The Semiosis of Francis Bacon’s Scientific Empiricism


Harvey Wheeler



ABSTRACT: Francis Bacon’s philosophy of empiricism has been misinterpreted and under valuated. It rested on a semiotic logic of inquiry which Hooke called his “logic Machine.” Bacon developed it from his phenomenological interpretation of the law behind the unwritten English common law. Applying to this a reverse Platonism of things rather than words, he produced a semiosis of Form that employs processus and schematismus in an hypothesis eliminating process for discovering the empiricist laws of nature and society. Bacon identified four non-rational neuro- ontological and epistemological interpretive idola for eliminating distortions and prejudices from perceptions. Unlike Newton’s time-determined cause-finding science, Bacon’s approach was an analytic law-finding empiricism, which he called a ‘revolution in thought.’ Kant’s later revolution in thought in Critique of Pure Reason (2nd edition -B) applied an adaptation of Bacon’s approach to create the phenomenology of modern science, and his own revolution in thought. In The New Atlantis science is treated like the economy in a mercantilist society and brought under law as an autonomous social institution. Today’s research laboratories process information and conduct empirical research in much the way Bacon prescribed. Soviet ideologically controlled science was dictatorially organized. Japan’s commodified science is nationally coordinated. Today, the U.S. could benefit from Bacon’s models for the conduct and organization of science.



Francis Bacon’s philosophy of science was highly esteemed until the mid-nineteenth century. Through a series of interpretive errors and mis-translations of Bacon’s Latin originals, his science fell into an eclipse from which it has only recently begun to recover. One problem was a conviction among philosophers of science that mathematics was the proper language of science and Newtonian mechanics was its proper model. Today’s more sophisticated conceptions of our “participant-observer” universe are highly compatible with Bacon’s philosophy of science and just in time. He anticipated and designed antidotes for problems like many of those we face today.

In this discussion, “law” is used to mean the invariances that characterize the relationships between the components of a system or structure which, if those lawful relations are changed, the system is either qualitatively changed or dissolved. “"Noumenon"” is an object perceived by reason and knowable by thought but not by the senses. “Phenomenon” is a noumenal object of experience in space and time, as distinguished from a thing-in-itself. “Cause” refers to things associated in an invariant linear time sequence.

Bacon started from law rather than mathematics. He studied the deep structure of systems rather than motion and time-sequences. Like C. S. Peirce, he developed a semiosis of empirical processes rather than an optical mechanics like Newton. This article describes the steps in the development of Bacon’s science from its foundation in his noumenal, rather than realist, conception of the law behind the unwritten common law of England. This led to a case method for using judges’ rulings as ‘evidences’ of the unwritten law. Bacon’s Platonism of things rather than words is based on phenomenal Form, processus and schematismus, permitting a new method that Hooke called a ‘logic machine’, applicable to all empirical fields of knowledge and constituting a revolution in thought.

The unwritten laws of nature and society could be revealed on a case-by-case basis by scientists trained, like lawyers, to avoid prejudice, influence, dogma, ideology and power - the idola of knowledge. A new Chancery of Science, patterned on Bacon’s own High Court of Chancery, was departmentalized for every field of research and in effect constitutionalized - brought under its own appropriate rule of law. Large scale task-force research teams produced and tested inventions and discoveries. Assessment and evaluation was conducted by committees of science chiefs who shelved harmful and promulgated wholesome and beneficial science using parliamentary processes.

Today the scientific revolution remains in a feudal, pre-Baconian condition. It is uncoordinated, subjected to commercial and professional corruption, and to the prejudices and private interests of science barons. A constitutional design for bringing science under the rule of law remains available in The New Atlantis.

Bacon’s Science falls on Hard Times

Francis Bacon’s theory of scientific empiricism had a strong semiotic foundation. That fact influenced both the enthusiasm of its early reception and its later rejection. Hooke, Newton, Locke, Descartes, Voltaire, The Encyclopedists, Kant were among Bacon’s admirers. Then Newtonian mechanics became the model for any would-be science. Next, Latin was an unwitting accomplice to the demise of Bacon’s science. In his day Latin was the universal language of philosophy and he used it for all his most serious works. Their English translations did not become available until after the Spedding edition of Bacon’s Works (Spedding, 1860-1864). Before then, Bacon’s science could only be studied just the way he expressed it. Afterward, its study in English depended on the validity of the translations. Unfortunately, they contained serious flaws and grave distortions of his theories. The translator was Robert Leslie Ellis, a leading nineteenth century mathematician. Like many science historians - well into the twentieth century - he held the then reigning assumption that anything not a form of Newtonian mechanics was not a science. It also followed that mathematics was nature’s native language. Bacon’s science did not pass either test and Ellis regarded him as mathematically illiterate and scientifically naive. Ellis was especially critical of Bacon’s core idea, the theory of Form. In a few crucial places Ellis excluded from the English several Latin passages dealing with Form. Worse, he trivialized and sometimes excluded its two facilitative logical operations, processus and schematismus. All three had technical meanings for Bacon. As a result, scholars who used only the English translations had no way of understanding the crucial semiosis that lay at the foundation of Bacon’s phenomenology of empiricism (Wheeler, 1963, 1982, 1983-a, 1983-b, 1999) Spedding, to his credit, was immediately disturbed and argued with Ellis over several points. His main disagreements are preserved in a series of running footnotes and endnotes. But again, they are only available in those volumes of the Works that contain the Latin versions. The injury was compounded when Ellis died before finishing his translations and even before revising those he had completed! His corrupted translations and several slighting notes are in the English volumes; Spedding’s quarrels in the Latin volumes have gone largely unnoticed (Wheeler, 1983-b). Only through a fortunate accident was the problem with the Ellis mis-translations discovered. The Spedding edition is of such general excellence that I, like most Bacon commentators, had assumed the English versions to be valid. The first lead came from an enigmatic reference by Coleridge to Bacon’s “Platonism”. Consulting the dialogues turned up Plato’s schematismos, a term prominent in both Bacon and Kant. Coleridge was right. Bacon had been there and reversed Plato’s idealism into a Platonism of things rather than words. Then came the discovery of Kant’s adaptations of Bacon’s reverse idealism. Kantian neo-hermeneutics was spreading among philosophers of science (Kuhn, 1963; Husserl, 1969; Feyerabend, 1980 Bohm, 1981; Heelan, 1983) and I was open to a new, more sophisticated understanding of Bacon’s science (Wheeler, 1987; 1990). However, Ellis’s prejudices have been largely undetected and as a result, Bacon’s science has been under valued by philosophers. For some Bacon scholars the effect has been to confirm the Renaissance aspects of Bacon’s thought rather than his contributions to modern science (Martin, 1996).

