Bacon, Brought Home

By Gould, Stephen Jay | Natural History, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Bacon, Brought Home


Gould, Stephen Jay, Natural History


The father of modern science recognized that internal psychological barriers to understanding nature were as constraining as sensory limitations.

We usually depict the Renaissance (literally, the Rebirth) as a clear, bubbling river of novelty that broke the medieval dam of rigidified scholasticism. But most participants in this great ferment cited the opposite of innovation as their motive. Renaissance thinkers and doers, as the name of their movement implied, looked backward, not forward, as they sought to rediscover and reinstitute the supposed perfection of intellect that Athens and Rome had achieved and a degraded Western culture had then forgotten.

I doubt that anyone ever called Francis Bacon (1561-1626) a modest man. Nonetheless, even the muse of ambition must have smiled at such an audacious gesture when this most important British philosopher since the death of William of Ockham in 1347, this chancellor of England (until his fall for financial improprieties), declared "all knowledge" as his "province" and announced that he would write a Great Instauration (defined by Webster's as "restoration after decay, lapse, or dilapidation"), both to codify the fruitful rules of reason and to summarize all useful results. As a procedural starting point, at the dawn of a movement that would become modern science, Bacon rejected both the scholastic view that equated knowledge with conservation and the Renaissance reform that sought to recapture a long-lost perfection. Natural knowledge, he proclaimed, must be reconceptualized as a cumulative process of discovery, propelled by processing sensory data about the external world through the reasoning powers of the human brain.

Aristotle's writings on logic had been gathered into a compendium called the Organon (Tool). Bacon, with his usual flair, entitled the second book of his Instauratio Magna (Great Instauration) the Novum Organum, or new tool of reasoning, because the shift to such a different ideal-knowledge as cumulative and rooted in an increasing understanding of external reality-also demanded that the logic of reasoning itself be reexamined. Bacon therefore began the Novum Organum by analyzing impediments to our acquisition of accurate knowledge about the empirical world. Acknowledging the existence of such barriers required no novel insight. Aristotle himself had classified the common logical fallacies of human reasoning, while everyone recognized the external limits of missing datastars too far away to study in detail (even with Galileo's newfangled telescope) or cities too long gone to leave any trace of their former existence.

But Bacon presented a brilliant and original analysis by concentrating instead on psychological barriers to knowledge about the natural world. He had, after all, envisioned the study of nature as a funneling of sensory data through mental processors, and he recognized that internal barriers at the second, or cerebral, stage could stand as high as the external impediments of sensory limitations. He also understood that the realm of conceptual hang-ups extended far beyond the cool, abstract logic of Aristotelian reason and into our interior world of fears, hopes, needs, feelings, and the structural limits of mental machinery. Bacon therefore developed a celebrated metaphor to classify these psychological barriers. He designated such impediments as idols and recognized four major categories-idola specus (of the cave), idola fori (of the forum, or marketplace), idola theatri (of the theater), and idola tribus (of the tribe).

Proceeding from the particular to the general, idols of the cave define the peculiarities of each individual. Some of us panic when we see a mathematical formula; others, for reasons of childhood suppression grafted upon basic temperament, dare not formulate thoughts that might challenge established orders. Idols of the marketplace, perhaps Bacon's most original concept, designate limits imposed by language-for how can we express, or even formulate, a concept that no words in our language can specify? …

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