Durant 1926: Criticism (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 5 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.


V. Criticism 

And now how shall we appraise this philosophy of Francis Bacon’s?

Is there anything new in it? Macaulay thinks that induction as described by Bacon is a very old-fashioned affair, over which there is no need of raising any commotion, much less a monument. “Induction has been practiced from morning till night by every human being since the world began. The man who infers that mince pies disagreed with him because he was ill when he ate them, well when he ate them not, most ill when he ate most and least ill when he ate least, has employed, unconsciously but sufficiently, all the tables of the Novum Organum.” But John Smith hardly handles his “‘table of more or less” so accurately, and more probably will continue his mince-pies despite the seismic disturbances of his lower strata. And even were John Smith so wise, it would not shear Bacon of his merit; for what does logic do but formulate the experience and methods of the wise?—what does any discipline do but try by rules to turn the art of a few into a science teachable to all? 

Bacon gave a precise definition to the method of induction in logic and made it more applicable. 

But is the formulation Bacon’s own? Is not the Socratic method inductive? Is not Aristotle’s biology inductive? Did not Roger Bacon practice as well as preach the inductive method which Francis Bacon merely preached? Did not Galileo formulate better the procedure that science has actually used? True of Roger Bacon, less true of Galileo, less true yet of Aristotle, least true of Socrates. Galileo outlined the aim rather than the method of science, holding up before its followers the goal of mathematical and quantitative formulation of all experience and relationships; Aristotle practiced induction when there was nothing else for him to do, and where the material did not lend itself to his penchant for the deduction of specific conclusions from magnificently general assumptions; and Socrates did not so much practice induction—the gathering of data—as analysis—the definition and discrimination of words and ideas. 

Induction has been practiced and preached by other philosophers but not in such inspiring terms as Bacon did.

Bacon makes no claim to parthenogenetic originality; like Shakespeare he takes with a lordly hand, and with the same excuse, that he adorns whatever he touches. Every man has his sources, as every organism has its food; what is his is the way in which he digests them and turns them into flesh and blood. As Rawley puts it, Bacon “contemned no man’s observations, but would light his torch at every man’s candle.” But Bacon acknowledges these debts: he refers to “that useful method of Hippocrates,”—so sending us at once to the real source of inductive logic among the Greeks; and “Plato,” he writes (where less accurately we write “Socrates”), “giveth good example of inquiry by induction and view of particulars; though in such a wandering manner as is of no force or fruit.” He would have disdained to dispute his obligations to these predecessors; and we should disdain to exaggerate them. 

Bacon does acknowledge Hippocrates as the source of inductive logic.

But then again, is the Baconian method correct? Is it the method most fruitfully used in modern science? No: generally, science has used, with best result, not the accumulation of data (“natural history”) and their manipulation by the complicated tables of the Novum Organum, but the simpler method of hypothesis, deduction and experiment. So Darwin, reading Malthus’ Essay on Population, conceived the idea of applying to all organisms the Malthusian hypothesis that population tends to increase faster than the means of subsistence; deduced from this hypothesis the probable conclusion that the pressure of population on the food-supply results in a struggle for existence in which the fittest survive, and by which in each generation every species is changed into closer adaptation to its environment; and finally (having by hypothesis and deduction limited his problem and his field of observation) turned to “the unwithered face of nature” and made for twenty years a patient inductive examination of the facts. Again, Einstein conceived, or took from Newton, the hypothesis that light travels in curved, not straight lines; deduced from it the conclusion that a star appearing to be (on the straight~line theory) in a certain position in the heaven, is really a little to one side of that position; and he invited experiment and observation to test the conclusion. Obviously the function of hypothesis and imagination is greater than Bacon supposed; and the procedure of science is more direct and circumscribed than in the Baconian scheme. Bacon himself anticipated the superannuation of his method; the actual practice of science would discover better modes of investigation than could be worked out in the interludes of statesmanship. “These things require some ages for the ripening of them.” 

Science actually uses the method of hypothesis, deduction and experiment, which is simpler than the Baconian scheme.

Even a lover of the Baconian spirit must concede, too, that the great Chancellor, while laying down the law for science, failed to keep abreast of the science of his time. He rejected Copernicus and ignored Kepler and Tycho Brahe; he depreciated Gilbert and seemed unaware of Harvey. In truth, he loved discourse better than research; or perhaps he had no time for toilsome investigations. Such work as he did in philosophy and science was left in fragments and chaos at his death; full of repetitions, contradictions, aspirations, and introductions. Ars longa, vita brevis—art is long and time is fleeting: this is the tragedy of every great soul. 

Bacon was really not very aware of the scientific research of his time.

