Scholarly article on topic 'Four Idols of Baconian Scholarship'

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Dana Jalobeanu

Abstract This paper offers a brief survey of the common and persistent ‘idols’ of Baconian scholarship, i.e. the persistent prejudices which have shaped both the field of Baconian studies and the larger domain of early modern philosophy and early modern science. I especially address the issue of their persistence despite repeated refutations and I claim that they can give us an interesting overview of the signposts and strong presuppositions which have survived throughout the changing tides of recent historiography of science.

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Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 71 (2013) 123 - 130

International Workshop on the Historiography of Philosophy: Representations and Cultural

Constructions 2012

Four idols of Baconian scholarship

Dana Jalobeanu*

_University of Bucharest, Department of Theoretical Philosophy, 204 Splaiul Independentei, Bucharest, Romania_


This paper offers a brief survey of the common and persistent 'idols' of Baconian scholarship, i.e. the persistent prejudices which have shaped both the field of Baconian studies and the larger domain of early modern philosophy and early modern science. I especially address the issue of their persistence despite repeated refutations and I claim that they can give us an interesting overview of the signposts and strong presuppositions which have survived throughout the changing tides of recent historiography of science.

© 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Claudiu Mesaros (West University of Timisoara, Romania) Keywords: Fracis Bacon; historiography; scientific revolution; theory of idols; experiments; measurment; mathematics.

1. Introduction

As has been often remarked, Francis Bacon has a singular place amongst the early modern thinkers in more ways than one. He was praised and vilified, in turns, often for the very same achievements that some scholars completely failed to see in his works. William Wheeler called him "the supreme Legislator of the modern Republic of Science" [1], Condorcet praised him for discovering the "true method for studying nature" [2] while David Brewster, Jutsus Liebig and Augustus de Morgan agreed that no modern scientific discovery was ever achieved by the scientific method advocated by Bacon [3,4]. In the twentieth century, the evaluation of Bacon's works focused on the 'invention' of the concept of progress, the collaborative and communitarian view of science and, of course, the 'invention' of the scientific method. Bacon was in turn praised and vilified for these achievements by the friends and critiques of Science, respectively [5]. Meanwhile, an increasingly significant number of researchers denied him any contribution to the emergence of modern science. He was said to have made "terrible mistakes" [7] to be a "confused and inconsistent thinker" [8], to have a negligible role in the

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1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Claudiu Mesaros (West University of Timisoara, Romania) doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.017

scientific revolution. This is how the historian of science, Alexandre Koyre, has summed up the situation in the following manner:

"Bacon, 'the founder of modern science' is a joke, and a bad one at that, that one can still find in the text books. In fact Bacon understood nothing about science. He was credulous and completely uncritical. His manner of thinking was closer to alchemy and magic (he believed in ' sympathies'), in short to that of a primitive or to a thinker of the Renaissance than to that of Galileo or even a Scholastic [9].

Similar harsh statements can be found in the twentieth century evaluation of Bacon's method, of which we are often told that it was "never really applied either by himself or by anyone else and consequently never produced any result" [1]. These criticisms were formulated both by historians such as Koyre and Dijksterhis, as well as by philosophers of science such as Popper and his students. Meanwhile, other historians and philosophers of science, sometimes of the same persuasion, saw Bacon's method as 'original' and 'ingenious' [10] or as "interesting, largely original and, as far as it goes, substantially correct" [11]. This dichotomy of evaluation extended beyond the issue of the scientific method and the origins of science, into more particular aspects of Bacon's philosophy. He was, for example, called "the first philosopher of experiment" [12] while, at the same time, Baconian experimentalism was denounced as a myth [13, 14]. He was considered the inventor of an original "logic of questioning" [1] and the author of a spectacular failure in both logic and metaphysics [14]. To sum up, both the personal and the scientific reputation of Francis Bacon varied tremendously from one historical period to the other, forever tossed on the waves of changing historiographical currents. Summing up years of research dedicated to the reception of Bacon's philosophy, historian Stephen Beasley Linnard Penrose concluded:

