idols and more idols

Tuesday, November 11th, 2003

In section 40 of Bacon’s Novum Organum, the author writes: “The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use; for the doctrine of Idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic.”

I wonder what B means by “true” induction. Is there a true way of making general conclusions from cases or instances or from particular kinds of evidence, and for what reason? Maybe Bacon is after the idea of what elements may best lead to good conclusions or the truth: where do I begin to unravel the nature of a stone?

But what about the Idols, those broad categories of things that hamper thought and reason. Consider the Tribe. B writes,

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

The Idols of the Tribe go to human nature in general, not just individuals, and the likelihood that we will come to conclusions based on the senses, which can’t necessarily be trusted because explanations of sensory matter don’t necessarily lead to consensus. More, it sounds as if Bacon is claiming that two natures are intermingling when we perceive the world and things in it: the nature of the thing and the nature of the perceiver. We color or influence everything we come into contact with fundamentally. Bacon writes that the understanding is confounded by assuming more order in the world than there really is (hence assuming that dogmas can be assigned truth based on this assumption (45), is too quick to agree with opinion (46), and, to jump over a few others, here’s a final quote:

But by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and deceptions of the senses; in that things which strike the sense outweigh things which do not immediately strike it, though they be more important. Hence it is that speculation commonly ceases where sight ceases; insomuch that of things invisible there is little or no observation. Hence all the working of the spirits enclosed in tangible bodies lies hid and unobserved of men. So also all the more subtle changes of form in the parts of coarser substances (which they commonly call alteration, though it is in truth local motion through exceedingly small spaces) is in like manner unobserved.

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