Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover

4. Truth(s)

Collective truth: Bacon

That the collaborative interrogation of the natural world, promoted by the Royal Society in its early days, could be more productive than individual endeavour was brought home to the learned world by Francis Bacon. His depiction of the fictional Solomon’s House in the New Atlantis (1627) was to serve as a prototype of organised scientific activities for the satisfaction of human needs.

Fig. 10 Title page of New Atlantis in the second edition of Francis Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum: or A naturall historie. In ten centuries (London: William Lee at the Turks, 1628).

This imaginary institution was made up of 36 investigators engaged in collecting information and producing knowledge of nature, including natural histories and surveys of natural resources. Fundamentally, they were collectively concerned with understanding how matter in motion works, and with using it for human progress:

The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.1

The division of labour between the members of Solomon’s House was functional: they were assigned to nine research groups, charged to perform specific jobs. The largest one comprised twelve travellers who visited foreign countries. Their name, the ‘Merchants of Light’, is double-edged since they were engaged in clandestine scientific intelligence. As for the eight “home-based” groups, they were made up of three persons each, and named no less arrestingly.

The ‘Depredators’ gleaned information about experiments from books. The ‘Mystery-men’ were concerned with tracking down trade secrets (techniques). The ‘Pioneers or Miners’ explored new avenues by designing novel experiments. The ‘Compilers’ summarised the results of the former four groups ‘for the drawing of observations and axioms out of them’. The ‘Dowry-men or Benefactors’ were occupied with material benefits stemming from the ‘experiments of their fellows’. The ‘Lamps’ – after meetings and consultations with the ‘whole number’ and adjudging what the collective managed to achieve – proposed ‘new experiments, of a higher light, more penetrating into nature than the former’. The ‘Inoculators’ performed them and reported on them. Finally, the ‘Interpreters of Nature’ connected the findings and expounded them in general terms, including axioms and aphorisms.

There were twenty or so laboratories in Solomon’s House serviced by a great number of male and female servants and attendants. Additionally, there were novices and apprentices in order to secure continuity of research. As Krohn points out, the description of the laboratories in Solomon’s House, including the equipment and work, must have filled a seventeenth-century reader with awe. While there is the danger of ascribing anachronistic foreknowledge, a twenty-first-century reader should have no difficulty in discerning what amounts to experimentation in hybrid sterility when he reads:

We find means to make commixtures and copulations of different kinds; which have produced many new kinds, and them not barren, as the general opinion is.

Historically, the celebrated instance is the mule – the sterile offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.

Briefly, Bacon’s notion of scientific procedure embraced collaborative gathering of empirical/experimental facts combined with inductive generalisations – all in the service of man. This was a radical departure from the attitude going back to Plato and Aristotle, who held ‘that the pursuit of knowledge was an end in itself’.2 In this context, William Harvey’s reputed, and frequently quoted, gibe that Bacon wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor is beside the mark.

Nevertheless there is a historiographical issue regarding the interaction of law, politics and epistemology in Bacon’s approach to understanding nature. Demonstrably, Bacon’s legal and statesmanly background had something to do with his analogy between ‘axioms’ and ‘laws’. But it would be a step too far to trace Bacon’s position solely to this source. In fact, there are good reasons to connect Bacon’s ‘laws of nature’ with the empirical ‘rules’ guiding practice in dominant sectors of the economy in seventeenth-century Britain: agriculture and urban and countryside handicrafts. There are grounds, pace Farrington, to regard Bacon as a philosopher of pre-industrial science.3

On the face of it, Solomon’s House was a self-governing and self-financing institution for co-operative research. The funds to carry out the extended research programme essentially derived from home-bred manufacturing and commercial activities and inventions. Presumably financial self-sufficiency enabled the scientists to maintain distance in respect to the state. This is revealed in a remarkable passage towards the end of the description of Solomon’s House. The decision to publish results or to keep them under wraps, even vis-à-vis the state, was collegiate:

And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state, and some not.

It is said that Hobbes served Bacon as a secretary for a while. Whether the claim is true or false, Hobbes certainly had a different understanding of freedom of action for scientists than his (alleged) master and mentor.4

Personal truth: Descartes

Descartes is traditionally presented as Bacon’s antipode with respect to epistemology. One way to demarcate the two thinkers (following Koyré) is to say that whereas Bacon was interested in the ‘order of things’, Descartes searched for the ‘truth of ideas’. This distinction is supported by autobiographical narratives (in as much they are credible) from which both men emerge as persons confident of their own qualifications for procuring truthful knowledge.

