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

§ 12. The Value of the Method

In spite of the width of his interests, especially in the domain of science, Bacon himself did not contribute any new discovery. His suggestions sometimes show insight, but also a certain crudity of conception which is connected with his inadequate general view of nature. The exposition of his method in the second book of Novum Organum is illustrated throughout by an investigation into the form or cause of heat. The result to which he permits himself to arrive as the “first vintage” of the enquiry exhibits this combination of insight and crudity. He reaches the conclusion that heat is a particular case of motion. The specific differences which distinguish it from its genus are that it is an expansive motion; that its direction is towards the circumference of the body, provided the body itself has a motion upwards; that it is a motion in the smaller parts of the body; and that this motion is a rapid motion of fine (but not the finest) particles of the body. This and other investigations of his own were abandoned without reaching a clear result. His knowledge of science was also deficient, especially in the region of the exact sciences. He looked for an increase of astronomical knowledge from Galileo’s telescope, but he appears to have been ignorant of the work of Kepler; he ignored Napier’s invention of logarithms and Galileo’s advances in mechanical theory; and his judgment on the Copernican theory became more adverse at the very time when that theory was being confirmed by Galileo and Kepler. These defects in his own scientific equipment were closely connected with some of the peculiarities in detail of the method he recommended. And the two things together may explain the sneer of his contemporary Harvey, that he wrote philosophy like a lord chancellor. Nor is it very difficult to understand the attitude of most subsequent men of science, who have honoured him as the originator of the experimental method, but silently ignored his special precepts. His method was not the method of the laboratory. When the objects investigated can be observed only directly as they occur in nature, greater importance must be assigned to the exhaustive enumeration of facts upon which Bacon insisted. Darwin, for example, has recorded that, in starting his enquiry, he “worked on true Baconian principles, and, without any theory, collected facts on a wholesale scale.” But Bacon did not recognise that, in investigations of this sort also, the enumeration must be guided by an idea or hypothesis, the validity of which is capable of being tested by the facts. He overlooked the function of the scientific imagination—a power with which he himself was richly endowed.

According to Bacon, “human knowledge and human power meet in one”; and the stress which he laid upon this doctrine lends interest to his discussions on practical principles. His views on ethical and political theory, however, were never set forth systematically or with completeness. They are to be found in the second book of the Advancement and in the seventh and eighth books of De Augmentis, as well as in the Essays and in some of his occasional writings. His observations on private and public affairs are full of practical wisdom, for the most part of the kind commonly called “Worldly.” He was under no illusions about the ordinary motives of men, and he thought that “we are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do and not what they ought to do.” Fundamental principles are dealt with less frequently, but they are not altogether neglected. A preference is expressed for the active over the contemplative life, for “men must know that in this theatre of man’s life it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on.” Aristotle’s reasons for preferring the contemplative life have respect to private good only. But the “exemplar or platform of good” discloses a double nature “the one, as everything is a total or substantive in itself; the other, as it is a part or member of a greater body; whereof the latter is in degree the greater and the worthier.” In this way, Bacon introduced into English ethics the distinction, on which many controversies have turned, between private and public good. But the nature of this good is not subjected to philosophical analysis. A similar remark has to be made regarding Bacon’s contributions to political theory. There is much discussion of matters of detail, but first principles are barely mentioned. The “arts of government” are said to contain three duties: the preservation, the happiness and prosperity and the extension, of empire; but only the last is discussed. Bacon maintained the independence of the civil power, and, at the same time, defended the royal prerogative; nevertheless, his ideal of the state was not arbitrary government, but the rule of law. In the Advancement, he had noted that

  • all those which have written of laws have written either as philosophers or as lawyers, and none as statesmen. As for the philosophers, they make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths; and their discourses are as the stars, which give little light because they are so high. For the lawyers, they write according to the states where they live, what is received law, and not what ought to be law.
  • And he goes on to say that “there are in nature certain fountains of justice, whence all civil laws are derived but as streams.” To this subject he returns in the eighth book of De Augmentis, which closes with a series of aphorisms on universal justice. In these aphorisms, all civil authority is made to depend on “the sovereign power of the government, the structure of the constitution, and the fundamental laws”; law does not merely protect private rights; it extends to “everything that regards the well-being of the state”; its end is or should be the happiness of the citizen: and that “law may be set down as good which is certain in meaning, just in precept, convenient in execution, agreeable to the form of government, and productive of virtue in those that live under it.”

    Bacon’s contributions to “human philosophy” do not rank in importance with his reforming work in natural philosophy; and his influence on the moral sciences was later in making itself felt, though it was similar in character to his influence on natural science. He often appealed for help in carrying out his new philosophy; but, neither in natural science, nor in moral science, nor in philosophy generally, did he found a school. Harvey’s unfavourable judgment has been already quoted. Hobbes, who acted for a time as his secretary, does not seem to have been influenced by him in any important manner. And yet it is the leading thinkers—men such as Leibniz and Hume and Kant—who acknowledge most fully the greatness of Bacon. His real contribution to intellectual progress does not consist in scientific discoveries or in philosophical system; nor does it depend on the value of all the details of his method. But he had the insight to discover, the varied learning to illustrate and the eloquence to enforce, certain principles, regulative of the mind’s attitude to the world, which, once grasped, became a permanent possession. He did more than anyone else to help to free the intellect from preconceived notions and to direct it to the unbiassed study of facts, whether of nature, of mind, or of society; he vindicated an independent position for the positive sciences; and to this, in the main, he owes his position in the history of modern thought.