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Francis Bacon and Ingenuity*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Rhodri Lewis*
St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford


This essay discusses the Latin term ingenium within the writings of Francis Bacon (1561–1626). It proposes that although ingenium does not easily translate into English, Bacon uses the term in a clearly defined range of senses. For the most part, he echoes the discourse of ingenuity and inventiveness common to many sixteenth-century humanists, but differs from them in sharply delimiting the scope and status of ingenious thinking. In particular, he excludes ingenuity from the logical portion of his reformed art of discovery: as the goal of this was demonstrative knowledge, Bacon (like the Aristotelian logicians he aimed to supplant) believed that it had to be the province of the intellect, not of ingenium. A fuller understanding of the ways in which Bacon uses ingenium casts his methodological thought into illuminating new relief, and draws attention to the manner in which Bacon’s ideas were appropriated, criticized, and misunderstood in the half century after his death — not least by the self-styled Baconians in and around the early Royal Society.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2014

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In 2011, preliminary versions of this essay were presented to audiences at All Souls College, Oxford; the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute; the Warburg Institute; and the Maison Française d’Oxford. The comments and suggestions offered to me on each occasion were invaluable. Further, I am extremely grateful to Sorana Corneanu, Moti Feingold, Guido Giglioni, Nick Hardy, Alex Marr, Will Poole, Sarah Rivett, Liam Semler, Richard Serjeantson, Nigel Smith, Rowan Tomlinson, and Brian Vickers, all of whom commented on earlier drafts of my work, shared their research with me, or otherwise helped me to refine my arguments. I also learned a good deal from the observations of RQ’s anonymous readers. Where relevant volumes of the Oxford Francis Bacon have been published, I cite from them; where not, I cite from the formerly standard edition of Bacon’s Works by Spedding, Ellis, and Heath. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from languages other than English are my own.


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