JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter IX.
Lord Bacon and Modern Thought.

RATIONALISM took its legitimate course when it applied itself to the development and application of the material energies of nature; for it must be borne in mind that reason is good, the conveniences of life are good, and the physical sciences are good, and between them and religion there is no contradiction.

It is only when scientific men leave their proper sphere, and begin to speculate on things they have no mental aptitude for, that in their ignorance they clash with truth and religion. When Lalande sweeps the heavens with his telescope, and catalogues the stars, he is doing a service to science; but when he tells us that he has not found God at the end of his telescope, he is introducing an idea foreign to his subject, and answering a question it is not within the province of astronomy to put him.

Scholasticism was so mingled up with the old religion, that the nations that drifted from the one, despised the other, yearned after a change in intellectual pursuits, and hailed every philosophical innovator. Wearied with verbal strife, and disgusted at seeing the same questions still open after centuries of dispute, men sought repose in the more fruitful work of mechanical pursuits and scientific investigation. Francis Bacon became the exponent and representative of this phase of thought His unquestionable genius and his elevated social position gave weight to his words, and he was hailed as the apostle of the inductive method. That method he made the one idea of his genius.

Bacon is misunderstood by two classes of men. One regards him as the creator of a new and previously unknown method, to which modern science is indebted for all its triumphs. This is an impossibility. He could not change the intellect. He could not give man another faculty distinct from the faculties he already possessed. Intelligence works now exactly as it worked prior to my Lord Bacon. The sum and substance of his philosophy is this: "Leave scholastic disputations. You have talked enough over words. Turn to things. Interpret nature. Experiment. Be careful of the biases of your mind. Be not over-hasty in your inferences. Look to facts. Wait. Read the lessons of nature as it is, and not as you think it ought to be." This simple piece of advice constitutes his title to immortality and our gratitude. And though it is a good one, there is nothing in it that had not at all times occurred to the careful man in the experiences of his every-day life. Bacon added no real truth to any of the sciences, he enforced his views generally by the crudest facts and by childish illustrations. He invented no new method. He only called attention to that which men should follow in investigating the laws of nature.

The other class denounces him as the ruin of all genuine thought, the bitter enemy of metaphysics, and the father of modern materialism. This view of him is equally incorrect. He was an innovator; and all innovators are so absorbed in the idea they would enforce, that they are invariably led to exaggerate its importance and to belittle that which they would have it supplant. So it was with Aristotle; so it was with Descartes; so it was with Lord Bacon. He claimed for his method that it was intrinsically different from the syllogism. Here, in his eagerness to assert its superiority, he took a part for the whole. The observation and grouping of facts do not constitute a syllogism; hut neither do they give anything more general than facts; and with these alone the mind can never attain to the knowledge of a general law. It is impossible to set aside the rule of logic that the terms of the conclusion ought never be taken with greater extension than in the premises. No number of particulars makes up a universal. Induction, then, only gives the material for one premise; and when, from a certain number of particular facts, a general law is inferred, there is implied in the background a universal truth that is a necessary factor, not in making the induction, but in deducing the law. In this manner alone is the inductive method legitimate.{1}

In discussing the philosophy of Bacon, it is well to bear in mind that we possess only a fragment of it, and that this fragment has reference principally to physical science. It is therefore one-sided in its development which, exclusively considered, is materialistic. But Bacon has not abused the metaphysics, nor is he their bitter enemy. On the Contrary, he thinks them good in their place. He thinks that they give unity to the other sciences. He even censures them for accepting, unchallenged, scientific principles on the testimony of each individual science. He considers it within the province of metaphysics to test the foundations of all knowledge in the light of the principles they establish.{2} And he is right. He censures the syllogism, but it is with his eye on the physical sciences. Thus, when he tells us that "the syllogism is not applied to the principles of the sciences, and is of no avail in intermediate axioms as being far from equal to the subtilty of nature," and adds, that "it forces assent, therefore, and not things,"{3} he says what is at least in part true; for first principles are not deduced, and no amount of exclusive syllogizing can discover a law of nature, Here his favorite method of observation and experiment is required. It has been as well as truly said of logic, that "its chain of conclusion hangs loose at both ends; both the point from which the proof should start, and the points at which it should arrive, are beyond its reach; it comes short both of first principles and of concrete issues.{4}