A factor that has produced even more misunderstandings of Bacon’s science derived from the obscure style he employed for his scientific writings. He did it on purpose! He was afraid of the demotic - the ordinary language of the ordinary reader. Although Bacon’s popular writings are models of clarity, his philosophic and scientific works, especially in their Latin versions, are studiously opaque. The obscurity is not like that of a family recipe with a secret ingredient left out. Bacon feared that if he expressed his deepest philosophical conclusions in plain English, the ideas were so novel and complex that ordinary readers would understand the words but not their deeper scientific meanings. He did not want the general estimation of the worth of his scientific writings to be determined by the opinions of philosophical incompetents. Latin (before Ellis) was his first defense but uncompromising complexity of thought and expression was his second.

There was also a deeper semiotic basis for this strategy. He had long puzzled over why the ancients, for all their brilliance, had not invented science, despite Plato’s attempt to treat Pythagorean ratios as a general science (McClain, 1976-a; 1976-b; 1982; Wheeler, 1982). Bacon concluded that the ancients, especially Aristotle, were guilty of a semiotic error. Most philosophers wrongly assumed that nature’s hidden laws could be explained in everyday demotic Greek and Latin. Bacon had known about the inadequacies of demotic reasoning since his earliest studies of law, as illustrated by an episode involving Justice Coke and King James !. James was a learned King and believed he could exercise his personal rule throughout the government. But when he prepared to rule in common law disputes, Justice Coke delivered a celebrated rebuke. Not possible, said Coke. The law was not expressed in a demotic language - neither in English nor in Latin, but in Law French. Moreover, its forms and processes did not follow ordinary rules of reason but rather the “the artificial reason of the law.” Bacon did not want his mode of expression to convey the false impression that nature’s laws are intuitively apparent. However, the strategy was turned against him by Robert Ellis. Ironically foreign readers (Voltaire, 1961; Kant, 1929) who used the Latin originals have understood him better than have English language scholars.

Science out of Law

Change was breaking out everywhere in Bacon’s time; literature, art, music, architecture, knowledge (print), science, and law. The world of law in England was a little like the world of science in that it’s underlying rules were unwritten. Bacon designed a new way of analyzing case rulings as empirical evidence permitting reliable inferences about the unwritten common law implicit in the applica0tions of it by judges. He then assumed that this process could be developed into an empiricist method for discovering the laws behind all departments of nature and society for which reliable data was available. The results, made available in several Latin works about empiricist data processing, constitute a revolution in thought, which is what he called it (Wheeler, 1983; 1990; 1999; Martin, 1996; Coquillette, 1992). Bacon made it clear that science required avoiding conventional rhetoric and logic in favor of a new empiricism - a Novum Organum - of its own. The reason was semiotic. If nature spoke in a human language, science would have been discovered long ago. Nature, he proposed instead, does not speak to us in either English or in any demotic language, not even in Law French (Wheeler, 1983). Later, after extending his new case method into an empiricist “logic machine” - Hooker’s term for it - Bacon purposely made his new system difficult to understand to prevent its mistaken understanding by those with merely demotic English and ordinary modes of reason.

Bacon’s extrapolation of juridical law-finding into a general science of knowledge processing involved three features: a phenomenology of things rather than ideas; a semiotic theory of cognition rather than a word-based logic, and a new meta-linguistic organon. Here are the stages in the process, starting with a description of how Bacon invented the case method of law-finding.

Law as Noumenon

Bacon’s foundations in law, in addition to the common law, included Roman Law. This came first from the Chancery, which had grown out of Roman based canon law; second from Scots Roman Law. Bacon had served on the Commission for the Union of the Laws of England and Scotland. Already under Elizabeth he had proposed a research project to systematize common law rolls, records and rulings. England’s unwritten law was originally like that of most pre-literate societies; made out of customs and lore, as they were preserved in the memories of culture paragons. These were jurors, literally “law-sayers” who in the absence of written records, testified to the law which, ‘the memory of man to the contrary runneth not’. Before the seventeenth century a common law trial was still in the form of a “law waging” process with law-saying jurors acting as judges of the law, instead of fact. Although jurors continued to function as law-sayers long after there were copious records of court rulings, the availability of court records made it possible to substitute them, via lawyers, for paragons. Justice Coke was called “the father of the common law” for presiding at this change. In Bacon’s time, partly due to the growing importance of the Commons, the common law courts gradually acquired ascendency over the other courts. Justice Coke was a legal antiquarian whose archival researches provided the tests of courts records, helping to reduce jurors into tryers of fact rather than law. Coke was a legal “realist” in the Scholastic sense. Rulings were the law, concretely and he twisted meanings and punctuation - which was missing from many early rulings - to make strained applications of archaic rulings to new disputes. When Coke did legal research the result was a collection of reports like Coke upon Littleton. Bacon applied an implicit phenomenology of law which permitted treating past rulings as noumenal “evidences” of the unwritten law behind them (Wheeler, 1999). Although Queen Elizabeth rejected his proposal to give a topical organization to court rulings, he developed on his own 300 “Rules and Maximes of the Common Law”. Bacon’s “rules” and “maximes” were about a reality made from law, not ordinary tings and events: a mind-made noumenal domain.

