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BACON, FRANCIS

that science in its progress has not followed the Baconian method, that no one discovery can be pointed to which can be definitely ascribed to the use of his rules, and that men the most celebrated for their scientific acquirements, while paying homage to the name of Bacon, practically set at naught his most cherished precepts. The reason of this is not far to seek, and has been pointed out by logicians of the most diametrically opposed schools. The mechanical character both of the natural history and of the logical method applied to it resulted necessarily from Bacon’s radically false conception of the nature of cause and of the causal relation. The whole logical or scientific problem is treated as if it were one of co-existence, to which in truth the method of exclusion is scarcely applicable, and the assumption is constantly made that each phenomenon has one and only one cause.[1] The inductive formation of axioms by a gradually ascending scale is a route which no science has ever followed, and by which no science could ever make progress. The true scientific procedure is by hypothesis followed up and tested by verification; the most powerful instrument is the deductive method, which Bacon can hardly be said to have recognized. The power of framing hypothesis points to another want in the Baconian doctrine. If that power form part of the true method, then the mind is not wholly passive or recipient; it anticipates nature, and moulds the experience received by it in accordance with its own constructive ideas or conceptions; and yet further, the minds of various investigators can never be reduced to the same dead mechanical level.[2] There will still be room for the scientific use of the imagination and for the creative flashes of genius.[3]

If, then, Bacon himself made no contributions to science, if no discovery can be shown to be due to the use of his rules, if his method be logically defective, and the problem to which it was applied one from its nature incapable of adequate solution, it may not unreasonably be asked, How has he come to be looked upon as the great leader in the reformation of modern science? How is it that he shares with Descartes the honour of inaugurating modern philosophy? To this the true answer seems to be that Bacon owes his position not only to the general spirit of his philosophy, but to the manner in which he worked into a connected system the new mode of thinking, and to the incomparable power and eloquence with which he expounded and enforced it. Like all epoch-making works, the Novum Organum gave expression to ideas which were already beginning to be in the air. The time was ripe for a great change; scholasticism, long decaying, had begun to fall; the authority not only of school doctrines but of the church had been discarded; while here and there a few devoted experimenters were turning with fresh zeal to the unwithered face of nature. The fruitful thoughts which lay under and gave rise to these scattered efforts of the human mind, were gathered up into unity, and reduced to system in the new philosophy of Bacon.[4] It is assuredly little matter for wonder that this philosophy should contain much that is now inapplicable, and that in many respects it should be vitiated by radical errors. The details of the logical method on which its author laid the greatest stress have not been found of practical service;[5] yet the fundamental ideas on which the theory rested, the need for rejecting rash generalization, and the necessity for a critical analysis of experience, are as true and valuable now as they were then. Progress in scientific discovery is made mainly, if not solely, by the employment of hypothesis, and for that no code of rules can be laid down such as Bacon had devised. Yet the framing of hypothesis is no mere random guesswork; it is left not to the imagination alone, but to the scientific imagination. There is required in the process not merely a preliminary critical induction, but a subsequent experimental comparison, verification or proof, the canons of which can be laid down with precision. To formulate and show grounds for these laws is to construct a philosophy of induction, and it must not be forgotten that the first step towards the accomplishment of the task was made by Bacon when he introduced and gave prominence to the powerful logical instrument of exclusion or elimination.

It is curious and significant that in the domain of the moral and metaphysical sciences his influence has been perhaps more powerful, and his authority has been more frequently appealed to, than in that of the physical. This is due, not so much to his expressed opinion that the inductive method was applicable to all the sciences,[6] as to the generally practical, or, one may say,

  1. Mill, Logic, ii. pp. 115, 116, 329, 330.
  2. Whewell, Phil. of Ind. Sc. ii. 399, 402-403; Ellis, Int. to Bacon’s Works, i. 39, 61; Brewster, Newton, ii. 404; Jevons, Princ. of Science ii. 220. A severe judgment on Bacon’s method is given in Dühring’s able but one-sided Kritische Gesch. d. Phil., in which the merits of Roger Bacon are brought prominently forward.
  3. Although it must be admitted that the Baconian method is fairly open to the above-mentioned objections, it is curious and significant that Bacon was not thoroughly ignorant of them, but with deliberate consciousness preferred his own method. We do not think, indeed, that the notiones of which he speaks in any way correspond to what Whewell and Ellis would call “conceptions or ideas furnished by the mind of the thinker”; nor do we imagine that Bacon would have admitted these as necessary elements in the inductive process. But he was certainly not ignorant of what may be called a deductive method, and of a kind of hypothesis. This is clear from the use he makes of the Vindemiatio, from certain hints as to the testing of axioms, from his admission of the syllogism into physical reasoning, and from what he calls Experientia Literata. The function of the Vindemiatio has been already pointed out; with regard to axioms, he says (N. O. i. 106), “In establishing axioms by this kind of induction, we must also examine and try whether the axiom so established be framed to the measure of these particulars, from which it is derived, or whether it be larger or wider. And if it be larger and wider, we must observe whether, by indicating to us new particulars, it confirm that wideness and largeness as by a collateral security, that we may not either stick fast in things already known, or loosely grasp at shadows and abstract forms, not at things solid and realized in matter.” (Cf. also the passage from Valerius Terminus, quoted in Ellis’s note on the above aphorism.) Of the syllogism he says, “I do not propose to give up the syllogism altogether. S. is incompetent for the principal things rather than useless for the generality. In the mathematics there is no reason why it should not be employed. It is the flux of matter and the inconstancy of the physical body which requires induction, that thereby it may be fixed as it were, and allow the formation of notions well defined. In physics you wisely note, and therein I agree with you, that after the notions of the first class and the axioms concerning them have been by induction well made out and defined, syllogism may be applied safely; only it must be restrained from leaping at once to the most general notions, and progress must be made through a fit succession of steps.”—(“Letter to Baranzano,” Letters and Life, vii. 377). And with this may be compared what he says of mathematics (Nov. Org. ii. 8; Parasceve, vii.). In his account of Experientia Literata (De Aug. v. 2) he comes very near to the modern mode of experimental research. It is, he says, the procedure from one experiment to another, and it is not a science but an art or learned sagacity (resembling in this Aristotle’s ἀγχίνοια), which may, however, be enlightened by the precepts of the Interpretatio. Eight varieties of such experiments are enumerated, and a comparison is drawn between this and the inductive method; “though the rational method of inquiry by the Organon promises far greater things in the end, yet this sagacity, proceeding by learned experience, will in the meantime present mankind with a number of inventions which lie near at hand.” (Cf. N. O. i. 103.)
  4. See the vigorous passage in Herschel, Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, § 105; cf. § 96 of the same work.
  5. Bacon himself seems to anticipate that the progress of science would of itself render his method antiquated (Nov. Org. i. 130).
  6. Nov. Org. i. 127.