The Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Rationalism

By G. H.R. Parkinson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 4

Francis Bacon and man’s two-faced kingdom

Antonio Pérez-Ramos

Two closely related but distinct tenets about Bacon’s philosophy have been all but rejected by contemporary historiography. The first is Bacon’s attachment to the so-called British empiricist school, that is, the perception of him as the forerunner or inspirer of thinkers such as Locke, Berkeley or Hume. This putative lineage has been chiefly the result of nineteenth-century German scholarship, beginning with Hegel’s own Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie and his trail of imitators and disciples. 1 The glaring fact that Bacon’s name is hardly (if at all) mentioned by his progeny of would-be co-religionists, or the serious questioning of the existence of any such entity as the ‘British empiricist school’, has added further weight to this radical work of revision of the Lord Chancellor’s significance. 2 The canon of great philosophers is, to a great extent, a matter of flux, and nationalistic attachments or polarizations should always pale beside the historically recorded use of the same idiolect in philosophical matters, as is largely the case with Descartes or Malebranche—those French ‘rationalists’—and Locke, Berkeley or Hume—those ‘British empiricists’.

The second tenet that awaits clarification is the exact nature of Bacon’s own philosophical achievement as regards the emergence of the new scientific movement—a movement usually associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes or Newton. This point is extremely difficult to assess, for it is almost demonstrably true that no such stance or category as our ‘science’ (any more than our ‘scientist’) existed in Bacon’s day and for a long time thereafter, 3 and hence the web of interpretations must make generous allowances for an inevitable although self-aware anachronism. Bacon was systematically deified by the English Royal Society, by eighteenth-century French philosophes and by eminent Victorian figures such as Herschel or

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