Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. The Language of Philosophy

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 1. The Language of Philosophy

THE ENGLISH language may be said to have become for the first time the vehicle of philosophical literature by the publication of Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, in 1605. Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, which preceded it by eleven years, belongs to theology rather than to philosophy; and the little-known treatise of Sir Richard Barckley, entitled A Discourse of the felicitie of man: or his Summum bonum (1598), consists mainly of amusing or improving anecdotes, and contains nothing of the nature of a moral philosophy. Bacon’s predecessors, whether in science or in philosophy, used the common language of learned men. He was the first to write an important treatise on science or philosophy in English; and even he had no faith in the future of the English language. In the Advancement, he had a special purpose in view: he wished to obtain help and co-operation in carrying out his plans; and he regarded the book as only preparatory to a larger scheme. The works intended to form part of his great design for the renewal of the sciences were written in Latin. National characteristics are never so strongly marked in science and philosophy as in other branches of literature, and their influence takes longer in making itself felt. The English birth or residence of a medieval philosopher is of little more than biographical interest: it would be vain to trace its influence on the ideas or style of his work. With the Latin language went community of audience, of culture and of topics. This traditional commonwealth of thought was weakened by the forces which issued in the renascence; and, among these forces, the increased consciousness of nationality led, gradually, to greater differentiation in national types of culture and to the use of the national language even for subjects which appealed chiefly, or only, to the community of learned men. However much he may have preferred the Latin tongue as the vehicle of his philosophy, Bacon’s own action made him a leader of this movement; and it so happened that the type of thought which he expounded had affinities with the practical and positive achievements of the English mind. In this way, Bacon has come to be regarded, not altogether correctly, as not only the beginner of English philosophy, but also representative of the special characteristics of the English philosophical genius.