"Few philosophers have suffered greater variation in the reputation which has been theirs throughout the history of modern philosophy than has Francis Bacon. Carried by eighteenth century thought to a commanding position as the 'greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers' he was plunged in the nineteenth century to the despicable status of a man whose scientific method was never used by any real scientist, whose effect upon the advancement of science was, if anything, detrimental. From one point of view he was the first really great modern moralist; from another he was a contemptible schemer whose ethical advice had best been left unpublished. He was a staunch adherent of the Christian faith, who strengthened the hold of religion on the hearts of men; and he was a damnable atheist whose every effort was aimed at undermining all religion. He was personally a man of stainless character who was sacrificed for the misdeeds of others; and he was a treacherous designer, corrupt, immord, 'the meanest of mankind.' He wrote beautiful English and admirable Latin; and his English style was stiff and pedrntic, while he "knew no Latin." The only philosopher who could come close to being favourably compared to him was Aristotle, or Plato; and yet there were few men in the history of philosophy who had made greater contribution to knowledge than had Bacon" [15].

2. Changing tides of historiography and the Baconian barometer

The above overview of conflicting views on Bacon and his philosophy was written in 1932. It did not cease to ring true for the past 40 years. Quite on the contrary; changing tides in the historiography of science had produced a good number of conflicting interpretations of Bacon's method, overall project and purposes. As it has been shown time and again, Bacon's views were misinterpreted with surprising frequency [5, 6] to fit the current questions in the philosophy of science and the current historiography of the Scientific Revolution. Philosophers of science interested in the scientific method have often used Bacon's name (much less frequently actual quotes from his works) in the internecine philosophical wars over the logic of discovery, justification, induction and the hypothetico-deductive method. Karl Popper's students and followers divided, in fact, over whether to see Bacon as the simple-minded precursor of the logical positivists' inductive reasoning, or as a pre-paradigmatic thinker tinkering with fact-gathering activities with no relevance whatsoever for the Scientific Revolution [16]. When the scientific method ceased to play the central role on the stage of philosophical wars, the friends of discovery saw in Bacon a precursor of more elaborated forms of logic of discovery, problem-solving activities and heuristics [17]. The new experimentalism appropriated him as the first philosopher of experiment [12]. Various historiographical currents in the sociology of science borrowed Baconian phrases and pointed to Baconian terms in order to expose the imperialism [18, 19], non-sustainable development and the "death of nature" [18, 19, 20,

21], anti-feminism [22, 23] etc. of the new science. This is partly the reason why Brian Vickers has claimed that the evaluation of Bacon's works "can act as a barometer of the state of knowledge at any one time" [24]. Meanwhile, the changing tides of historiography are not sufficient to explain some important and common elements of Bacon's reception. On a more general level, they are a curious 'dichotomy' in seeing Bacon as both 'highly relevant (in very general terms, usually relating to science communication, ideology etc.) and completely not-relevant for the emergence of modern science [5] in what Desroches has called "an entire pathology of critico-philosophical blindness' [5]. This is also curiously doubled by what has been sometimes labelled as a 'reluctance to reading Bacon' [5, see also 6]. Relatively little has been done so far to explain such general tendencies. They were usually simply ascribed to the problems, types of questions, prejudices and idols dominating a particular discipline, time-period or state of knowledge. As Paolo Rossi has brilliantly summed it up, this problem can be given a thorough Baconian reading.

"Perhaps Francis Bacon was right; it is impossible to rout out all the idols from men's minds. Among the idols we have not up to now been able to eradicate are undoubtedly following: the propensity not to read the original texts; the tendency to neglect all that happens outside our specialist community; the tendency to reduce the philosophies of the past to some seemingly brilliant slogans; the construction on these bases of mythical philosophical portraits' [6].

It is not, however, some such idols that are of concern in the present paper. My investigation will rather bear on a different level. I intend to explore a common core of particular and recurrent prejudices present in the large majority of contemporary evaluations of Bacon's works, regardless of their general orientation. They usually take the form of evaluative judgments of high generality, often covering the whole ensemble of Baconian works. They are simple, easy to grasp, clearly stated, equally distributed amongst Bacon's friends and foes, recurrent and remarkably persistent to the changing tides of historiography. I will call them the idols of Baconian scholarship.

3. The four idols of Baconian scholarship

There are at least four idols of Baconian scholarship. The first of them is powerful, deeply entrenched and almost co-extensive with modern science. It is the claim that Bacon disliked and distrusted mathematics. Although articulated in the writings of Burtt, Butterfield, Dijksterhuis and Koyre, ^s idol's origin goes all the way back to the seventeenth-century.

