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Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2016

Geoffrey Gorham
Macalester College
Lawrence Nolan
California State University, Long Beach
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Born in London, Bacon pursued a political career after legal education at Cambridge and Gray's Inn. He took a seat in Parliament in 1584 with ambitions for personal advancement and intellectual reform. Under James I, Bacon rose to lord chancellor but a bribery conviction ended his public service in 1621. He thereafter concentrated on his vision for a new system of learning. His major philosophical works are The Advancement of Learning (1605), the Great Instauration (including the New Organon) (1620), and the posthumous New Atlantis (1627). Thomas Hobbes (briefly Bacon's secretary) is the source of the famous story that Bacon died from an infection contracted during impromptu experiments in refrigeration.

An unfailing intellectual optimist and champion of innovation, Bacon derided the prevailing philosophies of science as conservative and authoritarian. He specifically criticized Aristotelian Scholasticism for its excessive abstraction, syllogistic method, and fixation with causes and Renaissance humanism for its bookishness, eclecticism, and Platonic metaphysics. At a more general level, Bacon maintained that scientific progress required emancipation from pervasive intellectual “idols” of the tribe (cognitive biases in human nature), of the cave (individual prejudices), of the marketplace (confounding of words and things), and of the theater (dogmatic adherence to authority).

As a metaphysical framework for natural philosophy, Bacon favored Greek atomism. On method, he advocated a thoroughgoing empiricism that begins with the meticulous collection and classification of directly observable facts. Laws or axioms are inductively generated from these experiments. Rather than “leap from sense and particulars to the most general axioms,” the disciplined philosopher “elicits axioms from sense and particulars rising in a gradual and unbroken ascent to arrive at last at the most general axioms” (2000b, 36). Bacon esteemed scientific knowledge not merely for its own sake but also for the “relief of man's estate” (2000a, 32) and was a proponent of natural religion: “Natural philosophy, after the word of God, is at once the strongest remedy for superstition and the most proven food for faith” (2000b, 75). The Royal Society was founded on Baconian principles.

While no inductivist, Descartes frequently echoed Bacon's call for careful observation in natural philosophy (e.g., AT VI 63, CSM I 143). The elevation of enumeration and synthesis over syllogism in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind and Discourse on Method suggests the influence of Bacon on Descartes’ early theory of method.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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Bacon, Francis. 2000a. The Advancement of Learning, ed. Kiernan, M.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Bacon, Francis. 2000b. The New Organon, ed. Jardine, L. and Silverthorne, M.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gaukroger, Stephen. 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jardine, Lisa, and Stewart, Alan. 1998. Hostage to Fortune. New York: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
Milhaud, Gaston. 1921. Descartes Savant. Paris: F. Alcan.Google Scholar

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