Bacon was a semiotician rather than an antiquarian. In preparation for the design of his logic machine he studied the different ways of reasoning: Ramist, hermetic rhetoric, deductive, inductive and experimental. He rejected them all on the ground they were concerned with the word rather than the real. Already before 1603 he experimented with new ways of using rulings for drawing inferences about the unwritten law. A few of his briefs reveal his new case method of finding the unwritten rule of law. The “Reading on the Statute of Uses” (Works, vol XIV) is a preliminary application of the new method but the transition to the new is in his brief, The Case of the Post-Nati of Scotland [Calvin’s Case (1608) (Works, vol XV, 190-247; Wheeler, 1947) When the king’s hopes for the Commission of the Union of the Crowns failed, a case was contrived to get union declared under the common law. It came to trial as Calvin’s Case. Young Calvin was a Scot child born after 1603, when James held both crowns. Judges from all England’s high courts sat to hear the case and then delivered rulings in their own courts. Bacon was attorney for the crown. This brief represents the first systematic application of his new law-finding process. It is highly metaphysical and it is easy to see why. He is demonstrating for the first time a noumenal constitutional invention; the existence for England of what America’s Supreme Court Justice Brandeis later called the American constitution’s “brooding omnipresence in the sky.” Bacon does so by giving structure to a dualistic unwritten English constitution. It is made up of phenomenal domains, so to speak: states, provinces and colonies. At the top is the imperial crown (Maitland 1911). England and Scotland, as well as territories like Ireland, were under the “double majesty” crown, which consisted of both absolute and limited prerogatives. The people of each land possessed a mysterious dual allegiance to both the king as holder of the imperial crown, and the king as holder of an ordinary crown that was different for each of the separate internal legal orders of each domain (Wheeler, 1947; 1956; 1975). Bacon invented the phenomenology of the unwritten law of the constitution. His double majesty constitution became the basis for two future constitutions: the unwritten constitution described by Locke in the Two Treatises, and the transliterated into a written constitution by the American Founding Fathers -it was the leading case they cited. It provided the basis for the dual sovereignty of the American Federal system (Wheeler, 1947; 1975).

Bacon’s creativity in the philosophy of the unwritten common law has always been acknowledged. At the close of the seventeenth century, Justice Sir Matthew Hale (Hale, 1667), who consolidated the modern common law system, acknowledged Bacon as the inventor of the process for discovering unwritten laws from the evidences, in case rulings, of their applications. The process had its database; the case law. It was empiricist and inductivist. For those with training in law it worked marvelously well. Bacon concluded it could be developed into a new method - a Novum Organum - with general application to the laws of nature and society. That would amount to a revolution in thought. He called it that, comparing it to two prior revolutions in thought: Greek philosophy and Roman law.

The War Against the Word.

The prerequisite to applying his revolutionary process to all realms of knowledge was to develop two features: its special language and its special logic. These must be true of science. The language of nature must be different from ours, and so also with its logic. The first requirement was a proper conception of words and languages. Words, he said, stand as the footprints of thoughts. The problem is that words and languages must facilitate the communication between all people, including the most doltish as well as the most brilliant. Hence they must be demotic - popular. This intrinsic defect predetermines that all word-based analysis must always remain constricted to a non-scientific demotic level. Words, wrote Bacon, are:

...commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar [and] follow those lines of division most obvious to the vulgar understanding. And whenever an understanding of greater acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist the change (Works; Novum Organum, Aphorism LIX, vol VII, p. 78)

This is not merely, or even chiefly, a matter of vocabulary. “Divisions” is the main problem, Bacon explained, is because demotic language cannot naturally cope with what he called nature’s inherent logic - its own grammar and syntax. We might think of this today as nature’s intrinsic “machine language. He had long pondered over why the ancients, for all their genius, had never been able to produce science. That, he concluded, was the reason: They had assumed nature could be understood through demotic discourse. This is why Bacon was more complimentary to Plato than to Aristotle. He thought Democritus had been on the right track and seems to have believed that there might have been some chance for the ancient emergence of science until Aristotle forestalled it completely by his word-and-language based formal logic. In effect, Bacon lectured Aristotle the way Coke did King James. The original demotic flaw determined that all Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy would forever remained imprisoned with the confines of vernacular discourse, in Bacon’s special analytic meaning of that term. He acknowledged that mathematical reasoning was somewhat better than reasoning by formal logic but even it possessed the germ of the fatal demotic defect because its basic definitions were framed in words, and they led to the wrong “divisions.” All such demotic systems made the world “the bond-slave of human thought, and human thought the bond-slave of words”. (Works Vol VII, Aphorism LXIX). Bacon set himself the problem of creating a non-demotic “assembly language” so to speak, to mediate between the processes and structures of nature and those of the mind. This lead to the development of a new way of programming knowledge databases; what became the New Organon’s logic of law-finding.

Bacon’s main research database was always the book. He created a new archival technology made possible when arcane scroll and codex repositories of knowledge became widely accessible through printing. A collection of similar rulings could be inspected, not to make a better shoe horn for forcing a fit but for abstracting common underlying general principles. The element that then emerged was not a ruling but an analytically discovered law that must be the juridical foundation for a set of related case rulings: judging the rulings to find the rule they jointly express. The process is like what in artificial intelligence programming is called back-chaining and is the foundation for computer-mediated searches for roots and causes, as in medical diagnosis. It is also the empiricist process of that supreme Baconian, Sherlock Holmes.(Sebeok 1981) One begins with the presenting symptoms, perhaps a syndrome, and works from them back to a set of probable sources or causes. The “cause” or “la” is not a time-sequential cause in the sense of classical mechanics but is rather the explanation that remains after evidence and logic eliminate every other possibility. It is not static and final; it is dynamic and subject to correction on the basis of new evidence that may later appear.