"It was a misfortune to the world that my Lord Bacon was not skilled in mathematics, which made him jealous of their assistance in natural enquiries; when the operations of nature shall be followed up to their static (and mechanical) causes, the use of induction will cease, and syllogism succeed in the place of if' [25].

In a seminal article, Kuhn formulates a similar evaluative judgment and raises it at the rank of methodological principle.

"Those critics who ridicule him [Bacon] for failing to recognize the best science of his day have missed the point. He did not reject Copernicanism because he preferred the Ptolemaic system. Rather, he rejected both because he thought that no system so complex, abstract, and mathematical could contribute either the understanding or the control of Nature' [16].

Kuhn describes Bacon's opposition to mathematical astronomy as a more profound divide between two views on the exploration of nature: the age-old tradition of mathematical sciences (mixed mathematics) and the natural history of the empiricists. He saw Bacon's allegiance to the second camp as an expression of his more general dislike of geometry, his refusal to accept 'useful' simplifications such as the astronomer's devices in the true and honest empirical exploration of nature.

This alleged 'dislike' of mathematics has many features of an idol of the tribe; it is a useful simplification, deeply entrenched in the received view regarding the 'nature' of science; it is also based on essentialist historiographical presuppositions. It not only assumes deep-level presuppositions on the nature of science, but it

gives 'mathematics' some a-temporal essentialist nature, disregarding completely the historical character and evolution of mathematical knowledge, mathematical disciplines and mathematical sources and authorities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moreover, it flies in the face of substantial historical and interpretative counter-evidence, such as Bacon's concerns for the proper place of pure mathematics in his tree of science [26], his plans to develop two natural histories of mathematics [27], and it makes it rather difficult to interpret numerous claims about how "the marriage of mathematics of physics begets practice" [27]. Such is, however, the particular quality of idols, that the light of truth does not dispel their power. They are deeply entrenched in the h^^m mind and can be 'exorcised' only with a considerable amount of continuous work and attention. This is why this first and oldest idol of Baconian scholarship was not yet dispelled, despite the precise, clear and convincing demonstration made by Graham Rees and Antonio Perez Ramos in a couple of seminal articles dealing with the quantitative and mathematical aspects of Bacon's astronomy, cosmology and experimental philosophy [28, 29, 30]. Repeated refutations came from different quarters of Baconian scholarship. On one hand, Rees has explored the quantitative nature of Bacon's experimental program and his declared attempts to bring about the "marriage of physics and mathematics" [28]. More detailed explorations of Bacon's projects for the reformation of astronomy can also unveil the important role mathematics and measurement are called to play in the development of a natural history of the heavens [30, 31]. Recent researches on the evolution and changing meanings of 'mathematics' [32, 33], on the changing borders between practical and theoretical mathematics at the end of the sixteenth-century [33, 34, 35, 36] will most probably become powerful allies in fighting this first idol of Baconian scholarship. A contextual reconstruction of Baconian views on mathematics awaits to be written.

The second idol of Baconian scholarship claims that Bacon's science is purely speculative; that even its seemingly experimental part is based on speculative thinking. In other words, Bacon borrowed ready-made observations and experimental reports from his less philosophically minded contemporaries. He then found a clever way of writing them, such that they became accessible to the curious gentlemen and dilettanti. He pictured an exciting picture of experimental activity which, in turn, was subsequently used to promote the idea of experimental science. But he was not engaged in actual experimental practice and he understood little about devising and using experiments. This second idol originates in a particular idiosyncratic reception of Bacon in the nineteenth century by a reputed chemist and experimental scientist Justus Liebig [37]. It is an idol of the cave: Liebig clearly brought in his interpretation of Bacon a personal belief in the natural division of humankind into 'hard working men' and mere dilettanti. He also displayed a very idiosyncratic dislike of the second category, in which he included most of the early modern philosophers. And he saw Bacon as the manipulating mind behind the general tendency to impose the opinions of the dilettanti onto the hard working men of science [37]. He dismissed Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum as a cheap superposition of straightforward plagiarism and manipulative rhetoric and he never bothered to read Bacon's Latin natural histories. Liebig views were simply repeated by many twentieth century scholars who simply claimed that Bacon has never contributed anything solid to the growth of experimental knowledge. For example, historian of science Lynn Thorndike claimed that Bacon was a "crooked chancellor in a moral sense and a crooked naturalist in an intellectual and scientific sense" [38] talking about the importance of experiments without really understanding and without being able to 'think straight' while being "as helpless as Pliny has been in antiquity" [38]. More recently, Michel Malherbe completely disentangled the seventeenth-century Baconian experimental philosophy of the early Royal Society from any reading of Bacon and claimed that it was a purely ideological import motivated by the anti-Hobbesian programme of Robert Boyle and his colleagues [14]. In contrast, Bacon did not do experiments.

