The period of transition from the Renaissance to the early modern era was marked by radical shifts in what concerns foundations of science and the theoretical approach of science, deviating many times from the traditional philosophical line standing since the ancient Greeks. Among the pioneers – philosophers and scientists – who contributed through their innovative views and theories to such shifts only two qualifies for being associated with the concept of scientific revolution – one is Galileo Galilei in Italy and the other is Francis Bacon, in England (although Copernicus is also a valuable candidate for the short list). Although they lived and created in about the same period, their work in founding the new science is independent of each other and focused on different philosophies and core concepts.
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban by George Vertue, line engraving after Paul van Somer, 1728
Contrary to Galileo, who studied mathematics and taught it after attending the university, Francis Bacon was a lawyer, concerned more with law and religion than with science, and after his studies he did not take up a post at a university, but instead tried to start a political career. There were his last years that brought him international fame, when he focused exclusively on his philosophical work, which influenced the scientific and philosophical community.
Francis Bacon’s natural philosophy against tradition
School of Athens, fresco by Raphael painted between 1509-1511.
Francis Bacon’ approach to the foundation of science was radical and critic, starting with the old ancient philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Galileo at his turn also criticized the ancient Greek philosophy as no longer qualifying as a valid foundation for the new kind of science, especially in what concerns the physics that such philosophy has shaped. However, Francis Bacon’s criticism targeted the core concepts that linked that philosophy to the primary principles that human reason should follow in order to adequately investigate and discover nature. It was the natural and necessary attitude leading to the main revolutionary Baconian concept, that of methodology of science.
In particular, Bacon’s general objection to the Aristotle’s work is that, although it offers axioms for every scientific discipline, it lacks a supreme principle or a general theory of science, which to be applicable to all branches of natural history and philosophy. Bacon reformulates and changes into a functional form the Aristotelian concept of science as knowledge of necessary causes, according to which experience acquired through senses automatically shows us the things as they really are, while rejecting the Aristotelian logic based on metaphysics and focused on syllogism and dialectics (Klein, 2003).
The essential theoretical product of Francis Bacon’s critical organizing thought in regard to the new adequate science is the concept of philosophia prima, as a reference level for all scientific disciplines, distinct from metaphysics, where general categories of a general theory of science are treated as universal categories of thought that are relevant for all disciplines. It is the epistemological motivation for and the origin of the new concept of scientific method that Bacon proposes. The necessity of philosophia prima is indicated in Bacon’s Novum Organum (part of his major work Instauratio Magna, 1620) as the basis for the materialistic concept of unity of sciences and the new methodological foundation of sciences.
One of Cambridge University libraries
One of Francis Bacon’s revolutionary attitude was the rejection on humanists’ learning ‘by the book’, arguing that they “hunt more after words than matter” (Bacon III, 1887, p.283). On the same line of argument, he criticizes the Cambridge University curriculum for being focused on dialectical and sophistical training asked of “minds empty and unfraught with matter” (Bacon III, 1887, p.326), as well as the technical literature of that time, for lacking a vision on nature and an innovative methodological program.
The Baconian revolution is also a systematic one. In his The Advancement of Learning (1605) he proposes a new structuring of the disciplines, on the same principle of opposing to the ancient tradition. This principle also assumes that science should concentrate on the investigation of new subjects instead of controversies, while rejecting superstition, zealous religiosity, and false authorities. This restructuring is based on a systematic vision of the knowledge domains, going along with the identification and critical description of their deficiencies. Therefore, it is not just a simple classification of knowledge, but is part of a new epistemology of science, grounded on philosophia prima. Advancing knowledge through natural philosophy is for Francis Bacon a contribution to the glorification of God, as it is for Galileo the dogmatic-free scientific truth empowered by mathematical truth.
Bacon’s theory of idols and the pyramid of knowledge
Francis Bacon is strongly systematic not only in what concerns his program of redesigning scientific knowledge (crystallized in his Instauratio Magna), but also his own mere theory about science. He starts his investigation with an analysis of the human mind and the primary premises of human adequate reasoning, then moves to the acquisition of knowledge and only after these necessary prequisites are clarified he shapes the principles of the new methodology of science.
