Topic category: Secession - Formation of a New Constitutional Republic
An Epistemology for Liberty
Francis Bacon's writings are based on the idea that everyone has the potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. It also implies a politics that is not elitist, and involves all citizens.
Many today believe we must constantly do as experts tell us. Experts on science tell us what to eat. Experts on law tell us not only what the law says, but often, what they think the law should say. Increasingly, experts on politics tell us what opinions are respectable. I believe that regaining our political footing requires a reevaluation of who knows what, and how they know it. Rule by expert opinion posing as fact threatens our liberty.
The move towards a new science was dependent, for Bacon, on abandonment of four mistaken ways of thinking, which he called "idols." First among them is the idol of the tribe, in which people lose sight of their subjectivity. Idols of the cave are socially induced perceptions, often based on a respected authority, such as Aristotle. The idols of the market are caused by linguistic conventions. Lastly, idols of the theatre are the philosophical systems that pass for universal knowledge.1
Bacon saw preconceptions of the mind are another hazard of the mind.
"The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at
once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and
inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to concieve and suppose that everything
is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind, whilst it is
very slow and unfit for the transition to the remote and heterogenous instances by
which axioms are tried as by fire, unless the office be imposed upon it by severe
regulation and a powerful authority."2
He also writes,
"For the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which
carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that
which is weighty and solid."3
Bacon hits a Humean note when he writes, "The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers." This anticipates Hume's statement that reason should be the slave of the passions.4
Bacon believed rationalism was insubstantial. Whereas now, much of physics is a construction of reason, Bacon calls the fruits of reason "spider webs." To the other extreme is empiricism, which Bacon compares to ants collecting little bits of vegitation.5 For Bacon, sense and understanding are insufficient for knowing nature.
"The unassisted hand and the understanding left to itself possess but little power.
Effects are produced by means of instruments and helps, which the understanding
requires no less than the hand, so those that are applied to the mind prompt or protect
Other barriers to science are sensory biases and notions of the mind and sense. These contribute to three types of philosophy--the sophistic (like Aristotle), empiric (too fact-based), and superstitious (mixed with religion)7. The method for science is what makes the results meaningful. An oft quoted statement is in the Advancement, where Bacon writes, "And as Alexander Borgia was wont to say of the expedition of the French for Naples, that they came with chalk in their hands to mark up their lodgings, and not with weapons to fight." Bacon's meaning is that he proposes to reorganize science, and not to personally engage in experiments.8
The use of the mind is in need of rules, according to Bacon. Most scientists before Bacon (and many after him)use deduction. Deductive reasoning predicts events based on group characteristics generalized from past experience. We count on summer to be sunny and hot, based on the fact that, in our experience, summers are sunny and hot. What Bacon suggests is that science in the past (that is, before Bacon) was so faulty that what was needed was to use particulars (that is, every individual fact) to construct axioms, and once axioms are created, to make generalizations.9
Bacon would wish to return to the particulars, and reestablish scientific inquiry to avoid the basis of new science being flawed older science. Obviously, Bacon was far less confident than most were, and are, in the mind's ability to establish science. Bacon believed rationalism was unable to discover truths.10
A pivotal essay in Bacon's Veterum is on Proteus, "messenger and interpreter of all antiquity." He is said to represent "shifting matter." Anticipations "deduced from a few instances" will "satisfy the imagination." In other words, anticipations are a sort of analogy about the workings of nature. For example, the sun gives off heat and light. So does fire, so in an age before astrophysics, one would observe that the sun "burns." Bacon seems to like the fact that anticipations are not just for professional scientists; anyone can understand them. Solitary instances are observable reactions unique to two objects in a given circumstance. The anticipation of the sun's similarity to fire must have been an instance before scientists knew about radiation and solar wind. Migrating instances are interactions where the objects change into something else. Conspicuous instances involve changes in appearance that are only temporary.11
Bacon saw science as the questioning of nature.
"Another error hath proceeded from too great a reverence, and a kind of adoration of
the mind and understanding of men; by means whereof, men have withdrawn themselves
too much from the contemplation of nature, and the observations of experience, and
have tumbled up and down in their own reason and conceits."12
Bacon gives us some idea of how we might engage in verifying connections between two objects.
"Liberty is when the direction is not restrained to some definite means, but
comprehendeth all the ways possible. . . .If therefore your direction be certain, it
must refer you and point you to something which, if it be present, the effect you
seek will of necessity follow, else you perform and not obtain."13
Bacon looks also for challenges to the general pattern of things, looking for negative instances for greater understanding. Once again, Bacon only bears chalk, as he himself submits no complete inductions.14 As previously stated, the science of Bacon begins with particulars.