Bacon’s approach was semiotic: a transitivity - a way of making a reciprocal mediation between the intrinsic alphabet (“divisions”) of nature and those of human thought. Bacon believed this could be done by a form of analytic empiricism through the proper conduct of “trials” of particulars, inducing them to yield preliminary axioms. Nature, in his juridical metaphor, would be brought to trial and induced, on the analogy of the Star Chamber, to testify in her own innate language, unaffected by the inadequacies of human language. This would permit framing preliminary axioms. These would lead to the discovery and design of new trials, generating more and different new axioms, and then to successively higher levels of abstraction. There is a detailed flow-chart description of the institutionalization of this process in The New Atlantis (Wheeler, 1990)

It is fruitless, Bacon insisted, to seek causes and concrete results overtly. The objects of inquiry must instead be “abstract natures.” These will constitute the "“alphabet or simple letters, whereof the variety of things consisteth”. (Works, VI, p. 63). He is thinking neither as a geometer nor as a simple inductivist. The New Organon was an instrument for the empirical analysis of phenomena just as the new telescopes were instruments for the empirical analysis of celestial objects. It is not that he avoided seeking mechanical “causes” but rather that he sought the “laws” of nature. On other occasions when his analytical process pointed to the “freeing of a direction,” Bacon wrote in the idiom of an explorer charting unknown waters; remember the famous tall ship forticepiece of the Advancement of Learning (loc. Cit. P. 59).

The methods and logics of the past had dealt with concepts. The New Organon would deal with noumenal things, but only because it analyzed them in terms of their own “language” rather than human language. This quest would recur over and over in English scientific empiricism: in the laws of economics in Adam Smith’s unseen equilibrating process; explicitly acknowledged by Charles Darwin in exploring the laws of biological evolution operating unseen in the fitness selection process. Bacon, with a paradoxical assist from Plato, produced a general theory of the empirical structure and process of unseen laws.

From Plato’s Dialectics To Bacon’s Logic Machine

To the question why Plato had not developed science, Bacon answered because he got things backward. A reverse Platonism would do to trick. Plato started from rhetoric, which had displaced myth and poetry as processors of knowledge. But rhetoric was based upon persuasion in the vernacular. This meant it was limited to the domain Plato called “appearance”, eidolon. Consequently it was unsuited for dealing with the Form of wisdom in the realm of Idea. In the opening of the Republic Plato’s charge against poetry is that it is imbued with the values of feudal warriors and brigands and not applicable to the civic ethic needed by the citizens of an urban civilization. However, one feature shared by both rhetoric and poetry held promise: the rules governing the contests between rhetors, and those developed in the traditional poetry contests. These were dialogical and featured a thesis/antithesis argument, and closing efforts at synthesis. Drama was another dialogical medium whose plot structure was similar. Its thematic motifs were developed according to a rudimentary enthymematic progression and its didactic chorus was available to help the author clarify his most important themes. But all this remained in the realm of appearances, which was incurably demotic. Plato illustrates it in the Myth of the Cave in which people see only shadows rather than things - Forms - in themselves. The closing catharsis in a drama conveyed the perception of a truth beyond the capacity of words to express. The mystery cults, especially the Eluesinian rite which has been associated with Plato, concluded its initiations with the charismatic revelation of a hidden mystery-wisdom beyond the perception ability of the unprepared mind.

Alban Dewes Winspear (Winspear, 1940/1956) has documented how Plaltonism resulted from the quest for the model of a just state that was neither a democracy nor a monarchial tyranny but which rested on a new form of reasoning with a scientific foundation. Socrates had been seeking something of the sort. Conventional rhetoric would not do; it was an eristic (win-lose) quest for victory rather than truth and rested on audience persuasion rather than Socrates’ eirenic (win-win) dialogue of truth. Socrates insisted that his truth producing dialogue could not be conveyed through print but rather required direct personal dialogical experience. After the death of Socrates Plato transcribed the dialogue method to preserve in writing the teachings of the master. He left Athens for Megara to avoid the fate of Socrates, spending many years among various Pythagorean communities in search of a demonstrable truth-finding process. “...[T]here is ample ancient evidence for the view that Plato derives his ideas from the Pythagoreans rather than the Pythagoreans from Plato "(Winspear, 1940/56).

“....[T]he principle [of number] seems to have been used by the Pythagoreans, and was certainly used by their disciple Plato,... not as a formula to explain process and change, but rather as a static and conceptual ground of explanation’ underlying isolated and atomic appearances.... This number mysticism is of immense importance in the development of Western thought because out of it (and other elements) evolved Plato’s theory of ideas.... Justice is not equality [democratic]; justice is geometrical [aristocratic] rather than arithmetical equality. There is a number (four) which ‘explains’ justice. Justice is realized through a ’harmony’ of ‘opposites.’ (Pp 96-97.

and so on through the mathematical “proofs” scattered throughout Plato’s dialogues (McClain, 1976-a; 1976-b; 1982)

Plato’s Form, Idea and Logos all refer to a noumenal entity whose properties could be discovered through an extension of dialogical reasoning into dialectics. It employed a “tri-relative” process like what Charles Sanders Peirce later called “semiosis.” - the structure of a science (Peirce; 1955; Nauta, 1972; Wheeler, 1982; McClain, 1976-a; 1976-b; 1982). During the sixth century B.C. a dramatic ur-Pythagorean discovery spread throughout the advanced cultures of antiquity. It was discovered that a branch of mathematics mediated between the perceptions of the mind and the physical properties of nature. The human world of appearances and the eternal world of Forms possessed a tri-relative transitivity provided by the Pythagorean harmonic ratios. The demonstration, employing a monochord or a flute as a scientific instrument, was startlingly dramatic. It showed that the world inside and the world outside function according to harmonic ratios. An equally divided monochord produced an octave that could be detected by the ear and reproduced by the ratio of one to one-half, and on throughout the harmonic tones and ratios. Plato’s last years in the Second Academy were devoted to an extended application of the mathematical harmonics of Pythagorean musicology (McClain, 1976-a) to create a generalized science of harmonics applied to everything from astronomy to politics - remember from the Republic that the tyrant is 927 times more unhappy than the philosopher as ruler (McClain; 1976-b p. 35). A similar ur-Pythagoreanism is found throughout the “Wisdom Literatures” of the ancients, and medieval philosophy. (McClain. 1976-a; Wheeler, 1982) Pythagorean harmonic ratios are used to mediate between the “master circles” of the universe and the harmonic perceptions of the mind. Much of Plato’s Pythagorean calculations have been eliminated from the English versions of the dialogues; Jowett especially (Jowett, nd).

Using a kind of metronomic calculus as he wrote, Plato excluded disharmonies and interpolated the applicable harmonic ratios throughout the later dialogues. The resulting dialogue-cum dialectic was an expository mode perfectly suited to a new system of speculative philosophy that permitted ratio-bearing dialectical reasoning to mediate between the idein-forms of the outside world and their noumenal counterparts in the inside world.

Bacon had an analogous goal. He wanted to apply his new method of empiricist law-finding to all realms of knowledge and then institutionalize it in a scientocratic ruling chamber modeled after his own Chancery. Salomon’s House in The New Atlantis was ruled over by a philosophical chief scientist highly reminiscent of Baron Verulam (Works, The New Atlantis Vol XIII; Wheeler, 1994; Martin, 1996). Bacon’s new language of science, instead of being based on a demotic medium, would encode natural phenomena with symbols that were like the notes of music in being based upon the observable properties of physics. He outlined the basis for a non-Pythagorean musicology that was later adopted as one of the first experimental projects of the new Royal Academy (Gouk, 19XX) From Bacon’s standpoint the problem was that Plato had developed an idealism rather than an empiricism. He was aware of the parallel properties his approach shared with Plato’s and once described his philosophy as, in effect, a Platonism of things rather than ideas.

Law as Form

Law and cause are often used interchangeably in science writing, as when we refer to Newton’s laws of motion, and describe his mechanics as a closed causal system. The kind of law Bacon designed his New Organon logic machine to discover is different from Newtonian mechanics, just as Mendel’s laws are different from Newton’s laws, and the double helix is different from Bell’s Theorem. Among philosophers of science of the early seventeenth century in England the idea of cause carried the flavor of Aristotelian logic and the idea of law carried the imprint of Scholastic natural law. Newtonian mechanics and time-sequential cause-and-effect were still a few decades in the future (Boas; 1956). When Francis Bacon wrote about natural science - “natural history” in those days - his idea of law was empirical; neither Thomistic nor mathematical. However, ideas similar to Bacon’s were familiar, as in the secularization of the indwellling soul of the white magic tradition. He often cited Porta’s transitional Magic.

Bacon’s foundation in law gave him one important advantage over others seeking a scientific method: he was looking for rules for the behavior of phenomena rather than of matter as such. For example, the term “empiric” had a negative association for him, as when he criticized “empiric induction.” Rather, he wanted to abstract general principles from his case method of law-finding and extend them to all fields of knowledge.

“Law” meant the invariances that characterize the integral relationships of a system or structure which if changed, changes or or dissolve the system. “Noumenon” is an object perceived by reason and knowable by thought but not by the senses. “Phenomenon" is a noumenal object of experience in space and time, as distinguished from a thing-in-itself.

These distinctions are useful not only because of the juridical foundations of Bacon’s thought but also because it helps clarify the foundations of modern Anglo-American analytic philosophy. There is no direct philosophic precursor to Bacon’s analytic empiricism.

Bacon’s term for this generalized noumenal law was Form, which at first glance appears to be a Platonism. It is, in the way that Marx was a Hegelian. But few scholars, with the notable exception of Kant, perceived this (Wheeler, 1983) Form has had a checquered career among Baconians and historians of science but to ignore its foundation misses the force and novelty of Bacon’s invention, and the semiotic nature of his philosophy of scientific empiricism. “Form” refers to implicit structure and is most familiar from Plato’s distinction between ideal Form and “appearances”. Bacon adapts it to refer to an empirical phenomenological scientific law. A phenomenon is a special kind of “thing” like the thingness possessed by the hypostatized law behind the ruling in a judgment at the English “unwritten” common law. Bacon’s science looks for that kind of “thingness” in all departments of the environment, social as well as natural, as does post-Kantian scientific phenomenology (Heelan, 1983). Further evidence about Bacon’s meaning is derived from the Latin terms he used to explain how his logic machine worked: processus and schematismus .These have not been adequately treated for two reasons: few interpreters of Bacon’s philosophy have begun where he did, with his legal studies (Wheeler, 1949; Wheeler, 1956; Kocher, 1957; White, 1968; Shapiro, 1968; Weinberger, 1976; Coquillette, 1992; Martin, 1996; Wheeler, 1999). Second is the deletion of these features in the Ellis English translation. Curiously, Newton, who is usually contrasted with Bacon, said he was a Baconian and he was right. His own logic machine, the Calculus, was produced through a Baconian eliminative process.