The persistence of this second idol is often surprising for any serious reader of Bacon's natural histories. It is not only that Bacon read about, critically reflected and discussed, reproduced and improved and sometimes invented a large variety of experiments and experimental practices [39, 40, 41, 42, 43]; he repeatedly wrote about them, described them quite carefully and developed a number of methodological 'rules' or 'modes' of translating experimental knowledge "regularly", "duly and systematically" [27] from one experimental set-up to another [40,

41, 42]. He constantly reflected upon the best ways to experiment and showed interest in teaching not results, but experimental practices, methods and heuristics. His posthumous Sylva Sylvarum (1626) is littered with quite sophisticated methodological considerations and precise (even if, sometimes, pithy) descriptions of experimental set-ups. In conclusion, there are numerous counter-examples in both primary and secondary literature to convince us that this second idol of Baconian scholarship stands on very unsure feet. It mainly stands because the way in which Bacon wrote about experiments is very unfamiliar to the modern mind. His followers knew, however, better than that. References to Bacon's method of discovery, of his ways of disciplining experience and regulating experiment abound in both England and France in the second part of the seventeenth century.

This third idol of Baconian scholarship is the more insidious and probably it will be the most difficult to expel. It claims that Baconian science was explicitly opposing any form of mathematizing nature; that for Bacon the language of nature was not mathematics. He saw nature as a labyrinth and the explorer of nature as a hunter. Not only did Bacon pursue an enterprise of an entirely different nature than the early modern mechanical philosophy; his language was different. He aimed at an interpretation of nature and described it in terms which had nothing in common with mathematics. Although discussing mathematics again, this idol is very different from the first one discussed above. It addresses not the nature of mathematics and mathematical knowledge but the relation between disciplines, and claims that Bacon's way of conceiving nature prevented him from even addressing the kind of problems associated with the emergence of modern science. He simply belonged to a different tradition, be that of hermeticism [45], of natural magic, the tradition of the books of secrets [23,46], the Calvinist or Mosaic physics of mid sixteenth-century [47, 48, 49], or perhaps a humanist and rhetorical tradition of reading nature [50, 51, 52, 53] etc. The multiplication of contexts and suggestions should not obscure, however, the fundamental common root of this idol, ultimately relating to the same essentialist view on mathematics so common amongst the proponents of the Scientific Revolution. In its more crude form of expression, this idol is instantiated in simply stating that Bacon had the misfortune to live before Newton and did not pay the proper attention to the mathematical developments of Kepler, Stevin and Galileo. In a less crude form of instantiation, this idol is responsible for thousands of pages of debates concerning the true meaning of interpretatio, the relation between reading Nature and reading Scriptures, Bacon and religion etc. Since for Bacon the language of nature was not mathematics, numerous other 'languages' were proposed in order to fill the gap. Recent works by Guido Giglioni, Rhodri Lewis [51], Koen Vermeir [54], Sorana Corneanu [54, 55] etc. have questioned some of the premises of such attempts to describe Bacon's language. They provided the student of Bacon's works with important contextual reconstructions of Bacon's vocabulary, Bacon's metaphysics of appetitive matter, Bacon's theory of faculties and subsequent theory of knowledge (the 'reading' of nature) etc. all simply necessary prerequisites for any attempt to reconstact Bacon's vision of an 'alphabet of nature/ They have drawn attention to Baconian writings less known to the historians of early modern method or to the philosophers of experiment. Sophie Weeks [56, 57], Silvia Manzo [58] and Guido Giglioni [52, 53, 59] did quite a lot to clarify Bacon's complex field of 'abstract physics' containing the 'letters' of the 'alphabet of nature' and have drawn attention to the sophisticated metaphysics and epistemology behind the misleading term interpretatio naturae. All such developments have proven at least how much there is still to be done once we refuse to give in to this third idol of Baconian scholarship.

