Francis Bacon Works, Philosophical Doctrines and Thoughts


Information on Francis Bacon works, philosophical doctrines, novum organum, influence on scientific thoughts and literary works.

Philosophical Doctrines:

Bacon wrote more than 30 philosophical works, most of which are fragmentary and incomplete. They were taken up at intervals between sittings of Parliament and the courts and amid the incessant demands of the king’s business. Under these conditions his achievement fell far short of the immense design he had envisaged in his youth. That design embraced a comprehensive reform of human knowledge and a searching denunciation of the prevailing purposes and methods of philosophy. The complete plan for the regeneration of knowledge is set forth in the introduction to the Novum organum, but most of Bacon’s pieces cannot well be assigned to divisions of the system announced in this introduction. They are occupied with other topics, subsidiary to the main design; yet they contain much of Bacon’s characteristic opinions.

These subsidiary works include the celebrated Advancement of Learning (1605), the only philosophical work published by him in English. It comprises two books, the first of which is an elaborate defense of learning against its detractors: divines, politicians, and learned men themselves. In passages of splendid eloquence he exposes “the errors and vanities which have intervened among the studies themselves of the learned,” the preoccupation with literary style, the obsession with the degenerate Aristotelianism of the schools, and the credulous belief in magical science, astrology, and alchemy. He believes the greatest error to be the misplacing of the true end of knowledge, “the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” In the second book Bacon surveys the intellectual world of the later 16th century, noticing deficiencies in various provinces. He treats in turn of history, poetry, and philosophy, and their numerous subdivisions.

Sir Francis Bacon

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Among many striking discussions, expressed in periods of intricate eloquence, two central doctrines are asserted. One is the new and original position assigned to metaphysics. The traditional metaphysics or first philosophy was concerned with the notion of being in general, analysis of which had yielded such all-pervading principles as matter—the indeterminate substratum of things—and forms, appropriate to each species of substance, which strive to organize and bring to actuality the indeterminate material element. Bacon rejects these venerable metaphysical agencies and boldly makes metaphysics the fundamental part of a materialist physics. He describes three levels of natural inquiry: (1) natural history, or the collection of scientific data; (2) physics, the investigation of particular natures and causes; and (3) metaphysics, the elucidation of the fundamental natures or forms of things from the conjunctions of which all things are composed, as the conjunctions of a few letters compose a language. Physics, accordingly, examines natural objects in a narrower context, metaphysics in a broader view; both consider the structures and processes of actual matter. The other notable doctrine proclaimed in the Advancement of Learning is the sharp separation of human truth from the dogmatic truths of revealed theology. He allows a limited function to reason in deriving consequences from the divine mysteries, but he asserts that the articles of religion are “placed and exempted from examination of reason”; they are to be believed even when they appear contrary to our understanding. He holds that it is futile to seek knowledge in divinity or sacred theology in natural inquiry. The severance of knowledge from faith is a cardinal point of Bacon’s outlook; it accords with his view that knowledge is limited to sensible material and finite things.

Besides the Advancement of Learning, a large number of works deal with topics more or less outside the Instauratio magna (Great In-stauration), which was Bacon’s grand project for the renovation of knowledge. Such are the early Temporis partus masculus sive instauratio magna imperii humani in universum (Masculine or Generative Birth of Time, first published in 1653), Valerius Terminus of the Interpretation of Nature (first published in 1734), De interpreta-tione naturae prooemium (Preface to the Interpretation of Nature, first published in 1653), Cogitata et visa: de interpretations naturae, sive de scientia operativa (Reflections and Views Concerning the Interpretation of Nature, or Concerning Applied Science, first published in 1653), and Descriptio globi intellectualis et thema coeli (Description of the Intellectual Globe and the Order of the Heavens, first published in 1653). These fragments, unpublished during Bacon’s lifetime, treat of the deficiencies of traditional learning and recommend a new method of investigation.


All these earlier ideas on the reform of knowledge are superseded by the complete design of the Instauratio magna as set forth in its preface, which was published together with the Novum organum in 1620. The grand program is to consist of six parts: (1) a review of the existing state of knowledge; (2) an account of the new logic of inquiry, based on induction, and an exposition of the prejudices that beset the mind in its search for truth; (3) a natural history, or collection of accurate data, embracing all the phenomena of nature; (4) illustrations of the application of the inductive method in selected fields; (5) provisional conclusions derived from the application of the method; and (6) a synthesis of knowledge constructed on the new method—”a task,” Bacon confesses, “which lies beyond my powers and expectations.” Of the vast scheme of the Instauratio magna, only a fragment, distributed through several works, was accomplished. The De augmentis scientiarum (1623), an expanded Latin version of the Advancement of Learning, is a hasty attempt to supply, late in the author’s life, part one of the system. Part two, the most important section of the plan, is incompletely represented by the Novum organum. Various lists of topics for investigation are presented for part three, notably the Parasceve ad historiam naturalem et experimentalem (1620; Preparative Study for a Natural and Experimental History), and the Historia naturalis et experimental ad condendam philosophiam (1622; Natural and Experimental History for the Foundation of Philosophy). Among the subjects mentioned for investigation in this history are winds; density and rarity, or the contraction and expansion of matter in space; the phenomena of heaviness and lightness; and the natures of sulfur, mercury, and salt. Other incomplete pieces, such as Bacon’s last work, Sylva sylvarum, published in 1627, may be allotted to part three of the Instauratio magna. Little remains of four and five and nothing of six.