The inductive method, as elaborated by Bacon, is impracticable. "Hitherto," he says, "the proceeding has been to fly at once from the sense and particulars up to the most general propositions, as certain fixed poles for the argument to turn upon; and from these to derive the rest by middle terms."{5} He is correct in censuring too hasty a transition from facts to principles. It misleads the mind, and becomes the source of numerous errors. Men are to-day as incautious as ever. It is not uncommon to see them on a single fact build up a whole theory -- men too, who plume themselves on being disciples of the inductive philosopher. Now, what is the method Bacon would substitute? To set out also with sense and the particular facts, but without skipping any chain, and, by multiplying observations and experiences, to arrive but at the last place at the most general propositions.{6} But there is no last place in the observation of facts. They multiply with the discerning power of the observer, Nature is a book so extensive, so difficult to read, and, withal, so precisely written, that the little compass of a mans life -- the combined efforts of an age -- can accurately decipher but few of her phenomena. Accordingly, the true Baconian is the Positivist who looks only to facts, and studies "the laws of phenomenon, and never the mode of production."{7} The greatest triumphs of intelligence have been, and will continue to be, made by anticipation. Still, Bacon could not insist too strongly on patient investigation -- on the mind's carrying lead rather than wings.

It is often asserted that Bacon flouted final causes altogether from the domain of knowledge as of atheistical tendency.{8} He is far from any such act. He has even taken the pains to state expressly of their consideration: "Neither does this call in question or derogate from Divine Providence, but rather highly confirms and exalts it."{9} He would relegate final causes from physics to metaphysics; for to the latter they more properly belong. He is correct. Design alone is a most fallacious guide in studying the laws of nature, He explains himself in the same place. "For the handling of final causes in physics, has driven away and overthrown the diligent inquiry of physical causes, and made man acquiesce in those specious and shadowy causes, without actively pressing the inquiry of those which are really and truly physical, to the great arrest and prejudice of science,"{10} He is not to be blamed for this treatment of final causes. It is the merit of his genius that he thus assigned. to them their proper sphere; and in doing so he removed the greatest obstacle in the way of the advancement of the physical sciences. Bacon's views were those of his age, The necessity of scientific reform was felt throughout the learned world. Descartes felt it, and endeavored to bring about in mathematics and metaphysics the reform Bacon sought to achieve in the domain of physics. They both gave direction to the movement. But they did not create it; they could not have impelled it a step, if if did not march of its own accord. Had they attempted to stop its progress, great as were their geniuses, it would have crushed them into oblivion.

Three centuries and a half before Francis Bacon wrote, there lived a monk who attempted to achieve in science exactly what was achieved in the sixteenth century, but who failed because the mental soil of his age was not prepared for his opinions. He was an innovator, but an untimely one, and public opinion scarcely noticed him at first, for it understood not his language. He would abuse its lack of comprehension, and loudly assert his views as the only correct ones, and public opinion thereupon turned on the outspoken Franciscan, and persecuted him as a babbler that knew not whereof he spoke. Therefore it is that, though deeply learned in the sciences,{11} Roger Bacon made little or no impress an his age. In nearly every point of his method, the monk has anticipated the chancellor.


Both approach their subject in the same spirit. Both get impatient with the disputes of the schoolmen. Francis Bacon complains of their barrenness. He says it is no longer subject developed after subject; it is school pitted against school.{12} Roger Bacon is equally loud in his complaints. He finds the books of the ancients full of doubts, obscurities, and perplexities. He finds his contemporaries, with few exceptions, not a whit better. Few of them really understand the Aristotle they laud so highly.{13}


They are both equally penetrated with a sense of humility before the grandeur of nature and the little they really know of her mysteries.

It is most certain, and proved by experience, that a little philosophy can lead to atheism; but much knowledge brings back to religion. He is mad who thinks highly of his wisdom; he most mad who exhibits it as something to be wondered at.
Certissimum est, atque experientia comprobatum, leves gustus in philosophia movere fortasse ad atheismum, sed pleniores haustus ad religionem reducere. -- Nov. Org., lib. i. Insanus est qui de sapientia se extollit, et maxime insanit qui ostentat et tanquam portentum suam scientiam nititur divulgare. -- Op. Ma., lib. i., p. 15, Ed. Jebb.


Both of them mention the same number of obstacles in the way of acquiring true knowledge.

