise. The modern view of Bacon emphasizes the role of scientific practice in his work, and his links to contemporary experimenters.

The immediate reception of The New Organon was varied. James I famously claimed not to understand a word of the book, and the scientist William Harvey accused him of writing philosophy "like a Lord Chancellor"; that is, of arguing in a manipulative, political way. On a similarly negative note, John Chamberlain agreed with the judgment that "a fool could not have written such a work, and a wise man would not." Bacon's new method was more popular amongst the scientists and natural philosophers who made up the newly created Royal Society in London. He was adopted by them as a kind of philosophical patron saint, and figures like Robert Hooke tried to model their own investigations on Baconian lines.

Bacon's later influence is debatable. Certainly, the modern "scientific method" bears no resemblance to Bacon's inductive method. On these grounds, his project can be judged to have failed. But although no modern scientist uses inductive methods, Bacon is still credited with influencing the development of modern science. His philosophical reputation was greatest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but has declined ever since. Many later historians agreed that his criticism of Aristotle, and his emphasis on experiments and practice were important steps, but these historians also argued that the concept of induction was outdated and represented a false step in the development of the modern scientific method. The most recent Bacon scholarship is less judgmental, and emphasizes Bacon's historical and theoretical contexts. Most informed historians agree that criticizing Bacon because his method did not survive the test of time, or because of his "moral failings" is a mistake. The nineteenth century's obsession with vindicating Bacon of political corruption at the expense of studying his philosophy has disappeared. Whether Bacon would have welcomed this development is unclear.