Novum Organum:

The title Novum organum is chosen in order to contrast the “new method of reasoning” with that of Aristotle’s Organon. It contains two books. The first unfolds the celebrated account of idols, or false images, of the human mind that distort the judgment in its search for truth. Four classes of idols are described. The first, which he calls idols of the tribe, are errors native to human nature itself. They include the limitations of the senses and the corruption of the understanding by desire and comfortable prejudices. The second kind, idols of the cave, arise from the individual nature and education of the inquirer. Some men become preoccupied with certain ideas or methods and extend them unwarrantably in constructing systems. Bacon mentions Aristotle and his own contemporary William Gilbert as examples of this tendency. The third class of idols is the most troublesome. These are termed idols of the marketplace. They spring from misuses of language; for learned discussion is often occupied with words that refer to abstract concepts, which sometimes tend to become confused. The traditional physics contains many such terms. Finally, there are idols of the theater, the play books of philosophical systems such as those of Aristotle, of the alchemists, and of those who mix philosophy with theology.

Bacon rejected the old logic of Aristotle because of its concern with grammatical form. Where the aim of inquiry is discovery, the rational demonstration of deductive logic is useless. The new way of knowledge, expounded in the second book of the Novum organum, demands a logic that will be occupied with accurate observation and experiment in order to educe axioms from experience. His aim here is the discovery of form, and to this ancient notion he gives a novel turn. The forms become the fixed and essential laws of the operations of material bodies: “For when we speak of Forms we mean nothing more than those laws and determinations of pure actuality which order and constitute any simple nature, as heat, light, weight, in every kind of matter and subject that is susceptible of them. Thus the Form of Heat or the Form of Light is the same thing as the Law of Heat or the Law of Light.” There are degrees of forms, from the restricted laws of specific inquiries to the fundamental laws and causes of all natural things. These fundamental forms are limited in number, and their conjunctions provide the ground plan of nature. Bacon’s doctrine of forms envisages a mechanical and determinist naturalism that is logically connected with a program of profitable works. He constantly associates knowledge with practice: “human knowledge and human power meet in one,” and “truth and utility are here the very same things, and works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than as contributing to the comfort of life.” He points to the invention of printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass to show the bearing of knowledge on power, but he maintains that insight into the actual constitution of things by scientific methods must precede dominion over nature.

The new method of induction, by which the forms are to be brought to light, was to have included 11 processes, but Bacon describes no more than three of them. The first step is the “presentation of instances.” In seeking the form of heat, the inquirer compiles first a wide variety of cases in which the phenomenon in question is present. A further table contains instances that resemble those in the first table, but in which the phenomenon of heat is absent. A third table accumulates instances in which the nature under investigation appears in different degrees, showing the increase or decrease of heat in various circumstances. Bacon gives many examples under the three tables, which correspond with John Stuart Mill’s later methods of agreement, difference, and concomitant variations. From a scrutiny of these tables the investigator is able to eliminate certain irrelevant factors that bear on the nature of heat and to advance a tentative theory. This second step of inductive method is named the “first vintage,” and the evidence points to the conclusion that heat is a species of motion. He now proceeds to the third stage of induction. This is a long series of tests, named “prerogative instances,” designed to bring out more sharply the essential connections that are being sought. Some of these tests refine observation by means of instruments and devices; other tests provide aids to the understanding of the phenomena being observed; still others serve practical application. Many of these methods hint at procedures that later became important in scientific inquiry. At this point the account of the new inductive method breaks off; the further steps were never expounded.

Influence on Scientific Thought:

When these incomplete proposals are compared with the procedure of the great scientists of the time, such as Galileo or William Harvey, their defects become apparent. Bacon pays insufficient regard to the way in which successful scientific investigation is guided by definite and limited questions and theories, and he fails to recognize the function of mathematics in physical science. He was out of touch with the advances in natural science and mathematics of the period and persisted in rejecting the Copernican theory. Sometimes he falls into animistic modes of thought. In Sylva sylvarum (A Forest of Materials) he amasses topics for investigation from the superstitions of ancient writers. Yet his vast influence on the scientific revolution of the 17th century cannot be challenged. His impressive statement of the need to contemplate “things as they are, without superstition or imposture, error or confusion,” his concern with methods by which scientific evidence could be tested and enlarged; and his eloquent representations of science as the handmaid of technological progress gave a powerful impetus to the development of science in the 17th century. The New Atlantis, published posthumously in 1627, provided in its descriptions of the investigations of Salomon’s House the model for the scientific societies that appeared in the latter part of the century, especially the Royal Society of London. Its members saluted Bacon as the founder of the “new philosophy,” and in the history of modern thought he has been generally acclaimed as the prophet of the scientific outlook.

Literary Works:

The most popular of all Bacon’s writings was the Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. The first edition, comprising 10 essays, was published in 1597; a second edition, in which the original pieces were enlarged and 29 new essays added, appeared in 1612; a third revision, in which the number of essays was increased to 58, was published in 1625. The earlier set are written in a disjointed, aphoristic style; the later numbers are more continuous and richer in manner and allusion. These essays are full of practical wisdom, and disclose the author’s penetrating, dry, and detached view of mankind. They also reveal further his social and political principles. Besides The Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh (1622), which has been described as the beginning of modern history in England, Bacon wrote fragments of further histories and began a dialogue, An Advertisement Touching on Holy Warre (1622). Among the compositions of his last years is the entertaining collection of witty stories named Apophthegms New and Old (1624-1625). His religious writings include The Translation of Certaine Psalmes into English Verse (1625). The collected works contain a number of his legal writings.


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