Bacon’s Novum Organon is an information processing system (Aggasi, 19XX; Hacking, 19xx). If one judges philosophies of science by their general applicability to the empiricist sciences - taxonomics, cladistics, statistics, most of biology, archeology, geography, meteorology, and the social sciences - there are few rivals to Bacon’s philosophy of science. The New Organon was a protocol, much like an expert system in today’s systems-theoretic, or artificial intelligence encoding and processing systems. It dealt with science through ‘archival functions’ (Wheeler, 1987) and worked primarily with “texts” rather than numbers. It was a hermeneutics and was analytical rather than a mechanics. (Wheeler, 1990)

Bacon’s Semiosis

The semiotic basis of Bacon’s analysis is emphasized in several places in his scientific writings. Most explicit, perhaps, is his claim that the ultimate aim of the New Organon was to uncover nature’s hidden “abecedarium” so that the “words”, “clauses” and “sentences” in which her laws were encoded could be readily deciphered (Works, Vol III, pp 306-311).

An argument by Charles Sanders Peirce is useful in understanding Bacon’s semiotic processes. Peirce claimed that what he called dynamical systems are dyadic. By contrast, his own “pragmaticism” was triadic. Triadic systems, he said, do not self-destruct into pairs. It is the difference between linear and structural relationships; between mathematical mechanical objects and analytic empirical objects. Kant is instructive here. He said that the human mind intuitively interprets individual things the way they are perceived; as dyadic, linear, time-sequential relationships: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Yet two different orders of things can be related only if a transitive logic can be found that will mediate between them; for example, Plato’s Pythagorean harmonics; the Calculus; and the celestial class of objects to which Newtonian mechanics applies.

Kant developed a triadic logic to account for the Newtonian universe and to explain the isomorphism between mind and classical mechanics, which Kant took for nature. His philosophic invention was to create by axiom and argument three new philosophic components to engender an understanding of the outer world and the inner world through a special ratio able to mediate between them transitively. It could do so because its own structure was homologous with the structures of both nature and mind, as he reinterpreted them. This was the famous triad of phenomenon, noumenon and schematismus. The model seemed at the time to have the added virtues of answering Hume and dispelling the accumulated paradoxes of British Lockean empiricism and French Cartesian rationalism by incorporating both into a larger domain of lawfulness. Kant himself credited Bacon as his predecessor (Kant, 1929) and carried forward Bacon’s paradigm-making model in Kant’s own Revolution in Thought (Wheeler,1999).

Peirce was a neo-Kantian though he also liked to go by several other philosophic aliases. He developed a Kantian model of tri-relative transitivity and promulgated it as the basic law of semiosis:

....[B]y “semiosis I mean,... an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs" (Peirce, 1906/1956)

Peirce laid the foundations for today’s cognitive science and his tri-relative model was like what today is called neo-hermeneutics (Wheeler 1988; Heelan, 19xx; Arbib, 19xx)

Francis Bacon’s analytic philosophy of empiricism was of this same general tri-relative type:

1. Bacon’s empiricism had a semiotic foundation, which furnished the basis for his criticisms of Platonic Idea and Aristotelian logic;

2. It was based on a tri-relative knowledge processing model analogous to that of Peirce;

3. The three components were:

i. The outside world, dealt with through an ontology of law, generalized as Form, comprised of processus and schematismus (not to be confused with Kant’s binary assumption about cognition);

ii. The inside world was dealt with through a theory of cognition based on the idola protocols for encoding and processing perceptions;

iii. The two were mediated by a ratio (the new logic of information processing);

iv. Whose “adminicle” inductivism provided a tri-relative transitivity between the inside and outside worlds.

Hence, a theory of information encoding permitted Bacon to create an inside world compatible with his outside world of Form, and compatible also with his information processing mechanism; the new logic of inquiry.


Bacon used the term “adminicle induction” to distinguish his eliminative logic of inquiry from simple additive induction. A brief explanation of his key Latin terms is now in order.

In early references to the kind of evidence to be processed by the New Organon he sometimes uses the term fide-jussione (Works, vol 1 General Preface to the Philosophical Works p. 93; Prefatio vol I, p. 234). It is a legal term, of course, and referred to oral evidentiary supports to a legal claim, as in a suit over property title. Bacon appropriated it to describe authoritative evidentiary support for a scientific claim or hypothesis. Later, in about four places, Bacon preferred “adminicle," or "adminicular” inductivism. Adminicle had two prior meanings: in law, especially Scots law, it meant a documentary support for a claim to title. Hence it denoted a strong evidentiary support. It was preferable to fide-jussione because when transposing a principle of juridical evidence to the sciences it would not do to use oaths, opinions and the like as scientific evidence; the Idols of Knowledge castigated just that sort of thing. Adminicle was a similar term from the law but with a more “material” import, as in material evidence.

An adminicle is a support put in evidence to buttress the structure of an argument or contention in adjudication. Bacon characterized the method of New Organon as “adminicular induction” to contrast it with ordinary additive “empiric” induction of which he was unstintingly critical. It is something like the difference between the process for discovering the scope of the constitutional law of privacy and the process for surveying the number of self-induced abortions.

The second meaning of adminicle, historically its first, was from architecture where it meant a support for a structure added to it at the top to hold it up more securely; a “flying buttress”. Do not be misled by the physical image of an at the top support. It is semiotic rather than material, and indeed lends credibility to the New Organon’s eliminative process for progressively reducing the number of plausible scientific explanations. It is easy to see how Bacon’s eliminative process in science related to his eliminative process in the search for the appropriate unwritten law in cases where the evidence is circumstantial. For Bacon, all science dealt with circumstantial evidence.

1. One begins with a stipulated fact and attempts to find the unwritten law that applies to it. (There are no “gaps” in the common law.)

