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

§ 10. The Great Instauration

Bacon intended that his Great Instauration or Renewal of the Sciences should be set forth in six parts. These, he enumerated as follows: (1) The Division of the Sciences; (2) The New Organon, or Directions concerning the Interpretation of Nature; (3) The Phenomena of the Universe, or a Natural and Experimental History for the foundation of Philosophy; (4) The Ladder of the Intellect; (5) The Forerunners, or Anticipations of the New Philosophy; (6) The New Philosophy, or Active Science. Of these parts, the last was to be the work of future ages; for the fourth and fifth only prefaces were written; the first three are represented by considerable works, although in none of them is the original design carried out with completeness. Latin was to be the language of them all. The Advancement of Learning, which, in great part, covers the ground of the first division, was not written as part of the plan; but De Augmentis, which takes its place in the scheme, is little more than an extended Latin translation of the Advancement. Bacon’s last work, Sylva Sylvarum, which belongs to the third part, was written in English.

Bacon, as he said himself, took all knowledge as his province; his concern was not so much with particular branches of science as with principles, method and system. For this purpose, he sets out by reviewing the existing state of knowledge, dwelling on its defects and pointing out remedies for them. This is the burden of the first book of the Advancement and of De Augmentis. In the second book, he proceeds to expound his division of the sciences. The principle with which he starts in his classification is psychological:

  • The parts of human learning have reference to the three parts of man’s understanding, which is the seat of learning: history to his memory, poesy to his imagination, and philosophy to his reason.
  • The subdivisions of these, however, are based on differences in the objects, not in the mental faculty employed. History is divided into natural and civil. To the latter of these, ecclesiastical and literary history are regarded as subordinate (although made co-ordinate in the Advancement). Poetry is held to be “nothing else but feigned history,” and is subdivided into narrative, representative and allusive or parabolical. But it is with the last of the three main divisions of learning that Bacon is chiefly concerned.
  • In Philosophy the contemplations of man do either penetrate unto God, or are circumferred to nature, or are reflected or reverted upon himself. Out of which several enquiries there do arise three knowledges, Divine philosophy, Natural philosophy, and Human philosophy or Humanity. For all things are marked and stamped with this triple character, of the power of God, the difference of nature, and the use of man.
  • But, as the three divisions all spring from a common root, and certain observations and axioms are common to all, the receptacle for these must constitute “one universal science, by the name of Philosophia Prima, Primitive or Summary Philosophy.” Among the three divisions of philosophy, Bacon’s most important thoughts concern natural philosophy. One of his fundamental ideas is expressed by its distinction into two parts—“the inquisition of causes, and the production of effects; Speculative, and Operative; Natural Science, and Natural Prudence.” More subtle is the distinction of natural science into physic and metaphysic. The latter term is not used in its traditional sense, nor is it synonymous with what Bacon calls summary philosophy, which deals with axioms common to several sciences. Both physic and metaphysic deal with natural objects: physic with their material and efficient causes, metaphysic with their formal and final causes. Thus,
  • Physic is situate in a middle term or distance between Natural History and Metaphysic. For Natural History describeth the variety of things; Physic, the causes, but variable and respective causes; and Metaphysic, the fixed and constant causes.
  • In elaborating this view, Bacon covers ground traversed again in Novum Organum.

    Both for its style and for the importance of the ideas which it conveys, Novum Organum ranks as Bacon’s greatest work. To its composition he devoted the most minute care. Rawley tells us that he had seen no less than twelve drafts of it in Bacon’s own handwriting, re-written from year to year. As it was at last published, its stately diction is a fit vehicle for the prophetic message it contains. The aphorisms into which the matter is thrown add impressiveness to the leading ideas, without seriously interfering with the sequence of the argument.

    It is chiefly to Novum Organum that we must go if we would understand the message and the influence of Bacon. And this understanding will be facilitated if we distinguish, as he himself never did, between certain leading ideas which he, more than anyone else, impressed upon the mind of succeeding ages, and his own more special conception of nature and of the true method for its investigation.

    Of those leading and general ideas, two have been already indicated. One of these is the belief in the unity of science. His classification of the sciences had in view not only their differences but, also, their essential oneness. “The divisions of knowledge,” he says, “are like branches of a tree that meet in one stem (which stem grows for some distance entire and continuous, before it divide itself into arms and boughs).” They are to be accepted “rather for lines and veins, than for sections and separations.”

    The second of these leading ideas is the practical aim of knowledge. This is a constantly recurring thought, and is, in his own mind, the most fundamental; it is the first distinction which he draws between his own new logic and the old, and it was meant to characterise the new philosophy of which he claims to have made only the beginning.

  • The matter in hand is no mere felicity of speculation, but the real business and fortunes of the human race, and all power of operation. For man is but the servant and interpreter of nature; what he does and what he knows is only what he has observed of nature’s order in fact or in thought; beyond this he knows nothing and can do nothing. For the chain of causes cannot by any force be loosed or broken, nor can nature be commanded except by being obeyed. And so those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one; and it is from ignorance of causes that operation fails.
  • Bacon’s object was to establish or restore the empire of man over nature. This empire depends upon knowledge; but, in the mind of man, there are certain obstacles to knowledge which predispose it to ignorance and error. The doctrine of the tendencies to error inherent in the human mind is another of his fundamental thoughts. These tendencies to error he called idola mentis—images or phantoms by which the mind is misled. The name is taken from Plato and contrasted with the Platonic “idea”; and emphasis is laid on the difference between the idols of the human mind, which are abstractions that distort and misrepresent reality, and the ideas of the divine mind, which are “the Creator’s own stamp upon reality, impressed and defined in matter by true and exquisite lines.” This doctrine had long occupied Bacon’s thought; it was stated in the Advancement, where, however, the last of the four classes of idols is wanting; and it was completely set forth for the first time in Novum Organum. In the latter work, four classes of idols are distinguished: idols of the tribe, idols of the cave, idols of the market-place and idols of the theatre. Under these graphic titles, Bacon works out a doctrine which shows both originality and insight. The originality is conspicuous in what he says concerning the idols of the tribe. They are deceptive tendencies which are inherent in the mind of man as such and belong to the whole human race. The understanding, he says, is like a false mirror that distorts and discolours the nature of things. Thus, it supposes more order and regularity in the world than it finds, as when it assigns circular motion to the celestial bodies; it is more moved and excited by instances that agree with its preconceptions than by those that differ from them; it is unquiet, and cannot rest in a limit without seeking to press beyond it, or in an ultimate principle without asking for a cause; it “is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections”; it depends on the senses, and they are “dull, incompetent and deceptive”; and it is “prone to abstractions and gives a substance and reality to things which are fleeting.” The idols of the cave belong not to the race but to the individual. They take their rise in his peculiar constitution, and are modified by education, habit and accident. Thus some minds are apt to mark differences, others resemblances, and both tend to err in opposite ways; or, again, devotion to a particular science or speculation may so colour a man’s thoughts that everything is interpreted by its light. The idols of the market-place are those due to the use of language, and they are the most trouble-some of all.

  • For men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding; and this it is that has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive.
  • Finally, the idols of the theatre are due to “philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration. In this connection, Bacon classifies “false philosophies” as sophistical, empirical and superstitious. In his amplification of this division, his adverse judgment upon Aristotle may be discounted; his want of appreciation of Gilbert is a more reasonable matter of regret; but, at bottom, his view is sound that it is an error either to “fashion the world out of categories” or to base a system on “the narrowness and darkness of a few experiments.”