The fourth idol of Baconian scholarship is an idol of the theatre. It states that Bacon rejected the physico-mathematics and mechanics of Galileo and his precursors, and promoted a purely qualitative physics. He was not interested in quantitative aspects and measurement but preferred the language of elements, appetites and the 'strive' of opposed qualities borrowed from Telesio and other such novelists. He was simply ignoring the science of his day. In Whitehead words:

"In this respect Bacon completely missed the tonality which lay behind the success of seventeenth-century science. Science was becoming, and has remained, primarily quantitative. Search for measurable elements among your phenomena, and then search for relations between these measures of physical quantities. Bacon ignores this rule of science [...] he gives no hint that there should be a search for quantities. Perhaps he was misled by the current logical doctrines which had come down from Aristotle. For, in effect, these doctrines said to the physicist classify when they should have said measure' [5].

One is quite surprised by the persistence with which historians and philosophers repeat claims which fly in the face of historical facts and documents. Such is, for example, the deep-rooted mistaken belief that Bacon was not interested in Galileo's work. Despite convincing demonstrations by Paolo Rossi [60] and Antonio Perez Ramos [2, 61] showing that Bacon read both published and unpublished works by Galileo, aimed to establish a correspondence with Galileo and referred more than once to Galileo's discoveries, this fourth idol of Baconian scholarship is still very much in place. In a paper reflecting on the Victorian reception and image of Bacon, Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart have shown how the romantic image of a singular genius lead James Spedding, Bacon's Victorian editor and biographer, to make certain biased editorial choices and often simply did not include in his edition of Bacon's correspondence important letters referring precisely to Bacon's relations with his more scientific contemporaries [62]. Recent investigations have shown Bacon's interest in the 'scientific' works of contemporaries [44, 63]. Currently, Cesare Pastorino is exploring Bacon's interactions with mechanics and mathematicians through his duties in the Office of Patents and his more general interest in getting in touch with mathematical practitioners and the 'scientific' contemporary minds. He has also contributed to in-depth clarification of quantitative aspects in Bacon's experimentation [44]. Much still needs to be done both in terms of a more thorough exploration of Bacon's sources and in terms of a rehabilitation of the least read of Bacon's works, the late and posthumous natural histories [49, 65, 66, 67] . Peter Anstey and Michael Hunter have shown the influence of what they call the Baconian method of natural history amongst the members of the early Royal Society [64, 65]. However, much is still to be done in order to disentangle the various forms and different purposes of Baconian 'natural histories,' and this form of exploration cannot be really fruitful unless the fourth idol of Baconian scholarship is properly dispelled and exorcised.

4. The first vintage

What do we gain if we simply discard for a moment the four idols of Baconian scholarship? If we try to forget the current prejudices according to which Bacon disliked mathematics? If we reconsider the view that for Bacon nature is a labyrinth which has to be the subject of qualitative and tentative (trial-and-error) investigations? If we question that he did not do experiments and that he was opposed to the tradition of mixed mathematics? A fresh new look at Bacon's writings, and especially at Bacon's natural histories, can give us a number of very interesting insights into a quite sophisticated version of a carefully methodized, precisely measured and sometimes highly theoretical early version of the exploration of nature [39, 40, 48].

I suggest that the first vintage of this fight against idols lies in what was partially done in the past ten years, namely a revaluation of Bacon's natural historical project [49, 65, 67]. After being buried for three hundred years in complete oblivion, Bacon's natural histories are again subject to careful scrutiny. From the relatively little that has been done so far it is already clear that this is a very promising field for historians and philosophers alike. The second revaluation awaiting its turn is that of Bacon's experimentalism. The third relates to a more thorough and contextual exploration of Bacon's reading and understanding of the mathematics of his day (pure and mixed). With all these changes, and freed from the last traces of historiographical essentialism, regarding mathematics, philosophy and religion, the historian of science/philosophy can at last begin to read Bacon with the same instruments which have recently produced major revaluations in the fields of Cartesian and Newtonian studies. Meanwhile, the friends of discovery and the friends of experimentation can try to find in Bacon's methodological and natural historical writings numerous arguments and illustrations of interesting precursors to current questions

regarding exploratory experimentation, experimental research strategies, background knowledge, probabilistic logic of discovery, pattern recognition and much, much more.


The research for this paper has been supported from the grant From natural history to science: the emergence of experimental philosophy, PN-II-ID-PCE-2011-3-0719.


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