Durant 1926: The New Organon (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 4 (Part 2) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

.

IV.2 The New Organon

“Bacon’s greatest performance,” says his bitterest critic, “is the first book of the Novum Organum” Never did a man put more life into logic, making induction an epic adventure and a conquest. If one must study logic, let him begin with this book. “This part of human philosophy which regards logic is disagreeable to the taste of many, as appearing to them no other than a net, and a snare of thorny subtlety. … But if we would rate things according to their real worth, the rational sciences are the keys to all the rest.”

Logic has a great value. Bacon recognized it and expressed it the best.

Philosophy has been barren so long, says Bacon, because she needed a new method to make her fertile. The great mistake of the Greek philosophers was that they spent so much time in theory, so little in observation. But thought should be the side of observation, not its substitute. “Man,” says the first aphorism of the Novum Organum, as if flinging a challenge to all metaphysics,—“Man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature … permit him; and neither knows nor is capable of more.” The predecessors of Socrates were in this matter sounder than his followers; Democritus, in particular, had a nose for facts, rather than an eye for the clouds. No wonder that philosophy has advanced so little since Aristotle’s day; it has been using Aristotle’s methods. “To go beyond Aristotle by the light of Aristotle is to think that a borrowed light can increase the original light from which it is taken.” Now, after two thousand years of logic-chopping with the machinery invented by Aristotle, philosophy has fallen so low that none will do her reverence. All these medieval theories, theorems and disputations must be cast out and forgotten; to renew herself philosophy must begin again with a clean slate and a cleansed mind. 

The great mistake of the Greek philosophers was that they spent so much time in theory, so little in observation. 

The first step, therefore, is the Expurgation of the Intellect. We must become as little children, innocent of isms and abstractions, washed clear of prejudices and preconceptions. We must destroy the Idols of the mind. 

We must get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.

An idol, as Bacon uses the word (reflecting perhaps the Protestant rejection of image-worship), is a picture taken for a reality, a thought mistaken for a thing. Errors come under this head; and the first problem of logic is to trace and dam the sources of these errors. Bacon proceeds now to a justly famous analysis of fallacies; “no man,” said Condillac, “has better known than Bacon the causes of human error.” 

An idol is a picture taken for a reality, a thought mistaken for a thing. The first problem of logic is to trace and dam the sources of these errors.

These errors are, first, Idols of the Tribe,—fallacies natural to humanity in general. “For man’s sense is falsely asserted” (by Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things”) “to be the standard of things: on the contrary, all the perceptions, both of the senses and the mind, bear reference to man and not to the universe; and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects … and distort and disfigure them.” Our thoughts are pictures rather of ourselves than of their objects. For example, “the human understanding, from its peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and regularity in things than it really finds. … Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles.” Again, 

Idols of the Tribe = fallacies natural to humanity in general.

the human understanding, when any proposition has been once laid down (either from general admission and belief, or from the pleasure it affords), forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation: and although most cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe, or despises them, or it gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions. It was well answered by him who was shown in a temple the votive tablets suspended by such as had escaped the peril of shipwreck, and was pressed as to whether he would then recognize the power of the gods. … “But where are the portraits of those that have perished in spite of their vows?” All superstition is much the same, whether it be that of astrology, dreams, omens, retributive judgment, or the like, in all of which the deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but neglect and pass over their failure, though it be much more common.

The human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects and distort and disfigure them.

“Having first determined the question according to his will, man then resorts to experience; and bending her into conformity with his placets, leads her about like a captive in a procession.” In short, “the human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections, whence proceed sciences which may be called ‘sciences as one would.’ … For what a man had rather were true, he more readily believes.” Is it not so? 

What a man had rather were true, he more readily believes.

Bacon gives at this point a word of golden counsel. “In general let every student of nature take this as a rule—that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction, is to be held in suspicion; and that so much the more care is to be taken, in dealing with such questions, to keep the understanding even and clear.” “The understanding must not be allowed to jump and fly from particulars to remote axioms and of almost the highest generality; … it must not be supplied with wings, but rather hung with weights to keep it from leaping and flying.” The imagination may be the greatest enemy of the intellect, whereas it should be only its tentative and experiment. 

RULE: The understanding must not be allowed to jump and fly from particulars to remote axioms and of almost the highest generality.

A second class of errors Bacon calls Idols of the Cave—errors peculiar to the individual man. “For everyone … has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature”; this is his character as formed by nature and nurture, and by his mood or condition of body and mind. Some minds, e. g., are constitutionally analytic, and see differences everywhere; others are constitutionally synthetic, and see resemblances; so we have the scientist and the painter on the one hand, and on the other hand the poet and the philosopher. Again, “some dispositions evince an unbounded admiration for antiquity, others eagerly embrace.novelty; only a few can preserve the just medium, and neither tear up what the ancients have correctly established, nor despise the just innovations of the moderns.” Truth knows no parties. 

Idols of the Cave = errors peculiar to the individual man.

Thirdly, Idols of the Market-place, arising “from the commerce and association of men with one another. For men converse by means of language; but words are imposed according to the understanding of the crowd; and there arises from a bad and inapt formation of words, a wonderful obstruction to the mind.” Philosophers deal out infinites with the careless assurance of grammarians handling infinitives; and yet does any man know what this “infinite” is, or whether it has even taken the precaution of existing? Philosophers talk about “first cause uncaused,” or “first mover unmoved”; but are not these again fig-leaf phrases used to cover naked ignorance, and perhaps indicative of a guilty conscience in the user? Every clear and honest head knows that no cause can be causeless, nor any mover unmoved. Perhaps the greatest reconstruction in philosophy would be simply this—that we should stop lying. 

