Bacon and the empirical edge

Tuesday, November 11th, 2003

We have the religion question, the politics question, and the question of what makes a good king concerning the subject of the 17th century. Shakespeare in Lear goes after the alternative to the rational King in Lear who gives away his authority. The divisions that proceed during the Civil Wars which will result in the first king to die by beheading at the hands of an official act, Charles I, bring in the period of the Protectorate.

But what about other ideas? What about science and the things that people are thinking about beyond the grandiosities of king and country? To Bacon, then, and his writings. Bacon links us to the tradition of thinking that we might place into the category of rationalism, formalism, skepticism, or empiricism and the large heading of the liberal sciences developed by Copernicus and Galileo and others based on observation and distinguishing between what is and isnt sound evidence on which to base conclusions. Consider first that Bacon is interested in method: how should we go about learning things and getting to the truth, which may have nothing to do with the Great Lettuce Head. Bacon is on solid traditional ground when he writes in the essay On Truth, . . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature. The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit.

In Of Studies, he writes, Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. These are foundational concerns of the liberal arts: this is why all students have to complete a round of general studies, at least according to Bacon. He writes further: Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Method. But more, honesty. Unlike Edmund in Lear who confutes and confounds with his wit, the knowledgeable person studies for something more important that gain.

Heres what my mentor Hugh of St. Victor has to say on the matter of wisdom, writing long before Bacon in the Didascalicon,

Humility is the beginning of discipline, and although there are many examples of this, these three especially are important to the reader: first that he should hold no knowledge and no writing cheap; second, that he should not be ashamed to learn from anyone; third, that when he himself will have attained knowledge, he should not scorn others. This has deceived many, who wished to seem wise prematurely. Hence, they swell up with self-importance, so that now they begin to pretend to be what they are not, and to be ashamed of what they are, and thus they withdraw further from wisdom, because they wish not be wise, but to be considered wise.

The issue of method has a beginning, a starting point. That is, how do we determine where the stumbling blocks are that get in the way of reason and knowledge. People today argue that its TV, drugs, Brittany Spears, and all other manner of evil things, even McDonalds French fries. For Bacon, these are the Idols that he deals with in Novum Organum, some of the “evils” above perhaps falling into some of the Idol categories.

This is important: what gets in the way of figuring how old the earth is? What inhibits good legislation? What inhibits good decisions? What gets in the way of learning the MLA method? The Idols of the Tribe, Cave, Marketplace, and the Theater. In 38 Bacon writes by way of prepping for the details: The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset men’s minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance is obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults.

Next post: Idols of the Cave.


One response to “Bacon and the empirical edge”

  1. spinning says:

    I’ve read your three posts many times, but cannot get my mind around it enough to comment intelligently–obviously relating to Hugh’s “Humility is the beginning of discipline…” But your entries deserve more thought because they involve a wisdom through the ages, and even more now in contemporary times when philosophy is often leaning dismally downward or worse, forgotten all together. Education is not the end it was once considered, but a means to achieve a higher goal of wealth and power only. This is a generalization I know, but then not every living man, woman and child was in on the Age of Enlightenment either. Because I respect your search for truth and knowledge, and find Hugh of St. Victor an intrigueing source, I cannot without insulting your discourse offer any more depth than “to be open-minded” as my humble response, but truly feel your efforts should be read and acknowledged.