Four species of idols beset the human mind. The first kind we call idols of the tribe; the second, idols of the cave; the third idols of the market-place; and the fourth idols of the theatre. There are four great stumblingblocks in the way of comprehending truth, which impede all wisdom whatever; and with difficulty do they permit anybody to arrive at the true title of being wise. They are: the force of weak and unworthy authority, prolonged custom, popular opinion, and the hiding of one's ignorance with a semblance of wisdom.
Quatuor sunt genera Idolorum quae mentes humanas obsident. Iis (docendi gratia) nomina imposuimus; ut primum genus, Idola Tribus; secundum, Idola Specus; tertium, Idola Fori; quartum, Idola Theatri vocentur. -- Nov. Org., Lib. i., 39. Quatuor vero sunt maxima comprehendendae veritatis offendicula, quae omnem quemcunque sapientem impediunt, et vix aliquem permittunt ad verum titulum sapientiae pervenire; viz., fragilis et indignae auctoritatis exemplum, consuetudinis diuturnitas, vulgi sensus imperiti, et propriae ignorantiae occultatio cum ostentatione sapientiae apparentis. -- Opus Majus, lib. i., p. 2. IV.

Their agreement here is more than fanciful. Both have the same ideas in view, and their reconciliation will not take many words, Take the first illusion mentioned by the chancellor: "The idols of the tribe," he tells us, "are inherent in human nature, and the very tribe or race of man; for it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things." That is, things may be otherwise than as man conceives them. This, by the way, was the error of Vico, who identified the true and the made{14} -- a theory that does not hold good outside of mathematics.{15} We are not, therefore, to submit in scientific matters to a view of the thing simply because other men -- perhaps the great majority -- accept that view of it. Witness the belief that color resides in objects. It is among the worst of arguments to say: This was maintained by the ancients, and must therefore be held as true. We are quoting from the friar. His idea coincides with that of the chancellor:

Idola Tribus sunt fundata in ipsa natura humana, atque in ipsa tribu seu gente hominum. Falso enim asseritur, sensum humanum esse mensuram rerum. -- Nov. Org., i. 41. Fragilis et indignae auctoritatis exemplum. . . . Nam quilibet in singulis artibus vitae et studii et omnis negotii tribus pessimis ad eandem conclusionem utitur argumentis, scil. hoc exemplificatum est per majores . . . ergo tenendum. -- Opus Majus, p. 2. V.

Again, the idols of the cave, that is, the illusions of the individual man, are based upon the bias the mind receives in education.{16} It becomes accustomed to a certain way of thinking, and sees things only in that direction. Here is the "prolonged custom" or traditionary habit of Roger Bacon.


The third illusion, the idols of the marketplace, consists of a wrong and silly imposition of words, resulting from the intercourse of man with man. But the sense of the ignorant many is not the one scientific accuracy requires. This is the "popular opinion" of the friar:

Homines enim per sermones sociantur; at verba ex captu vulgi imponuntur. -- Nov. Org., i., 43. Vulgi sensus imperiti. -- Opus Majus.


The fourth illusion, the idols of the theatre, is identical with the pride of imaginary knowledge of Roger Bacon; for such a pride, in order to hide its ignorance, grows disputatious, and assumes to play a part that is as unreal to it as is the rôle of king to him who impersonates him on the stage.

Lastly, there are idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. Authors write, and the common people hold many things which are utterly false, by arguments feigned without experiment.
These we call idols of the theatre, because all the received systems are, in our judgment, hut so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. What is worse, men blinded by these four hindrances do not perceive their ignorance, but with the utmost assurance, wrangle and defend their opinion, seeing that they can find no remedy; and worse still, when in the thickest darkness of error, they consider themselves in the full light of truth.
Sunt denique Idola quae immigrarunt in animos hominum ex diversis dogmatibus philosophiarum, ac etiam ex perversis legibus demonstrationum; quae Idola Theatri nominamus; quia quot philosophiae receptae aut inventae sunt, tot fabulas productas et actas censemus, quae mundos effecerunt fictitios et scenicos. -- Nov. Org., i., 44. Nam multa scribunt auctores et vulgus tenet per argumenta quae fingit sine experientia quae sunt omnino falsa. -- Opus Majus, pars vi.

Sed pejus est quod homines horum quatuor caligine excaecati non percepiunt uarn ignorantiam, sed cum omni cautela palliant et defendunt, quatenus remedium non inveniant; et quod pessimum est cum sint in tenebris errorum densissimis, aestimant se esse in plena luce veritatis. -- pars i., p. 2.


It has been seen that Francis Bacon asserted the superiority of the experimental over the syllogistic method; so does the friar, but without destroying the latter.

We reject demonstration by syllogism . . . . for the syllogism is made up of propositions, propositions of words but words are only marks and signs of notions. Consequently it enforces assent, not things. There are two methods of knowing -- argument and experiment. Argument concludes a question, but does not give certainty nor remove doubt, so that the soul rests in the perception of a truth, unless that truth is aided by experience.
At nos demonstrationem per syllogismum rejicimus quad syllogismus ex propositionibus constet, propositiones ex verhis, verba autem notionum tesserae ac signa sunt. -- Inst. Meg. Intro. Assensum itaque constringit, non res. -- Nov. Org., i., 13. Duo sunt modi cognoscendi; scilicet per argumentum et per experimentum. Argumentum concludit et facit nos concludere questionem; sed non certificat neque removet dubitationem, ut quiescat animus in intuitu veritatis, nisi eam inveniat viâ experientiae. -- Opus Majus, pars vi., p. 445.

"It is indeed an extraordinary circumstance," Whewell remarks, "to find a writer of the thirteenth century not only recognizing experiment as one source of knowledge, but urging its claims as something far more important than men had yet been aware of, exemplifying its value by striking and just examples, and speaking of its authority with a dignity of diction which sounds like a foremurmur of the Baconian sentences uttered nearly four hundred years later."{17}

The spirit and scope of the great chancellor's method are the same with those of his greater namesake; while in scientific attainments the latter was by far superior to the former. "In this respect," says Whewell, "he was far more fortunate than Francis Bacon."{18}

Enough has been laid down to show that the seed of the Baconian method was deeply implanted in the soil of thought, and was there germinating and patiently abiding its time; and as a premature day in spring brings forth an occasional blossom or fresh blade, to be nipped away by the next frost, so did the times and a short sunshine of papal favor draw out that blossom of the inductive method, to show its head for a moment, and then to rest in oblivion for nigh four hundred years, until the intellectual atmosphere became more favorable to its growth and development.

{1} "At si rite perpenditur, inductio a syllogismo essentialiter non discrepat, sed forma tantum." Liberatore Inst. Phil., p. 94.

{2} De Augmentis, lib. iii.

{3} Syllogismus ad principia scientialum non adhibetur, ad media axiomata frustra adhibetur, cum sit subtilitate naturae longe impar. Assensum itaque constringit, non res." -- Novum Organum, Aph. xiii.

{4} John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent, p. 272. See also pp. 255, et sq.

{5} "Adhuc enim res ita geri consuevit; ut a sensu et particularibus primo loco ad maxima generalia advoletur, tanquam ad polos fixos circa quos disputationes vertantur; ab illis caetera per media deriventur." Distributio Operis, vol. i., E. & S. ed., London p. 136.

{6} Nov. Org., 19-22-26.

{7} Comte.

{8} See Liberatore, Institutions, p. 348; also F. Hill, Elements, p. 227.

{9} "Neque vere ista. res in dubium vocat Providentiam Divinam, aut ei quicquam derogat, set potius eandem miris modis confirmat et evehit." -- De Aug., lib. iii., cap. iv.

{10} Tractatio enim Causarum Finalium in Physicis inquisitionem Causarum Physicarum expulit et dejecit; effecitque ut homines in istiusmodi speciosis et umbratilibus causis acquiescerunt, nec inquisitionem causarum realium, et vere Physicarum strenue urgerent; ingenti scientiarum detrimento." -- De Aug., lib. III.

{11} L'admirable moine, Roger Bacon, dont la plupart des savants actuels, si dédaigneux du moyen age, serajent assurément incapables, je ne dis point d'écririe, mais seulement de lire la grande composition à cause de l'immense variété des vues qui. s'y trouvent sur tous les divers ordres de phénomènes. -- COMTE, Phil. Pos., tome, vi., p. 206.

{12} Dist. Op.

{13} Opus Majus, Ed. Jebb, p. 10, et seq.

{14} "The criterion of truth, and the rule by which to recognize it, is to have made it." De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia, lib. i. cap. i. § i.

{15} See Balmes' Fundamental Philosophy, bk. i. chaps. xxx., xxxi.

{16} "Idola Specus sunt idola hominis individui. Habet enim unusquisque (praeter aberrationes naturae humanae in genere) specum sive cavernam quandam individuam, quae lumen naturae frangit et corrumpit; vel propter naturam cujusque propriam et singularem ; vel propter educationem et conversationem cum aliis.": -- Nov. Org., i, 42.

{17} History of the Inductive Sciences, vol. i., p. 579.

{18} History of the Inductive Sciences, vol. i., p. 521.

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