Idols of the Market-place = errors arising from the commerce and association of men with one another. Ideas like “first cause uncaused,” or “first mover unmoved,” are but fig-leaf phrases used to cover naked ignorance.

“Lastly, there are idols which have migrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophers, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theatre, because in my judgment all the received systems of philosophy are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. … And in the plays of this philosophic theater you may observe the same thing which is found in the theater of the poets,— that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as we would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.” The world as Plato describes it is merely a world constructed by Plato, and pictures Plato rather than the world. 

Idols of the Theatre = idols which have migrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophers.

We shall never get far along towards the truth if these idols are still to trip us up, even the best of us, at every turn. We need new modes of reasoning, new tools for the understanding. “And as the immense regions of the West Indies had never been discovered, if the use of the compass had not first been known, it is no wonder that the discovery and advancement of arts hath made no greater progress, when the art of inventing and discovering of the sciences remains hitherto unknown.” “And surely it would be disgraceful, if, while the regions of the material globe … have been in our times laid widely open and revealed, the intellectual globe should remain shut up within the narrow limits of old discoveries.”

We need new modes of reasoning, new tools for the understanding.

Ultimately, our troubles are due to dogma and deduction; we find no new truth because we take some venerable but questionable proposition as an indubitable starting-point, and never think of putting this assumption itself to the test of observation or experiment. Now “if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin in doubts he shall end in certainties” (alas, it is not quite inevitable). Here is a note common in the youth of modern philosophy, part of its declaration of independence; Descartes too would presently talk of the necessity of “methodic doubt” as the cobweb-clearing pre-requisite of honest thought. 

We find no new truth because we take some venerable but questionable proposition as an indubitable starting-point, and never think of putting this assumption itself to the test of observation or experiment. 

Bacon proceeds to give an admirable description of the scientific method of inquiry. “There remains simple experience; which, if taken as it comes, is called accident” (“empirical”), “if sought for, experiment. … The true method of experience first lights the candle” (hypothesis), “and then by means of the candle shows the way” (arranges and delimits the experiment) ; “commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling nor erratic, and from it educing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments.” (We have here—as again in a later passage which speaks of the results of initial experiments as a “first vintage” to guide further research—an explicit, though perhaps inadequate, recognition of that need for hypothesis, experiment and deduction which some of Bacon’s critics suppose him to have entirely overlooked.) We must go to nature instead of to books, traditions and authorities; we must “put nature on the rack and compel her to bear witness” even against herself, so that we may control her to our ends. We must gather together from every quarter a “natural history” of the world, built by the united research of Europe’s scientists. We must have induction. 

We must go to nature instead of to books, traditions and authorities. We must have the scientific method of inquiry. We must have induction.

But induction does not mean “simple enumeration” of all the data; conceivably, this might be endless, and useless; no mass of material can by itself make science. This would be like “chasing a quarry over an open country”; we must narrow and enclose our field in order to capture our prey. The method of induction must include a technique for the classification of data and the elimination of hypotheses; so that by the progressive canceling of possible explanations one only shall at last remain. Perhaps the most useful item in this technique is the “table of more or less,” which lists instances in which two qualities or conditions increase or decrease together, and so reveals, presumably, a causal relation between the simultaneously varying phenomena. So Bacon, asking, What is heat?—seeks for some factor that increases with the increase of heat, and decreases with its decrease; he finds, after long analysis, an exact correlation between heat and motion; and his conclusion that heat is a form of motion constitutes one of his few specific contributions to natural science. 

The method of induction must include a technique for the classification of data and the elimination of hypotheses; so that by the progressive canceling of possible explanations one only shall at last remain.

By this insistent accumulation and analysis of data we come, in Bacon’s phrase, to the form of the phenomenon which we study,—to its secret nature and its inner essence. The theory of forms in Bacon is very much like the theory of ideas in Plato: a metaphysics of science. “When we speak of forms we mean nothing else than those laws and regulations of simple action which arrange and constitute any simple nature. … The form of heat or the form of light, therefore, means no more than the law of heat or the law of light.” (In a similar strain Spinoza was to say that the law of the circle is its substance.)”For although nothing exists in nature except individual bodies exhibiting clear individual effects according to particular laws; yet, in each branch of learning, those. very laws—their investigation, discovery and development—are the foundation both of theory and of practice.” Of theory and of practice; one without the other is useless and perilous; knowledge that does not generate achievement is a pale and bloodless thing, unworthy of mankind. We strive to learn the forms of things not for the sake of the forms but because by knowing the forms, the laws, we may remake things in the image of our desire. So we study mathematics in order to reckon quantities and build bridges; we study psychology in order to find our way in the jungle of society. When science has sufficiently ferreted out the forms of things, the world will be merely the raw material of whatever utopia man may decide to make. 

“When we speak of forms we mean nothing else than those laws and regulations of simple action which arrange and constitute any simple nature.” We arrive at the final form by resolving anomalies and confirming the law of continuity, consistency and harmony. Knowledge must generate achievement.

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: