Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 11. The Interpretation of Nature and the New Method

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

§ 11. The Interpretation of Nature and the New Method

This criticism of the sources and kinds of error leads directly to an explanation of that “just and methodical process” of arriving at truth, which Bacon calls the interpretation of nature. The process is elaborate and precisely defined; and it rests on a special view of the constitution of nature. Neither this view nor the details of the method have exerted much influence upon the progress of science. But underlying them both was the more general idea of the importance of an objective attitude to nature and of the need of systematic experiment; and of this general idea Bacon was not indeed the originator, but the most brilliant and influential exponent. In the study of nature, all preconceptions must be set aside; we must be on our guard against the tendency to premature “anticipations” of nature; “the subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of argument”; men must be led back to the particular facts of experience, and pass from them to general truths by gradual and unbroken ascent; “we must begin anew from the very foundation,” for “into the kingdom of nature as into the kingdom of grace entrance can be only obtained sub persona infantis.”

These general but fruitful ideas do not exhaust Bacon’s teaching. He looked forward to the speedy establishment of a new philosophy which should be distinguished from the old by the completeness of its account of reality and by the certainty of its results. His new method seemed to give him a key to the subtlety of nature; and this method would have the incidental result of levelling intellectual capacities so that all minds who followed it with care and patience would be able to find truth and use it for fruitful works.

“It is a correct position,” says Bacon, “that true knowledge is knowledge by causes.” But the way in which he understands this position is significant. He adopts the Aristotelian division of causes into four kinds: material, formal, efficient and final. Physic deals with the efficient and material; but these, apart from their relation to the formal cause, “are but slight and superficial, and contribute little, if anything, to true and active science.” The enquiry into the other two belongs to that branch of natural philosophy which he calls metaphysic. “But of these the final cause rather corrupts than advances the sciences, except such as have to do with human action,” and “the discovery of the formal is dispaired of.” Yet forms must be investigated if nature is to be understood and controlled. Thus, the second book of Novum Organum opens with the aphorism

  • On a given body to generate and superinduce a new nature is the work and aim of human power. Of a given nature to discover the form … is the work and aim of human knowledge.
  • What, then, does Bacon mean by “form”? He gives many answers to this question, and yet the meaning is not altogether easy to grasp. Form is not something mental; it is not an idea, nor is it a mere abstraction; it is itself physical. According to Bacon, nothing really exists in nature except individual bodies. But a body has several qualities perceptible by our senses (these qualities he calls “natures”); the form is the condition or cause of these natures; its presence determines the presence of the relative nature; with its absence the nature vanishes. Again, a thing acts by certain fixed laws: these laws are forms.
  • “When I speak of forms,” he says, “I mean nothing more than those laws and determinations of absolute actuality which govern and constitute any simple nature, as heat, light, weight, in every kind of matter and subject that is susceptible of them. Thus the form of heat or the form of light is the same thing as the law of heat or the law of light.”
  • And, again,
  • the form of a thing is the very thing itself, and the thing differs from the form no otherwise than as the apparent differs from the real, or the external from the internal, or the thing in reference to man from the thing in reference to the universe.
  • Further, the form is itself a manifestation of a still more general property which is inherent in a still greater number of objects.

    The complexity of the physical universe is thus due to the combination, in varied ways, of a limited number of forms which are manifested to us in sensible qualities. If we know the form, we know what must be done to superinduce the quality upon a given body. Hence, the practical character of Bacon’s theory. Here, also, is brought out an idea that lies at the basis of his speculative doctrine—the idea that the forms are limited in number. They are, as it were, the alphabet of nature; when they are understood, the whole language will be clear. Philosophy is not an indefinite striving after an ever-receding goal. Its completion may be expected in the near future, if only the appropriate method is followed.

    The new method leads to certainty. Bacon is almost as contemptuous of the old induction, which proceeded from a few experiments to general laws, as he is of the syllogism. His new induction is to advance by gradual stages of increasing generality, and it is to be based on an exhaustive collection of instances. This collection of instances is the work of what Bacon called natural history, and he laboured to give specimens of the collections required. He always recognised that the collaboration of other workers was needed for their completion and that the work would take time. His sense of its magnitude seems to have deepened as it progressed; but he never realised that the constant process of development in nature made an exhaustive collection of instances a thing impossible.

    Given the requisite collection of instances, the inductive method may be employed without risk of error. For the form is always present where the nature (or sensible quality) is present, absent where it is absent and increases or decreases with it. The first list of instances will consist of cases in which the nature is present: this is called the table of essence and presence. Next come the instances most akin to these, in which, nevertheless, the nature is absent: this is called the table of absence in proximity. Thirdly, a list is made of instances in which the nature is found in different degrees, and this is the table of degrees or comparison. True induction begins here, and consists in a “rejection or exclusion” of the several natures which do not agree in these respects with the nature under investigation. The non-essential are eliminated; and, provided our instances are complete and our notions of the different natures adequate, the elimination will proceed with mechanical precision. Bacon saw, however, that the way was more intricate than this statement suggests—especially owing to the initial difficulty of getting sound and true notions of simple natures. Aids, therefore, must be provided. In the first place, he will allow the understanding to essay the interpretation of nature on the strength of the instances given. This “commencement of interpretation,” which, to some extent, plays the part of hypothesis (otherwise absent from his method), receives the quaint designation of First Vintage. Other helps are then enumerated which Bacon proposes to treat under nine heads: prerogative instances; supports of induction; rectification of induction; varying the investigation according to the nature of the subject; prerogative natures (or what should be enquired first and what last); limits of investigation (or a synopsis of all natures in the universe); application to practice; preparations for investigation; ascending and descending scale of axioms. Only as regards the first of these is the plan carried out. The remainder of Novum Organum is taken up with the discussion of twentyseven kinds of prerogative instances; and here are to be found many of his most valuable suggestions, such as his discussion of solitary instances and of crucial instances.

    Although the new method was never expounded in its completeness, it is possible to form a judgement on its value. In spite of the importance and truth of the general ideas on which it rests, it has two serious defects, of which Bacon himself was not unaware. It gives no security for the validity and accuracy of the conceptions with which the investigator works, and it requires a complete collection of instances, which, in the nature of things, is impossible. Coupled with these defects, and resulting from them, are Bacon’s misunderstanding of the true nature and function of hypothesis, upon which all scientific advances depend, and his condemnation of the deductive method, which is an essential instrument in experimental verification. The method of scientific discovery and proof cannot be reduced to the formulae of the second book of Novum Organum.