Sir Francis Bacon: Empiricism

Another important thread of ideas in the Renaissance is woven from the rising interest in empiricism, the view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only--or best-- source of knowledge. On the page below taken from Bacon's The Advancement of Learning try to read the paragraph immediately below beginning with the underlined passage, and then try to read the section beneath it marked with a dark line (beginning part way down with the words: "This kind of degenerate learning..." all the way to "but of no substance or profit." Go ahead, you can read it (and without reading glasses, too!)

Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), from Book I:

3. Here, therefore, is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter; whereof, though I have represented an example of late times, yet it hath been and will be SECUNDUM MAJUS ET MINUS in all time. And how is it possible but this should have an operation to discredit learning, even with vulgar capacities, when they see learned men's works like the first letter of a patent, or limned book; which though it hath large flourishes, yet is but a letter? It seems to me that Pygmalion's frenzy is a good emblem or portraiture of this vanity: for words are but the images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture.
4. But yet notwithstanding it is a thing not hastily to be condemned, to clothe and adorn the obscurity even of Philosophy itself with sensible and plausible elocution. For hereof we have great examples in Xenophon, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and of Plato also in some degree; and hereof likewise there is great use: for surely, to the severe inquisition of truth and the deep progress into philosophy, it is some hindrance; because it is too early satisfactory to the mind of man, and quencheth the desire of further search, before we come to a just period. But then if a man be to have any use of such knowledge in civil occasions, of conference, counsel, persuasion, discourse, or the like; then shall he find it prepared to his hands in those authors which write in that manner. But the excess of this is so justly contemptible that as Hercules, when he saw the image of Adonis, Venus' minion, in a temple, said in disdain, NIL SACRI ES; so there is none of Hercules' followers in learning, that is, the more severe and laborious sort of inquirers into truth, but will despise those delicacies and affectations, as indeed capable of no divineness. And thus much of the first disease or distemper of learning.
5. The second which followeth is in nature worse than the former: for as substance of matter is better than beauty of words, so contrariwise vain matter is worse than vain words: wherein it seemeth the reprehension of St. Paul was not only proper for those times, but prophetical for the times following; [10] and not only respective to divinity, but extensive to all knowledge; DEVITA PROFANAS VOCUM NOVITATES, ET OPPOSITIONES FALSI NOMINIS SCIENTIAE. For he assigneth two marks and badges of suspected and falsified science: the one, the novelty and strangeness of terms; the other, the strictness of positions, which of necessity doth induce oppositions, and so questions and altercations. Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrify and corrupt into worms; so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrify and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and, as I may term them, vermiculate questions, which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the Schoolmen: who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it worl; upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.

Note that Bacon is arguing against the kind of learning based simply on studying words (books) that have already been written--against simply chewing over and over the old texts, in his case, the writings of Aristotle--rather than studying "matter" itself. Remember that Aristotle wrote on natural history as well as on ethics and poetry and drama. Bacon (a different link than at the top of the page!) is arguing that people in his time (1605) should be studying nature itself, not arguing over what Aristotle and his Renaissance followers and interpreters (called the Scholastics) meant in his essays about nature and the world. Hence, Bacon is arguing for empiricism.

The last section above that is in bold letters and is underlined says this:

"For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but it if work upon itself, as the spider worketh in its web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed copwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit...."

Note that Bacon would prefer empirical knowledge, rough hewn and limited as it may be, to fine argument that has simply chewed ideas about experience rather than experience itself into a smoothly digestible mass. As the handwritten note on the passage indicates, this drive for empirical insight over the given truths of authorities such as Aristotle (or The Church), was shared by Galileo, who of course went head-to-head (and lost) with the Church in Italy when he published his empirical study of the planets that contradicted the idea of the cosmos approved by the Church. (More on this later.)

Click here for Francis Bacon on "the idea of progress"


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