To assign to so overworked a man, whose reconstruction of philosophy had to be crowded into the crevices of a harassed and a burdened political career, the vast and complicated creations of Shakespeare, is to waste the time of students with the parlor controversies of idle theorists. Shakespeare lacks just that which distinguishes the lordly Chancellor—erudition and philosophy. Shakespeare has an impressive smattering of many sciences, and a mastery of none; in all of them he speaks with the eloquence of an amateur. He accepts astrology: “This huge state … whereon the stars in secret influence comment.” He is forever making mistakes which the learned Bacon could not possibly have made: his Hector quotes Aristotle and his Coriolanus alludes to Cato; he supposes the Lupercalia to be a hill; and he understands Caesar about as profoundly as Caesar is understood by H. G. Wells. He makes countless references to his early life and his matrimonial tribulations. He perpetrates vulgarities, obscenities and puns natural enough in the gentle roisterer who could not quite out-live the Stratford rioter and the butcher’s son, but hardly to be expected in the cold and calm philosopher. Carlyle calls Shakespeare the greatest of intellects; but he was rather the greatest of imaginations, and the keenest eye. He is an inescapable psychologist, but he is not a philosopher: he has no structure of thought unified by a purpose for his own life and for mankind. He is immersed in love and its problems, and thinks of philosophy, through Montaigne’s phrases, only when his heart is broken. Otherwise he accepts the world blithely enough; he is not consumed with the reconstructive vision that ennobled Plato, or Nietzsche, or Bacon. 

But Bacon single-handedly reconstructed the whole field of philosophy. He was very different from Shakespeare.

Now the greatness and the weakness of Bacon lay precisely in his passion for unity, his desire to spread the wings of his coordinating genius over a hundred sciences. He aspired to be like Plato, “a man of sublime genius, who took a view of everything as from a lofty rock.” He broke down under the weight-of the tasks he had laid upon himself; he failed forgivably because he undertook so much. He could not enter the promised land of science, but as Cowley’s epitaph expressed it, he could at least stand upon its border and point out its fair features in the distance.

If Bacon appears to have failed it was because he undertook so much. He could at least stand upon the border of science and point out its fair features in the distance.

His achievement was not the less great because it was indirect. His philosophical works, though little read now, “moved the intellects which moved the world.” He made himself the eloquent voice of the optimism and resolution of the Renaissance. Never was any man so great a stimulus to other thinkers. King James, it is true, refused to accept his suggestion for the support of science, and said of the Novum Orgaum, that “it was like the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” But better men, in 1662, founding that Royal Society which was to become the greatest association of scientists in the world, named Bacon as their model and inspiration; they hoped that this organization of English research would lead the way toward that Europe-wide association which the Advancement of Learning had taught them to desire. And when the great minds of the French Enlightenment undertook that masterpiece of intellectual enterprise, the Encyclopedie, they dedicated it to Francis Bacon. “If,” said Diderot in the Prospectus, “we have come of it successfully, we shall owe most to the Chancellor Bacon, who threw out the plan of a universal dictionary of sciences and arts, at a time when, so to say, neither arts nor sciences existed. That extraordinary genius, when it was impossible to write a history of what was known, wrote one of what it was necessary to learn.” D’Alembert called Bacon “the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers.” The Convention published the works of Bacon at the expense of the state. The whole tenor and career of British thought have followed the philosophy of Bacon. His tendency to conceive the world in Democritean mechanical terms gave to his secretary, Hobbes, the starting-point for a thorough-going materialism; his inductive method gave to Locke the idea of an empirical psychology, bound by observation and freed from theology and metaphysics; and his emphasis on “commodities” ‘and “fruits” found formulation in Bentham’s identification of the useful and the good. 

Bacon’s philosophical works, though little read now, “moved the intellects which moved the world.” 

Wherever the spirit of control has overcome the spirit of resignation, Bacon’s influence has been felt. He is the voice of all those Europeans who have changed a continent from a forest into a treasure-land of art and science, and have made their little peninsula the center of the world. “Men are not animals erect,” said Bacon, “but immortal gods.” “The Creator has given us souls equal to all the world, and yet satiable not even with a world.” Everything is possible to man. Time is young; give us some little centuries, and we shall control and remake all things. We shall perhaps at last learn the noblest lesson of all, that man must not fight man, but must make war only on the obstacles that nature offers to the triumph of man. “It will not be amiss,” writes Bacon, in one of his finest passages, “to distinguish the three kinds, and as it were grades, of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their power in their native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men; this certainly has more dignity, but not less covetousness. But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and a nobler than the other two.” It was Bacon’s fate to be torn to pieces by these hostile ambitions struggling for his soul. 

Bacon is the voice of all those Europeans who have changed a continent from a forest into a treasure-land of art and science, and have made their little peninsula the center of the world. 


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