Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Secrets of Nature: The Bacon Debates Revisited

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Secrets of Nature: The Bacon Debates Revisited

Article excerpt

Francis Bacon rose to power during a period of social and intellectual upheaval. The colonization of the Americas, the rise of mercantile capitalism, the wars of religion, the revival of ancient learning, and skepticism over medieval philosophy made the early seventeenth century particularly transformative.1 Brian Vickers's removal of Bacon from this social, economic, and intellectual milieu to focus on ressentiment as an irrational rationale for the criticism of Bacon demeans both Bacon and those who have contextualized his thought. By using debasing words rather than historical events, metaphor rather than analysis, and pejorative terms rather than rational argument, Vickers attempts to sweep Bacon's critics from history. His would-be argument is set up as a series of rhetorical shots across the bow in an emotional appeal and attempt to persuade the reader.

The use of phrases, such as feminist indictment, official approval, hostile reinterpretation of metaphor, unsureness of texts, and the projection of grievance and complaint onto the past, is meant to influence the reader's mindset. Derogatory characterizations carry the weight of the supposed argument: jaundiced versus balanced views, careless and unscrupulous interpretation versus careful history, diatribe versus respect, sophism versus reason, hostile interpretation and regrettable framing versus harmless metaphor. Emotionally charged terms relegate any would-be critics with opposing views to the dustbin: predictable significance, eagerness to brand, attempt to align, seriously defective, trivialization, emotive analogy, hostility toward male scientists, failure to take proper notice of the authority of the Bible, and on and on. The rhetorical basis of the article precludes any attempt at serious debate over the meaning of a vitally important period of history.

A deep divide exists between Bacon's supporters and detractors-one that this essay cannot hope to resolve. The deeper roots of this divide lie in perceptions of the Scientific Revolution as a grand narrative of progress and hope versus one of decline and disaster. Flow one views the Scientific Revolution itself is a marker of how one might assess the import of Bacon's contributions. As E. J. Dijksterhuis characterized it in the mid-twentieth century:

That the adoption of the mechanistic view has had profound and far reaching consequences for the whole of society is an historical fact which gives rise to the most divergent opinions. Some commend it as a symptom of the gradual clarification of human thought, of the growing application of the only method that is capable of producing reliable results in every sphere of knowledge. . . . Others, though recognizing the outstanding importance it has had for the progress of our theoretical understanding and our practical control of nature, regard it as nothing short of disastrous in its general influence on philosophical and scientific thought as well as on society.2

Views of Francis Bacon as a pivotal figure in the emergence of modern science catalyze these oppositions. The internalist-externalist debates of the 1960s, the social constructivist-realist debates of the 1980s, and the "science wars" of the 1990s reflect the polarizing positions taken by scholars of the Scientific Revolution. Some scholars read Bacon's rhetoric and associated meanings harshly, while others interpret the same phrases and meanings benignly. Perhaps most scholars will find themselves somewhere along a continuum between these extremes.

Whether the control of nature leads to human wealth and well-being for the few or to social and ecological decline for the many depends on the underlying assumption of the narratives told by various scholars. Likewise the actors in the narratives vary according to the assumed plot: great men as scientists and philosophers building on the knowledge of their predecessors versus historical contextualization by race, gender, and class. Despite three decades of efforts to inject issues raised by feminist scholars into texts and courses, most still focus largely on the great men of the revolutionary era between Copernicus and Newton. …

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