2. In principle, an infinite number of law interpretations applies to it.

3. One assesses their relevance or irrelevance in an eliminative process, seeking to eliminate all but one, which is hypostatized as the applicable law.

4. One tests the result by searching for analogous (adminicle) supports.

The adminicle eliminative process ends at the pyramidal top. Confidence in the validity of a scientific hypothesis grows as it emerges from the self-strengthening stages of the hierarchical “prerogative instances.” Again, this is Bacon’s way of appropriating a principle from the common law of evidence (of which he is the founding father) for application to science. A prerogative instance in law was a “leading case”. In science it is highly pertinent evidence. As the eliminative process narrows, an especially appropriate prerogative instance provides crucial adminicular support. It “fingerposts” (Bacon’s term) the hidden law but does not itself state the law concretely. A familiar illustration comes from a landmark adminicle discovery in biological science. Francis Crick and James Watson were completely stymied in attempting to fit Linus Pauling’s linear model of gene structure with their evidence. Standing at the spiral staircase of an Oxford residential hall, James Watson conceived the double helix hypothesis (Watson, 1968).

L. Jonathan Cohen, a leading philosopher of science, calls Bacon’s adminicle logic of inquiry “inductive support” and has patterned his own theory of scientific probability after it. This is a non-Pascalian, non-statistical theory of probability. Non-Pascalian probability is very common. B.F. Skinner’s positive reinforcement theory of probability is also non-Pascalian. This is the kind of “probability” of validity possessed by a judge’s ruling at the end of the evidentiary and litigation processes of the English unwritten common law system. It is structural or systemic probability and is the kind of probability associated with hermeneutics (Wheeler,19XX), But most familiar is the non-Pascalian probability in the law under “probable cause” and in Bacon.

Bacon’s adminicular inductions lead through a series of exclusions from particular instances to an hypothesis about two latent qualities: “processus” and “schematismus” These are the binary constituents of Baconian Form, his term for a scientific principle. Form was a phenomenological entity possessing the same ontological status in nature as did “law” in England’s unwritten common law.

The Idols of the Mind

Bacon’s fear that the language of science could not be understood by those with only demotic language was matched by his fear that the language of nature produced by his logic machine could not be understood the unprepared natural mind. That preparation is provided by studying the Idols of the Mind. To demonstrate this, and the semiotic basis of Bacon’s philosophy, requires exploring the "innate” and the “adscititious” idola. Spedding cited Mersenne’s opinion that the idola were the four buttresses of the Novum Organum but rectifying transducers is a better interpretation. Something was necessary to permit the new logic to mediate between phenomenon and noumenon. The mind’s contaminants were something like original sin. People are born with them but can banish them by being born again in science, and by thereafter performing the prescribed scientific rituals. If people were incorrigible beyond redemption there would never be any hope for science. But Bacon’s mythic New Atlantis reveals that salvation is possible. It tells of an aboriginal People of the Book. They seem to have shed their idolonic corruptions immediately on expulsion from Eden. Ever after they enjoyed the material and spiritual fruits of life in a Baconian sciential society. The idola are based on neurolinguistic assumptions quite different from Locke’s tabula rasa association psychology of empiricism.

Just as the processes (“processus”) of nature were misleading if one tried to deal with them through their overt manifestations, so also with those of the mind. The mind, Bacon said, sounding like Plato, is by its truest and deepest nature, the “form of forms.” Hence if properly used it is potentially capable of decoding nature’s hidden “abecedarium”. But the mind’s ordinary and superficial operations make it ill suited for scientific analysis. Its perceptual faculty is like a lense but far from being a “clear and equal glass”, it is instead like an “enchanted glass”. Hence special correctives are needed to compensate for the mind’s built-in sources of error and distortion. That is where the idols of the mind come in. They are diagnostic and corrective. Just as visual distortions can be measured and used to make corrective spectacles, the idola can be diagnosed and used to fashion corrective processes of analysis.

The Four Idols of the Mind are often understood as false idols, as in the biblical prohibition against setting up graven images and following false gods. This meaning is valid only an a round about sense. Idolum comes from the Greek eidolon. Plato used it to mean appearances: false perceptions. He contrasted it with idein, to see truly. Idein originally possessed the sense of the ritual thing seen and experienced, as in the revelation that occurred in the Eleusinian rites after the proper ritual preparation and by means of which an inner truth was disclosed to and perceived by the initiate. Both meanings, the true and the counter-intuitive, are present in Platonic Idea, or Form. They are also part of the meaning of Bacon’s idola (read Platonic appearances): the structures (divisions) that must be erased from the world inside before it can understand the Baconian Forms of the world outside. Analysis of the idola showed how sensations distort perceptions, deceive the understanding and lead to mistaken judgments. Francis Bacon began with three idola, later expanded to four. They have sometimes been related to Roger Bacon’s four offendicula”, (stumbling blocks), which were sociological rather than semiotic and analytic. They were “hindrances” to thought such as authority, custom, popular opinion and ignorance. Bacon may have built upon the earlier conception, as he often did, and transformed it into a new principle. He did that with Plato’s Form, standing it on its head, as the later idiom would have put it, creating a logic of phenomena rather than concepts. He operated the same way on the ancient myths, including Plato’s myth of Atlantis, and with the New Organon, a complete reconception of Aristotle’s Organon. By making a distinction between sensation and perception that was like Leibnitz’s distinction between perception and apperception, Bacon’s idola permitted the analysis of cognition and led to his design for the stages of experiment and exclusion in the New Organon.

The idola were to the Baconian organon of phenomena as the fallacies were to the Aristotelian organon of concepts. Two idola were innate and two were external. Their meanings are not apparent from their names:

Tribus, tribes or species. This class of distortions derives from innate factors and are phylogenetic.

