Sir Francis Bacon


Portrait of BaconFrancis Bacon was a British statesman and philosopher who is said to be the father of experimental science. He set out principles of induction that became an important turning point in western scientific studies. Bacon developed a method of study, later called positivism, where he enumerated occurrences of events and their characteristics, tracking their association with one another. Members of the Royal Society of London, founded after Bacon’s death, based their work on Bacon’s philosophical and methodological writings.

Bacon was a lawyer, and member of the British Parliament. He wrote on questions of law, state and religion, as well as on contemporary politics. He also published texts in which he speculated on possible conceptions of society, questions of ethics (Essays) and natural philosophy (The Advancement of Learning).

Under James I, King of England, Bacon became Lord Chancellor, the highest political office in the country. His fame and influence spread during his last years.

Bacon on language barriers to truth

By "language" Bacon referred to a written representation of the world. Bacon was the first to suggest that the world needed a stable, universal, written script for the communication of scientific truth. He was less interested in the religious question of which language was the original perfect language, and more interested in the creation of an artificial, non-ambiguous language that allowed one to get to clear thinking and arrive at the truth.

In the first part of his major work, the Novum Organum (New Method), Bacon described ways that ambiguity enters language. He identified various barriers to clear thinking, which he called “idols” (idola). Included were the following barriers to truth:

  1. The Idols of the Tribe have their origin in the production of false concepts due to human nature, because the structure of human understanding is like a crooked mirror, which causes distorted reflections (of things in the external world).
  2. Idols of the Cave or Den consist of conceptions or doctrines which are believed by the individual but have no basis in truth. These idols arise from education, custom, or accidental or contingent experiences.
  3. Idols of the Market Place are based on false conceptions which are derived from public human communication. They enter our minds through words and names.
  4. Idols of the Theatre are prejudices stemming from received or traditional philosophical systems. These systems resemble plays because they are fictional worlds, which were never exposed to an experimental check or to a test by experience.

Bacon gave examples of confusion caused by the idols. He also raised the problem of relying on information gained through the senses, which must be corrected by the use of experiments.

Bacon argued that accurate observations could be represented by accurate notions and then by accurate words. This differed from the Aristotelian conceptual framework that began with a set of given categories and analyzed everything in terms of them. The approach was deductive. Bacon’s system on the other hand was inductive. He promoted observation rather than already formed categories as a means of discovering truth. It was in search of the truth about refrigeration that he died of a chill after stuffing a chicken with snow (Russell, 1945, p. 542).

Bacon on rhetoric

In his Advancement of Learning (1962), Bacon reacted against rhetoric as it was formulated by his predecessors. (See discussion on his by Wilbur Samuel Howell in Wallace (1954).

Frances Bacon conceptualized rhetoric in much the same way as rhetoricians of his time. "The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will." Bacon also felt that rhetoric had the ability to "disturb reason" by overly complex language, appeals to the emotion, or appeals to the imagination.

Bacon’s worry about the negative power of emotion in rhetoric was drawn from classical sources and Ramism. Bacon was arguing against the sort of rhetoric that was common in 17th century England and France. Instead, he advocated the use of plain language and a direct style.

Bacon on learning

Bacon, in his 1605 The Proficience and Advancement of Learning criticizes three vanities in learning, which he calls “distempers”. He criticizes them because they are trivial, a waste of energy, and have as their purpose advancing the ego of the scholar rather than advancing science.

The distempers are: "fantastical learning", "contentious learning", and "delicate learning" (alternatively identified as "vain imaginations", "vain altercations", and "vain affectations").

He describes fantastical learning as a kind of pseudoscience where ideas to be learned are lacking in substance. Here he is criticizing 17th century astrologers and alchemists. By contentious learning Bacon meant the scholastics who engage in detailed studies and unenlightening quibbling about Aristotelian philosophy and theology. Bacon used the term delicate learning to refer to the learning that focused solely on words, favoring style over substance.

