Novum Organum
Francis Bacon
1620

“New Instrument” would be the English title – a new instrument of science, of logic, which would come to be known as ‘the Baconian method’. Observation of phenomena, reduction of those observations to their core similarities or dissimilarities – it is a gradual process, it takes time and commitment and slow, careful study of what is in order to derive what general principles might lie behind the specific. It’s induction, the opposite of deduction, the opposite of assumed truths that take shape in particularities. Scientific method? Not really. But it’s close, it’s in the same order of thinking, and it certainly is important in the development of empiricism and the methodical, observational approach of science. But Bacon is a philosopher not a scientist. He’s not out to discover anything in particular, but to examine the nature of existence, of truth, of knowledge.

Novum Organum is a partial work. It was intended to form a portion of something much larger and never completed, and really is two separate books out of his originally-planned six. The first section examines the state of natural philosophy and puts forward the induction argument mentioned above. It then reviews the various ways received wisdom is in error, examining four “idols” – human-made barriers to knowledge – which have previously hampered scientific and philosophical thought. Idols of the tribe which arise from a tendency of human nature, the fact that our sense of the world is always and everywhere filtered through what is humanly-experienced rather than what is real. Idols of the cave, those presumptions and misperceptions that we each have as individuals, which arise out of our particular relationships and experiences. Idols of the market, which arise through the meetings of individuals and groups,  and specifically through the limitations of language that we employ to communicate experience and share ideas. Idols of the theatre, errors received and learned, passed on by philosophers and teachers, stories we tell succeeding generations that reproduce our limited and/ or incorrect assumptions and make those errors our collective wisdom. Yeah, we make lots of mistakes, we people. And we need to know which are our natural limitations, which arise from our own individual blinders, and which we’ve learned by following well-intentioned but by no means infallible geniuses like Aristotle and Plato.

Then there’s book two, in which Bacon tries to show how his own method of inductive reasoning works and why it is superior. It’s the illustration of what he’s getting at, and the prime example he uses is an attempt to understand what is heat. Let’s list things or situations marked by heat. Then let’s list situations that are similar, but are not characterized by heat. Then let’s list those places where heat can be varied. You want the nature of heat? Find out what is common to everything in the first list, absent from everything in the second list, and variable in the third list. Look at a fire and a pot of boiling water. There’s heat in both, and a good deal of commonality. So, if we want to really know what heat is, in essence, we need to start picking apart ‘fire’ and ‘boiling water’ and eliminate everything they do not have in common. Light, for example – it is present in the fire, but not in the water, and can thus be eliminated as definitive of heat, as its basic form. Yeah, this is slow, plodding work. Yeah, this is gonna take a whole lot of time. Yeah, it’s a slow and gradual emergence of knowledge. But it’s the only way to minimize assumption and maximize real understanding.

Like so many of the great thinkers, Francis Bacon was no one-trick pony. In addition to philosopher and proto-scientist, he was also an author of literature – indeed, there’s a school of thought that Bacon, not Shakespeare, was in fact the author of Shakespeare’s plays – and politician, at one point serving as England’s Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. A bit of a liberal for his time, he sought legal reform and to rein in the privileges of the nobility, integration of  Scotland and later Ireland to form the United Kingdom, and protection for religious freedom – well, mostly. A Church of England man himself, he opposed persecution of other Protestant sects, notably the Puritans, but didn’t much care for Catholics, and openly campaigned for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. But then his star fell, as stars so often do. Following a bit of a row with parliament, he was accused of corruption for accepting gifts from those upon who he was, as jurist, to judge and pass sentence. He signed a confession, left the King’s service in disgrace, and retreated to his scholarly pursuits. Within five years, study would be the death of him. Experimenting on the use of snow to preserve meat, Francis Bacon caught himself a chill, which grew into a pneumonia, which killed him – much-lauded for his intellectual contributions, still-disgraced for his political and legal troubles, and massively in debt.

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