Specus, cave. This class is explicitly drawn from the myth of the cave that Plato used to illustrate the erroneous appearances. Bacon said these also are innate. They can be considered ontogenic.

Fori, forum, or marketplace. Bacon called these “adscititious" - conveyed to the mind from the outside.

Theatri (added later), Theater, or temple; also adscititious.

The Idola Tribus referred to general properties of every human mind that lead it to produce distorted perceptions and evaluations. This means that all perceptions are already contaminated before they are turned over to the reasoning faculties. Three examples clarify what Bacon meant:

* The human nervous system is constituted such that once we have a conclusion we are more sensitive to any new evidence that confirms it than we are to any evidence that contradicts it. Our convictions are more strongly shaped by positive reinforcements than by disproofs, which we tend to ignore. We remember our successes and ignore our failures. Bacon had in mind something like what B. F. Skinner described in Verbal Behavior.

* We experience and become conscious of our selfness as having a single identity and as exhibiting a unitary wholeness. This unified perception of selfness is unconsciously projected outward and onto thingness. Hence we perceive things as possessing more of an integral nature than is warranted. Consequently, we also perceive various sets of a thing, and even the thingness of the world in general, as more coherent than is warranted; or coherent in a more organic way than may be warranted. This leads us to the erroneous search for the kinds of connections and integrations in and between things that in fact do not exist.

* Related to this is the specific distortion that results because the kind of unity we project onto the outside world tends to be that of a personality like our own, leading to the tendency to people the world with anthropomorphic creations.

Hence as a culture we possess an inside world that inevitably distorts the sensations that come to us from the outside world. This would undermine any efforts to produce science even if nature could speak to us in a readily understandable human language.

The Idola Specus referred to an assortment of ontogenetic traits that are typical of human beings but are distributed differently among them. These are the kinds of distortions that “take their rise in the peculiar constitution, mental or bodily, of each individual”.(Works, Novum Organum Aphorism LIII, p. 84). Four of the ways people impress their personal cognitive constitutions on things are:

* Each person who invents something new tends to interpret everything in the light of that invention. Aristotle, said Bacon, made all natural philosophy “a mere bond-servant of his logic”. Gilbert’s discoveries with the lodestone led him to erect “an entire system in accordance with his favorite subject”.

* The different things that stand out with salience fall into two classes that reflect two different types of selective misperception: field and ground. Some people most readily notice the differences between the things in the environment. Others are most adept at perceiving patterns of similarity in the objects of observation. Both, says Bacon,”err in excess, by catching the one at gradations, the other at shadows”.

* People also fall into two classes on the basis of a preference for continuity or change: by one type for established traditions, received dogmas and habitual methods; contrasted by the innovators who spurn the conventional on principle and pursue one novelty after the other, constantly at work on new inventions.

* Particle versus structure - atomism versus gestalt: people differ on their capacities for perceiving one or the other most readily.

The Idola fori referred to the semiotic errors derived from word formation and usage; the demotic limitations of language. Bacon seems at first to have wanted to describe these idola as innate but did not do so because of the incorrigibly social aspects of words. This determines that communication, by its nature, cannot depart from the lowest common denomination of meaning. Sociology, the study of non-rational and institutional forces, did not exist and Bacon invented something to stand in its place. Bacon’s word for what was later to come under sociology and anthropology was “adscititious”. It is an awkward term but means the limitation of the knowledge of any one mind because it must possess a form of semiotic currently readily exchanged by all human minds. Bacon was not as sanguine about the beneficent selectivity of the free market in ideas as were his liberal successors. “The state of knowledge is ever a democratie”, he wrote, but it was a lament, not a reassurance. "[T]hat prevaileth”, he added, “which is most agreeable to the senses and conceits [conceptions] of people.” (Works, Valerius Terminus Vol VI, p., 42. ) We live and function in an adscititious semiotic noosphere but it is Marshall MacLuhan’s not Teilhard de Chardin’s. Only later did Bacon add the fourth idolum and it was a direct outgrowth of the third.

The idola theatri referred to the systems of thought and belief that evolved, as it were, out of our natural adscititious environment. In today’s terminology, these are socio-genetic memes or culturgens: styles and cultural patterns that force perceptions into conformity with characteristic concepts and usages.

All previous philosophies and logics, claimed Bacon, had been produced out of processes and structures (schematisma) contaminated by the four idola and accordingly, were irrevocably deficient because there is no built-in self-correcting semiotic force to insure that human knowledge will automatically evolve toward ever higher levels of truth. Bacon’s universe is full of unseen laws but completely devoid of an automatically corrective unseen hand. Conscious, deliberate and properly trained human intervention is necessary to achieve the progress that is potential rather than immanent. That was why a fundamental intellectual revolution was a precondition to the emergence of science: Bacon’s “revolution in thought” was celebrated by European philosophers for two hundred years and Kant used it as the basis for his own revolution in thought.



The eclipse suffered by Bacon’s science was undeserved. Its terms and metaphors are opaque but its semiotic foundations remain sound. Its analysis and research processes are relevant today. Bacon describes science as an autonomous social institution comparable to the economy. Especially important today is his design of a sciential society in which the scientific revolution has been consolidated, brought under the rule of law, and its carefully prepared and monitored benefits extended to all departments of society. An achievement of this sort is the most important new constitutional challenge facing the United States today.
Harvey Wheeler
P.O. Box 704
Carpinteria CA 93014



References to Bacon’s Works refer to The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord High Chancellor of England, Collected and edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Denon Heath, 15 vols, Boston, Brown and Taggard, 1860-1864. This is somewhat improved over the earlier British edition. Spedding’s Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, 5 vols, Boston, Brown and Taggard, 1861, must also be consulted.

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