Science blog

22 January 2020

Happy birthday, Francis Bacon

The 22nd of January is the birthday of the early modern lawyer, politician, and philosopher Francis Bacon, later Viscount St Alban (1561-1626). For the purposes of this blog, he is most famous for his contributions to the gradual evolution of scientific thinking, mainly expressed in his book Novum Organum, first published in Latin in 1620. We hold two copies of the first edition, published by John Bill. One is at shelfmark C.54.F.16, and has a bookplate in the name of John Bentinck, and the second is at 535.k.8.

Title page of Novum Organum naming Bacon in Latin as "Franc. Baconis de Verulamio", showing two large square-rigged ships at sea between two classical colums
Title page of the original 1620 edition of Novum Organum

Novum Organum was intended to be part of Bacon's life's work, The Great Instauration, which would have been a multi-volume work summarising practically all knowledge that existed during his lifetime and suggesting paths for further enquiry. He died long before completing it, although some sections of it dealing with particular subjects existed in manuscript and were published after his death. The book argues for knowledge of the natural world to be developed by collection and juxtaposition of experimental observations, refraining from forming hypotheses too early and attempting to force the information to fit them. While mature scientific method views hypotheses as more significant than Bacon did, his thought was an important reaction to earlier classical and medieval ideas about the natural world, which were based mainly on intellectual speculation.

Novum Organum is also important for its discussion of "idols", or fallacies and habits of thought which interfere with rational thought and prevent people from reaching correct conclusions. Bacon defines four types of these. "Idols of the tribe" are flaws of reasoning which are almost universal among human minds. "Idols of the cave" (an allusion to Plato's Allegory of the Cave) are biases and pre-occupations specific to each individual person. "Idols of the marketplace" are confusions created by the imprecision of language to describe the world, such as when people's understanding of the technical meaning of a word in science is confused by its everyday meaning. Finally, "Idols of the theatre" are mistaken ideas that persist because of their historic prestige and acceptance by authoritative figures.

It is not clear how much experimentation Bacon actually did. The amusing story spread by the memoirist John Aubrey that he died from pneumonia caused by an experiment to see if a chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow is nowadays doubted. His unfinished Utopian book New Atlantis was extremely influential in its depiction of "Saloman's House", possibly the first depiction of a scientific institute, which heavily influenced the founding of the Royal Society, just over thirty years after Bacon's death.