There is one autobiographical piece by Bacon, as noted by Farrington, composed as a Preface (1603) to On the Interpretation of Nature, which was never written in its projected form. This is how Bacon details his inborn attributes to be a seeker of truth regarding the ‘order of things’:

For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things (which is the chief point), and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to reconsider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new or admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture. So I thought my nature had a kind of familiarity and relationship with capital Truth.5

At the heart of Bacon’s approach, as previously noted, was the pursuit of knowledge for human welfare. Autobiographically, it is described as follows:

But above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature – a light which should in its very rising, touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so spreading further and further should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world, – that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race, – the propagator of man’s empire over the universe, the champion of liberty, the conqueror and subduer of necessities.6

As to Descartes, his best known work Discourse on the Method (1637) offers an autobiographical account of the evolution of his thinking. It supports Koyré’s broad demarcation between the two thinkers. Not least because it contains the celebrated deduction whereby Descartes established (to his satisfaction) his own existence: ‘I am thinking (je pense), therefore I exist’.7

Trust in personal truth and distrust of collective truth motivated Descartes to reconstruct human knowledge:

But from college days I had learned that one can imagine nothing so strange and incredible but has been said by some philosopher; … at the same time, a majority of votes is worthless as a proof, in regard to truths that are even a little difficult of discovery; for it is much more likely that one man should have hit upon them for himself than that a whole nation should. Accordingly I could chose nobody whose opinion I thought preferable to other men’s; and I was as it were forced to become my own guide.8

As noted, Bacon’s path to generalisations was through inductive reasoning sustained by ensuing empirical/experimental evidence. Descartes argued for the opposite procedure based on deductive reasoning from a first principle which he traced to God, the supreme legislator. It was not that he was not aware of the part played by ‘practical philosophy’ in the replacement of philosophical speculations taught by Schoolmen:

For I thus saw that one may reach conclusions of great usefulness in life, and discover a practical philosophy in the place of the speculative philosophy taught by the Schoolmen; one which would show us the energy and action of fire, air, and stars, the heavens, and all other bodies in our environment, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, and could apply them in the same way to all appropriate uses and thus make ourselves masters and owners of nature....9

It was not that he regarded experiments and observations as unnecessary (he dissected animals), but that they

often deceive us, so long as the causes of the more common are still unknown; and the conditions on which they depend are almost always so special and so minute that it is very hard to discern them. My general order of procedure on the other hand has been this. First, I have tried to discover in general the principles or first causes of all that exists or could exist in the world. To this end I consider only God, who created them, and I derive them merely from certain root-truths that occur naturally to our minds. Then I considered the first and most ordinary effects deducible from these causes… and then I tried to descend to more special cases.10

These special cases included anatomical investigations conducted from the early 1630s to the late 1640s. While reinforcing Descartes’s deciphering of living processes along micro-mechanical lines, they raised the question of the relation of the material machine-like body to the incorporeal immortal soul.

Fig. 11 A diagrammatic section of the human brain
by René Descartes, in his Treatise of Man (1664).

The received wisdom is that Descartes, demarcating sharply between them, parented mind-body dualism. True, in addressing the issue of how mind and body interacted Descartes famously visualised the pineal gland as the seat of the rational soul. There it was supposed to receive external physical stimuli and to direct movements. Descartes’s choice of the pineal gland was guided by the notion (erroneous as it turned out) that it is an unduplicated anatomical structure present only in human brains. But this did not imply or signify that Descartes was doubting or even giving up the belief in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

Mind and body

Shortly before his death, Descartes reiterated in the Preface to the unfinished Description of the Human Body (1647-1648) the importance of personal cognition: ‘There is no more fruitful occupation than to try to know itself’. While granting the practical (medical) value of knowing ‘the nature of our body’, he was ‘not attributing to the soul functions which depend only on the body and on the disposition of organs’:

When we make the attempt to understand our nature more distinctly, however, we can see that our soul, in so far as it is a substance distinct from body, is known to us solely from the fact that it thinks, that is to say, understands, wills, imagines, remembers, and senses, because all these functions are kinds of thoughts. Also, since the other functions that are attributed to it, such as the movement of the heart and the arteries, the digestion of food in the stomach and such like, which contain in themselves no thought, are only corporeal movements, and since it is more common for one body to be moved by another body than by the soul, we have less reason to attribute them to the soul than to the body.11