"So it cometh often to pass, that mean and small things discover great better than
great can discover the small: and therefore Aristotle noteth well, 'That the nature
of everything is best seen in his smallest portions.'"15
Going on to say,
"But it is plain that the more you recede from your grounds, the weaker do you
include: and as in nature, the more you remove yourself from particulars, the
greater peril of error do you incur."16
This is a classic concept in Bacon. For Bacon, the particulars are where anyone looking for answers must start. Generalizations drawn from particulars are the axioms.17
The boldest part of Bacon's proposals in science is that of popular participation. Starting from skepticism of mind, or prolepsis, the individual can readily compare observations with logical schemes, to return to the above mentiones anticipations. In Novum Organum, Bacon writes
"Anticipations, again, will be assented to much more readily than interpretations,
because being deduced from a few instances, and these principally of familiar
occurence, the immediately hit the understanding and satisfy the imagination; whilst
on the contrary interpretations, being deduced from various subjects, and these
widely dispersed, cannot suddenly strike the understanding, so that in common
estimation they must appear difficult and discordant, and almost like mysteries of
Thus, the anticipation is likely to be incomplete, but is the ordinary person's mode of experience. For Bacon, the observations of ordinary people can form part of the scientific particulars for professional scientists to use.19 In Valerius Terminus, Bacon describes science as "contribution of wits one to help another." Knowledge is clear to all "wits and understandings." The method is applied,
"Not only to our first original attempt, but also to those who shall hereafter apply
themselves to the pursuit. For our method of discovering the sciences merely levels
men's wits, and leaves but little to their superiority, since it achieves everything
by the most certain rules and demonstrations."20
One interesting characteristic of Bacon's thought is his separation of religion and science, warning that "some of the moderns have indulged this folly with such consummate inconsiderateness, that they have endeavored to build a system of natural philosophy [that is, science]on the first chapter of Genesis, the book of Job, and other parts of scripture, seeking thus the dead among the living.21 Perhaps the fact that Thomas Jefferson admired Bacon explains his famous quote regarding separation of church and state. Jefferson may have seen government as an extension of science.
One can dwell on Bacon's influence on Thomas Jefferson and David Hume, but the most fascinating influence of Bacon was through his secretary, Thomas Hobbes. Mark Neustadt published Aphorismi de Jure Gentium Maiore sive de Fontibus Justiciae et Juris in his excellent dissertation.22 Hobbes's own ideas would resemble these aphorisms of Bacon.
". . .most often the people will be brought together by power and not by laws. . . .
But if it should happen that an offending person should prosper by his alliances,
clientships, or criminal associations, so that danger arises to the greater or more
powerful people from the law itself, then a faction subverts the law, and its
destruction is followed by a general enfeeblement, as commonly occurs. . . .And it is
certainly true that it is better to live where nothing is allowed than where force
does what it will. . . .Another thought that a most cruel and evil tyranny was worse
than sedition and civil war, and so it should be permitted."23
In his dealings with the erudite and combative King's Bench judge Edward Coke, Bacon questioned Coke's view of common law and his defense of an independent judiciary. Bacon challenged the Cokean technique of legal fictions, saying, "Judges ought to remember that their office is jus dicere and not jus dare; to interpret law, and not to make law or give law.24" Unlike Coke, who believed only legal scholars could discern the natural law, Bacon felt all could know the natural law.25 Bacon felt laws should be gradually modified, saying, "The work which I propound tendeth to prayning and grafting the law, and not to ploughing up and planting it again, for such a remove I would hold indeed for a perilous innovation.26"
It is to be hoped that a reevaluation of what we know and why may be used to guard against ever increasing rule by experts.
1Francis Bacon, Novum Organum(Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), 109-110.
2Francis Bacon, Novum Organum(Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), 110.
3Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning(Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), 15.
4Francis Bacon, Novum Organum111.
5Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early Modern Philosophy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 106.
Brian Vickers, "Francis Bacon and the Progress of Knowledge," Journal of the History of Ideas53 (Jul.-Sep.1992):509.
6Bacon, Novum Organum, 107.
7Bacon, Advancement of Learning, 40. Novum Organum,113.
8Bacon Advancement, 47.
9Charles Whitney, Francis Bacon and Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 107.
10Gaukroger,op. cit., 60.
11Peter Pesic, "Wrestling With Proteus: Francis Bacon and the "Torture" of Nature," Isis90 (Mar. 1999):84.
Robertson, ed. Valerius Terminus, 196. [Appears in The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon. (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970).]
Bacon, Advancement, 59.
Bacon, Novum Organum, 108.
12Bacon, Advancement, 16.
13Bacon, Novum Organum, 107.
Robertson, ed. Valerius Terminus, 196.
14Bacon, Advancement, 57.
Brian Vickers, "Francis Bacon and the Progress of Knowledge," Journal of the History of Ideas53 (Jul.-Sep. 1992), 499.
15Bacon, Advancement, 34.
16Bacon, Advancement, 98.
17F.H. Anderson, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (New York: Octagon Books, 1971),88-89.
Bacon, Novum Organum, 108.
24Daniel R. Coquillette, Francis Bacon in Jurists: Profiles in Legal Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992),127.
25Alan Cromartie, "The Constitutionalist Revolution: The Transformation of Political Culture in Early Stuart England." Past and Present163 (May 1999):87.
Biography - Shannon Andrew Walsh
Shannon Walsh holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Master's degree in History from Western Illinois University. A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Walsh is a student of philosophical history.