Bacon sees human mind not as the empiricist tabula rasa, but rather as a distorting mirror through which the images formed in our mind from the beginning do not depict an objective picture of the true objects. Therefore, we have to improve our mind before we start acquiring knowledge, in order for that to be objective. The “mirrored” cognitive distortions are amplified by what Bacon calls idols (of our mind). The ‘idols’ reflect misconceptions, fallacies, superstitions, imposture, and falsity coming from every day experience, including intellectual and including what we are provided with as knowledge from other people. In the interpretation of Malherbe (1996), idols are for Bacon products of the human imagination (due to the distorting mirror) and nothing more than “untested generalities”. Bacon includes the idols (as ‘false appearances’) in his taxonomy of errors along with sophistical fallacies and fallacies of interpretation. His doctrine of detection of fallacies is considered a precursory phase in the history of theories of error and an important theoretical contribution within the rise of modern empiricism (Brandt, 1979).
Mosaic from Pompeii (1st c. BC) depicting Plato’s Academy
For Bacon, once our mind is made free of the idols, we can acquire knowledge and this acquisition follows a certain structure and flow, expressed through the Baconian pyramid of knowledge: This pyramid has as its base the observations, then ascends to invariant relations, and then to more inclusive correlations until it reaches the stage of forms. The forms are more general than Aristotle’s forms as causes; they are the most general properties of matter and the last step for the human reason when investigating nature. Laws of nature are expressed through forms, where the continuous ascension ends. By these forms, the natural philosopher understands the general causes of the phenomena, however only the method leads to knowledge about nature.
By his pyramid, Bacon proposes progressive stages for the certitude, tightly related to his inductive method. For Bacon, there are two ways of searching for and discovering the truth: The first starts from senses and particulars toward the more general axioms, from which we proceed to the discovery of the middle axioms. The second derives axioms from senses and particulars, in a gradual continuous way, reaching the most general axioms.
The theory of idols and the functional system of acquiring objective knowledge are for Francis Bacon the necessary premises of introducing his revolutionary concept of scientia operativa.
The new scientific methodology
University of Kent labyrinth.
For Francis Bacon, nature is like a labyrinth, whose works cannot be explained only by the supremacy of the logical wisdom and the observation of patterns and repetitions. Rather, “Our steps must be guided by a clue, and see what way from the first perception of the sense must be laid out upon a sure plan.” (Bacon IV, 1901, p.18). It is a way to say that the scientific method of investigation should precede the core faculties of the human reason, like logic and observation and is at least as important as these latter.
The nature and goals of the new scientific method are described in Novum Organum (Part II). It is supposed to help the reason to pass beyond the influence of ancient arts and thus to enter a radical revision of the methods of knowledge; as such, it introduces a new epistemology. Bacon calls it Interpretatio Naturae, which is a logic of research going beyond classical logic, required for a science aiming at three “inventions”: of arts (instead of arguments), of principles (instead of things in accordance to principles), and of designations and directions for works (instead of probable reasons).
Bacon’s methodology assumes a double starting point – empirical and rational – based on the principle that true knowledge is acquired if we start from a low certitude to a high liberty and from a low liberty to a high certitude. This certitude-liberty rule converges with Bacon’s rejection of old Aristotelian logic and accordingly he opposes his Interpretatio Naturae to the Aristotelian Anticipation Naturae, seen as a form of conventionalism (Urbach 1987, pp.30–41). Interpretation of nature starts with collecting facts and investigating them by method, which is mainly inductive. However, this stage only leads to correlations and pure taxonomy, establishes the order of things, and does not produce knowledge. For Francis Bacon, to do is to know and to know is to do. The effect Bacon looks for is to command nature in action, rather than to overcome an opponent in argument. It is the primary principle that justifies the name of the Baconian new science as scientia operativa.
Making science operative means for Bacon using an effective method of induction and an experimental method based on objective observation, such that both methods to have the capacity of exclusion of what is not true. It is this requirement that would make the Baconian inductive methodology the alleged valid alternative to the Aristotelian syllogistic method.
Baconian induction and meticulous observation
A portrait of Francis Bacon from his book The Historie of King Henry VII, from an engraving by William Marshall, 1640.
For Bacon, induction is the means by which we gather information from things and, by slow and loyal labor, we transform them in knowledge (Farrington 1964, p.89). Baconian induction means ascending from sense experience to axioms, as well as descending to works, such that new particulars and axioms are obtained from previous axioms. From the general axioms, Bacon tries to reach fundamental laws of nature (knowing the forms), which in turn lead to practical deductions as new works or experiments. Such inductive process is seen as the link between the parts of a systematic chain of knowledge, an aid for human reason to find the path toward the certification of true knowledge and hence a method of discovery.
For Bacon, induction is effective only if it is able to eliminate by exclusion the negative instances of the path to discovery. This focus on negativity for the procedure itself is an innovative element and some historians have seen in Francis Bacon a forerunner of Karl Popper with regard to the method of falsification. Some historians of science have criticized Bacon’s approach to induction, claiming that his inductive science has nothing to do with contemporary science and even contradicts it (Malherbe, 1996, p.75).
But the unquestionable innovative and effective achievement of Bacon’s inductive interpretation of nature was the use of ‘tables and arrangements of instances’ for the investigated phenomena, as a necessary condition for the effective decoding of the causality. Within his method of ‘analysis through exclusion’, these tables have their first place before the interpretation by exclusion. Through these tables, the gained experience is regimented from known to unknown. Next, exclusion works by reducing the empirical character of the experience – where tables have their role, too – and is a process of determination between the empirical and formal nature of knowledge. Bacon employs not only tables of pure observation, but also conceives tables of degrees and of exclusion, necessary for the discovery of the causes, which follow to be progressively generalized to forms, as the final result of the inductive procedure.
Francis Bacon was the first philosopher whose theory of science did not draw any border between the foundational philosophy (as a metatheory of science) and science itself, in the spirit of modern to contemporary naturalists about science. What is remarkable is that his investigation has run from the abstract philosophical concepts concerning science and its methodology down to the functional dimension of science, in its experimental and methodological details; the latter part was not neglected in any way, which is not specific to many of the contemporary philosophers of science. The ‘labor’ that he advocated for in regard to the adequate scientific methodology is also reflected as a labor of his research work.
Paul van den Doort, The laboratory of the alchemist, copperplate engraving, 1609
The importance of the experimental dimension of the scientific methodology was also stressed by Galileo. While in the Galilean science the experiment is aimed as a confirmation of the results obtained by deduction and as a means of providing new subjects for investigation, at Bacon it is integrated in his inductive methodology, designed to help the scientific discovery. For Galileo, the scientific truth is achieved from the mathematical truth via experiment. For Bacon, it is achieved through hard operational labor involving integrated induction and experiment. The two scientific methodologies are not in opposition, but rather complementary, and they proved to aggregate effectively in the evolution of modern science. This is why Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon should be referred to together as founders of modern science.
Brandt, R. (1979). Francis Bacon, Die Idolenlehre. In J. Speck (Ed.), Grundprobleme der großen Philosophen. Philosophie der Neuzeit I. Göttingen, 9–34.
Farrington, B. (1964). The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Klein, J. (2003). Bacon’s Quarrel with the Aristotelians, Zeitsprünge, Vol. 7, 19–31.
Malherbe, M. (1996). Bacon’s Method of Science. In M. Peltonen (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 75–98.
Navarro, Á. G. (2018). Epistemología y metodología de la investigación científica en la filosofía experimental de Galileo Galilei y Francis Bacon. Consensus, 23(1), 9-16.
Spedding J., Ellis R. L., and Heath D. D. (1889–1901). The Works of Francis Bacon, Volumes I (1889), II (1887), III (1887), IV (1901), V (1889), VI (1890), VII (1892). Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
Urbach, P. (1987). Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science: An Account and a Reappraisal, La Salle, IL: Open Court.