To Descartes the cognitive functions of the immaterial soul remained of central concern. Behind them lurked the problem of mind-body dualism, penetratingly raised by Elizabeth, Princess of Bohemia, in her correspondence with Descartes (1643-1646). That is, how an unextended, immaterial soul can move material things. This, and other issues relating to emotions (passions) taken up in the correspondence, undoubtedly prompted Descartes to apply himself deeply to the dichotomy of mind-body dualism.12

The dichotomy was not resolved by a convoluted ‘doctrine of substantial union of mind and body’.13 It was premised on the existence of two forms of mind. The ‘embodied mind’ was tied to corporeal organs, perceiving, remembering, imagining, etc. As for the ‘disembodied mind’, Descartes needed it on account of his belief in the personal immortality of the soul after death. Descartes wanted to have his cake and eat it, that is, to have both a mind dependent on matter and a mind independent of matter. As put by Engels, the basic philosophical issue is not passé:

The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being… The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other ... comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.

These two expressions, idealism and materialism, originally signify nothing else but this.…14

1 This and further citations are from Bacon’s description of Solomon’s House, reprinted as an Appendix in B. Farrington, Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science (London: Macmillan; New York: Haskell House, 1973), pp. 179-91. A classical study which, along with P. Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968), influenced W. Krohn’s insightful (German) Francis Bacon (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1987).

2 G. E. R. Lloyd, Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle (London: Chatto & Windus, 1970), p. 132.

3 W. Krohn, ‘Social Change and Epistemic Thought (Reflections on the Origin of the Experimental Method)’, in I. Hronszky, M. Fehér and B. Dajka, Scientific Knowledge Socialized (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 108) (Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer, 1988), pp. 165-78.

4 H.-D. Metzger, Thomas Hobbes und die Englische Revolution 1640-1660 (Stuttgart-Bad Constatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1991), p. 298.

5 Farrington, Francis Bacon, pp. 54-5.

6 Ibid., p. 54.

7 Discourse on the Method, etc., in E. Anscombe and P. T. Geach (ed. and transl.), Descartes: Philosophical Writings, with an Introduction by A. Koyré (Sunbury-on-Thames: Nelson, 1976), p. 31. It has been noted that in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes dispenses with ‘therefore’. See ibid., pp. 67f.

8 Descartes, Discourse, pp. 18-9.

9 Ibid., p. 46.

10 Ibid., p. 47. Noteworthy is that while Marx in Capital refers to Descartes’s counterpoint of practical and speculative philosophy, he also characterises Bacon and Descartes as philosophers of the pre-industrial phase of capitalism (‘period of manufacture’). See K. Marx, Capital (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938), Vol. 1, p. 387, n. 2.

11 Descartes, ‘The Description of the Human Body, etc.’, in S. Gaukroger (ed.), Descartes: The World and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 170-71.

12 Elizabeth, Princess of Bohemia (1618-1680) was the daughter of Frederick V, the Elector of the Rhenish Palatinate and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and VI, King of England and Scotland. Frederick V accepted the Crown of Bohemia but was driven out of the country in the wake of the failed uprising/rebellion of the Bohemian estates (1618-1620) that effectively set in motion the Thirty Years War. In the history textbooks he is referred to as the ‘Winter King’ (4 November 1619 to 8 November 1620). For a selection of letters between Princess Elizabeth and Descartes, see E. Anscombe and P. T. Geach (ed. and transl.), Descartes: Philosophical Writings, with an Introduction by A. Koyré (Sunbury-on-Thames: Nelson, 1976), pp. 274-86. The Elizabeth-Descartes correspondence and relationship are discussed in S. Gaukroger’s invaluable Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 384f.

13 Gaukroger, ibid., pp. 388f.

14 F. Engels, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy’, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), pp. 345-46. For a contemporary and stimulating treatment of the topic, see K. Bayertz, ‘Was ist moderner Materialismus’, in K. Bayertz, Myriam Gerhard and W. Jaeschke (eds.), Weltanschauung, Philosophie und Naturwissenschaft im 19. Jahrhundert, Vol. 1: Der Materialismus-Streit (Hamburg: Meiner, 2007), pp. 50-70.