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Bacon and science

Guest Ryan Murtha

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Guest Ryan Murtha

Bacon and science

The first History of the Royal Society (1667), which records the founding of the world’s oldest scientific body, depicts Bacon as Artium Instaurator, “Restorer of the Arts,” and proclaims

Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last.

The barren wilderness he past,

Did on the very border stand

Of the blest promis’d land,

And from the mountain’s top of his exalted wit,

Saw it himself and shew’d us it.

Writers of the French Enlightenment revered Bacon as their inspiration; the Encyclopédie “owe[s] most to the Chancellor Bacon” (Diderot); “the father of the experimental philosophy” (Voltaire); “the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers” (D’Alembert).[1] However, Bacon’s academic reputation suffered drastically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; today he is often forgotten in the roll of scientific pioneers, and is rarely credited for inventing the first binary code. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1945) is typical of the prevailing tone: “Bacon’s inductive method is faulty through insufficient emphasis on hypothesis”; “his philosophy is in many ways unsatisfactory”; “Bacon could have done better if he had been less concerned with worldly success.” Other philosophers of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, pretended to reject Bacon while borrowing or outright plagiarizing from him:

I was startled to discern in the two thinkers what amounts to precisely the same project—right down to the use of precisely the same exemplum to make precisely the same points—and this despite Kuhn’s determined jettisoning of Bacon’s thought from the purview of modernity and paradigmacity.[2]

Discussing the vicissitudes of Bacon’s status, an editor in the ongoing sixteen-volume Oxford Francis Bacon wondered “Lord Verulam, once regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, was relegated to an intellectual salon des refusés from which he has been hard put to escape. How did this state of affairs come about?”[3]

   The change in Bacon’s legacy began with an influential biographical essay published by Lord Macaulay in 1837. Macaulay did not attack Bacon’s work—admittedly, “the most exquisitely constructed intellect that has ever been bestowed on any of the children of men”—however his motives and character were portrayed as base and callous. Many of the essay’s charges were answered by James Spedding in Evenings with a Reviewer or, A free and particular examination of Mr. Macaulay’s article on Lord Bacon (1881) and more recently by Nieves Mathews in Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (1996).

   The historical context of Macaulay’s essay is interesting for several reasons. First, The Story of the Learned Pig, a pamphlet printed in 1786 by one “Transmigratus,” had openly stated that Bacon was behind the Shakespeare works; it was only a matter of time before the issue gained wider notice, and the authorship question eventually exploded with Delia Bacon’s 1857 book The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded. Macaulay was very likely apprised of the Learned Pig and remarked “the poetical faculty was powerful in Bacon’s mind, but not, like his wit, so powerful as occasionally to usurp the place of his reason, and to tyrannize over the whole man.” Make of that what you can.

   Secondly, Macaulay wrote the article while in India serving on the Supreme Council of the colonial government; an ardent proponent of Western cultural superiority, he had written two years previously

all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England . . . a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.[4]

In reality, the civilizing mission of British colonialism—always to some degree a source of insecurity—was faced with an ideological challenge. Philologists had determined that Sanskrit and European languages derive from the same source; as this knowledge spread, concerns arose that the East/West divide might be seen as less definitive, and thus Britain’s role in India, the crown jewel of their empire, less tenable.[5] If the Shakespeare problem was not enough, Macaulay may have regarded Bacon with additional concern because he blurs the distinction between Western “Greek rationalism” and Eastern “Oriental superstition”; this is not a widely held view of Bacon’s psychological makeup, but as Macaulay himself tells us,

In truth, much of Bacon’s life was passed in a visionary world, amidst things as strange as any that are described in the Arabian Tales, or in those romances on which the curate and barber of Don Quixote’s village performed so cruel an auto-da-fe, amidst buildings more sumptuous than the palace of Aladdin, fountains more wonderful than the golden water of Parizade, conveyances more rapid than the hippogryph of Ruggiero, arms more formidable than the lance of Astolfo, remedies more efficacious than the balsam of Fierabras.            

This is a very strange passage, not only for its claim that Bacon was prone to visionary states (where did Macaulay obtain this information?) but also for its repeated hyperbolic allusions to Don Quixote and the Thousand and One Nights, the best-known example of Macaulay’s much-detested Arabian literature. As a stylistic flourish it is excessive, calling attention to itself; perhaps Macaulay regretted the article and is telling us why he felt compelled to write it. In any case, he seems to be saying that while Bacon is regarded as the paragon of rational empiricism, “in truth” he had an “Eastern” or mystical side as well.

   In 1657, William Rawley edited a collection of Bacon’s previously unpublished speeches and miscellaneous works, entitled Resuscitatio. A “Life of the Honourable Author” prefixed to the book states “This lord was religious: for though the world be apt to suspect and prejudge great wits and politiques to have somewhat of the atheist, yet he was conversant with God.” If anyone, Rawley was in a position to know; he had been Bacon’s trusted amanuensis and chaplain (later he was chaplain to Charles I and Charles II); Bacon left him £100, then a substantial sum. In recent times Bacon’s writings, with their many references to God and scripture, have occasionally been interpreted as a pious cover to advance an (atheist) scientific agenda; but in fact he went so far as to state “all knowledge is to be limited by religion” and “the least part of knowledge is subject to the use for which God hath granted it, which is the benefit and relief of the state and society of man.”[6]


[1] Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster 1926 p. 182

[2] Desroches, Dennis. Francis Bacon and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006. p. 7. For Popper’s debt to Bacon, see Urbach, Peter. Francis Bacon's Philosophy of Science: An Account and a Reappraisal. Lasalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987.

[3] Rees, Graham. “Reflections on the Reputation of Francis Bacon’s Philosophy.” Huntington Library Quarterly 65, no. 3/4 (2002): 379–94

[4] Minute on Education, 1835

[5] McEvilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth, 2001

[6] Valerius Terminus, or Of the Interpretation of Nature (~1603)

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