Bacon on stuttering

Drawing from humor theory, Bacon comments:

Divers we see do stut. The cause may in most the refrigeration of the tongue whereby it is less apt to move. And therefore we see that naturals do generally stut and we see that in those that stut if they drink wine moderately they stut less because it heateth and so we see that they that stut do stut more in the first offer to speak than in continuance because the tongue is by motion somewhat heated In some also it may be though rarely the dryness of the tongue which likewise maketh it less apt to move as well as cold for it is an affect that cometh to some wise and great men as it did unto Moses who was lingue prœpeditœ and many stutters we find are v??? choleric men choler inducing a dryness in the tongue (from Froeschels & Rieber, 1966, p. 6 And Bacon,1670, p. 376 (Century IV).

Select writings of Francis Bacon

Bacon, F. (1627). Sylva sylvarum (Natural History) Thomas Leigh, London. Cent. IV, page 376. (on stuttering, see Google Books Retrieved May 1, 2010.

Bacon, F., The Works, ed. by J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D.D. Heath, London:

Bacon, F. (1958), Essays, intr. by O. Smeaton. London, New York.

Bacon, F. (1962), The Advancement of Learning, ed. by G. W. Kitchin, London, New York.

Bacon, F. (1982), Neu Atlantis, transl. by G. Bugge, edited by Jürgen Klein, Stuttgart.

Bacon, F. (2000), A Critical Edition of the Major Works, ed. by B.Vickers, Oxford/New York.

Rees, G. & Jardine, L. (Eds.) The Oxford Francis Bacon

Verulam, Lord Francis (1898), Novum organum or true suggestions for the interpretation of nature, London and New York.

Select writings about Bacon, arranged alphabetically

Anderson, F. H. (1948). The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, Chicago.

Bierman, J. (1963). Science and Society in the New Atlantis and other Renaissance Utopias, PMLA, 78: 492—500.

Bowen, C. D. (1993). Francis Bacon. The temper of a man. New York.

Cohen, J. L. (1970). The implications of induction. London.

Farrington, B. (1964). The philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool.

Gaukroger, S. (2001). Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy, Cambridge.

Henry, J. (2002). Knowledge is power. How magic, the government and an apocalyptic vision inspired Francis Bacon to create modern science. Cambridge.

Hesse, M. B. (1964). Francis Bacon's philosophy of science. In D. J. O’Connor (Ed.) A Critical History of Western Philosophy. New York, pp. 141—52.

Hill, C. (1971). Intellectual origins of the English revolution. Oxford.

Jardine, L. (1974). Francis Bacon. Discovery and the art of discourse. Cambridge.

Kargon, R. H. (1966). Atomism in England. Oxford.

Klein, J. (2003a) Bacon's quarrel with the Aristotelians. Zeitsprünge 7, 19—31.

Martin, J. (1992). Francis Bacon, the state, and the reform of natural philosophy. Cambridge.

Mathews, N. (1999). Francis Bacon. The history of a dharacter assassination, New Haven and London.

Peltonen, M. (ed.) (1996), The Cambridge companion to Bacon, Cambridge.

Pérez-Ramos, A. (1988), Francis Bacon's idea of science and the maker's knowledge tradition, Oxford.

Quinton, A. (1980). Francis Bacon, Oxford.

Rees, G. (1996). Bacon's speculative philosophy. In Peltonen (ed.), pp.121—45.

Rees, G. (2000). Francis Bacon (1561—1626). In W. Applebaum (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the scientific revolution from Copernicus to Newton. New York & London.

Rossi, P. (1968). Francis Bacon: From magic to science. London.

Russell, B. (1945). The history of western philosophy. NY: Simon & Shuster.

Sessions, W.A., Ed. (1990). Francis Bacon's legacy of texts, New York.

Sessions, W.A. (1996). Francis Bacon revisited, New York, London.

Simpson, D. (2005). Francis Bacon (1561-1626) In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on May 26, 2010 from

Urbach, P. (1987). Francis Bacon's philosophy of science: An account and a reappraisal. La Salle, Illinois.

Vickers, B. (1968a). Francis Bacon and renaissance prose. Cambridge.

Vickers, B., Ed., (1968b). Essential articles for the study of Francis Bacon, Hamden, Conn.

Wallace, K. (1943). Francis Bacon on communication and rhetoric or: The art of applying reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. Chapel Hill.

Wallace, K. (1967). Francis Bacon on the Nature of Man: The faculties of man’s soul. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Webster, C. (1975). The great instauration. Science, medicine, and reform 1626—1660, London.

Zagorin, P. (1999), Francis Bacon. Princeton.