Francis Bacon: humanism and the scientific method

francis-bacon-portraitFrancis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was an English statesman and polymath famous for his writings on the scientific method. He also served as Lord Chancellor until 1621 when his career ended in disgrace. In terms of the dichotomy of early modern thinking between empiricism and rationalism, Bacon should be considered as a British Empiricist.

Bacon’s scientific writings are novel in two ways. Firstly, there was his insistence on a thorough and planned procedure for the scientific investigation of the natural world. Bacon’s method was an inductive one, detailed in his work the New Organon (possibly a hat-tip to Aristotle’s work called the Organon). Bacon’s criticism of Aristotle’s inductive method was that it proceeded too quickly from individual observations to general axioms – in other words the classical problem of induction.

Bacon’s solution is rather to test each axiom individually to ascertain its certainty. For example, Aristotle would say that if one observes a large group of new cars which are all shiny, then it is safe to say that all new cars are shiny, or that all new BMW’s are shiny. For Bacon, the new BMW’s also need to be tested to ascertain their shininess before the statement “all BMW’s are shiny” can be considered reliable. In this way, the Baconian method involves a greater (perhaps endless) study of particulars. Thus arises the common criticism that Bacon’s method while being more exhaustive was perhaps not an improvement at all.

Bacon’s second influential idea was the radical re-imagining of the purpose of the scientific method in the everyday life of people. Bacon proposed that the ultimate goal of scientific inquiry should be for the “use and benefit” of men. Here, one can see the influence of Renaissance humanism on Bacon’s thought. Bacon envisioned a world where scientific progress would alleviate the suffering of the human race. This idea of a progressive upward ascent of man to his scientifically enlightened destiny took hold and arguably gave birth to the industrialised world.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. […] John Locke (1632 – 1704) is a largely influential early modern philosopher of the British Empiricist type. His two areas of most significant contribution include political philosophy and epistemology. As a political philosopher, Locke is often considered the father of classical liberalism. As a philosopher, his work continued in the burgeoning empirical-scientific tradition of Francis Bacon. […]

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  2. […] be understood in the light of his scientific predilections; that philosophy was no different to modern science, an experimental discipline that ought to yield real insight into the operations of the natural […]

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  3. […] the patient by a psychoanalyst. It was Freud’s revolutionary idea to apply the principles of modern science to the treatment of mental disorder, and his legacy looms large over our contemporary intellectual […]

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  4. […] development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his […]

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  5. […] the modern era, Francis Bacon is the father of scientific philosophy with his inductivist method. Bacon’s idea was that one […]

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  6. […] can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised […]

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