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Bacon, Francis

Bacon, Francis

(b. London, England, 22 January 1561; d. London, 9 April 1626)

philosophy of science.

Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper of the great seal, and Ann, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1573 to 1575, when he entered Gray’s Inn; he became a barrister in 1582. Bacon’s life was spent in court circles, in politics, and in the law; in religion he adhered to the middle road of the Church of England, neither authoritarian nor sectarian. In 1606 he married Alice Barnham. He was knighted on the accession of James I In 1603, became lord chancellor in 1618, and was made viscount St. Albans in 1621. Bacon was dismissed from the chancellorship in 1621 after being convicted of bribery, a strain under which his health broke down. He then lived in retirement near St. Albans, devoting his remaining years to natural philosophy.

Bacon’s writings in history, law, politics, and morals are extensive; but his place in the history of science rests chiefly upon his natural philosophy, his philosophy of scientific method, his projects for the practical organization of science, and the influence of all these upon the science of the later seventeenth century. During and immediately following his lifetime his principal publications in these areas were The Advancement of Learning (1605), expanded and latinized as De augmentis scientiarum (1623); De sapientia veterum (1609); Novum organum (1620); and Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis (1627). Many of his shorter works, some of them fragmentary and published posthumously, are of equal scientific and philosophical interest.

Although Bacon was a contemporary of William Gilbert, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and William Harvey, he was curiously isolated from the scientific developments with which they were associated. His knowledge of and contribution to the natural sciences were almost entirely literary; and, indeed, it has been shown that much of the empirical material collected in his “histories” is not the result of his own firsthand observation, but is taken directly from literary sources. Furthermore, most of Bacon’s comments on both his scientific contemporaries and his philosophical predecessors are critical. For example, he never accepted the Copernican “hypothesis,” attacking both Ptolemy and Copernicus for producing mere “calculations and predictions” instead of “philosophy... what is found in nature herself, and is actually and really true”1. On similar grounds he attacked the theory of “perspective” as not providing a proper theory of the nature of light because it never went further than geometry. Mathematics was, he thought, to be used as a tool in natural philosophy, not as an end, and he had no pretensions to mathematical learning. He was not unsympathetic to Gilbert’s magnetic philosophy, but he criticized him for leaping too quickly to a single unifying principle without due regard for experiment.

Bacon’s closest associations with contemporary science were with atomism and with the Renaissance tradition of natural magic. His views on atomism underwent considerable change during the period of his philosophical writings, from a sympathetic discussion of Democritus in De sapientia veterum and De principiis atque originibus,2 to outright rejection of “the doctrine of atoms, which implies the hypothesis of a vacuum and that of the unchangeableness of matter (both false assumptions)” in Novum organum.3 There were both philosophical and scientific reasons for this change of mind. Even in his earlier works, Bacon posed the fundamental dilemma of atomism: either the atom is endowed with some of the qualities that are familiar to sense, such as “matter, form, dimension, place, resistance, appetite...,”4 in which case it is difficult to justify taking these qualities rather than any other sensible qualities as primary; or the atom is wholly different from bodies apprehended by the senses, in which case it is difficult to see how we come to know anything about them. On the other hand, empirical phenomena of cohesion and continuity are impossible to understand in terms of inert atoms alone; and the existence of spirituous substances, even in space void of air, seems to cast doubt upon the existence of the absolute void demanded by atomism.

In any case, Bacon was never an orthodox atomist, for as early as De sapientia veterum he insisted that the atom has active powers other than mere impenetrability—it has “desire,” “appetite,” and “force that constitutes and fashions all things out of matter,”5 in Novum organum these qualities are ascribed to bodies in general. All bodies have powers to produce change in themselves and in other bodies; they have “perceptions” that, although distinct from the “sensations” of animals, nevertheless enable them to respond to other bodies, as iron does in the neighborhood of a magnet. That virtues seem thus to emanate from bodies through space is an argument for suspecting that there may be incorporeal substances: “Everything tangible that we are acquainted with contains an invisible and intangible spirit, which it wraps and clothes as with a garment.” It “gives them [bodies] shape, produces limbs, assimilates, digests, ejects, organises and the like.” It “feeds upon” tangible parts and “turns them into spirit.”6

Commentators have seen in this dualism of tangible, inert matter and active, intangible spirits a legacy of Renaissance animism, and have tended to apologize for it as being out of harmony with Bacon’s other, more progressive views. Indeed, in seventeenthcentury writings and later, Bacon was most often listed with the revivers of the Democritan philosophy, in company with those to whom his “active spirits” might be an embarrassment. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Bacon necessarily thought of his view on spirits as opposed to a mechanical theory of nature. There are many passages in which he objects to his predecessors’ purely verbal ontologies of spirits and describes his own view as essentially unitary:” “this spirit, whereof I am speaking, is not a virtue, nor an energy, nor an actuality, nor any such idle matter, but a body thin and indivisible, and yet having place and dimension, and real... a rarefied body, akin to air, though greatly differing from it.”7 Both in the description of heat as a species of motion in Novum organumand in the discussion of transmission of light and sound in Sylva sylvarum,8 Bacon showed his sympathy with explanations in terms of mechanical analogues.

Bacon’s natural philosophy is indecisive, and also a good deal more subtle than that of his corpuscularian successors. It is not surprising, therefore, that it did not lead to any detailed theoretical developments (as did, for example, Descartes’s) and had, in fact, little direct influence. It can be argued, however, that, unlike Descartes, Bacon was not attempting to reach theoretical conclusions but, rather, to lay the necessary foundations for his inductive method. To that method we now turn.

Bacon’s method is foreshadowed in the early Valerius terminus (1603), but was not developed until the last few years of his life. De augmentis scientiarum and Novum organum are the first and second parts of his projected Great Instauration, and the applications of the method that were to have constituted four further parts reached only a fragmentary stage in the Histories, most of which were published posthumously.

In De augmentis scientiarum, which is concerned primarily with the classification of philosophy and the sciences, Bacon develops his influential view of the relation between science and theology. He distinguishes in traditional fashion between knowledge by divine revelation and knowledge by the senses, and divides the latter into natural theology, natural philosophy, and the sciences of man. Natural philosophy is independent of theology; but in a sense its end is also knowledge of God, for it seeks the “footprints of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”9 Indeed, Bacon sees both speculative and practical science as religious duties, the first for the understanding of creation and the second for the practice of charity to men. We should not read back into Bacon’s separation of science and theology any implication that theology is depreciated or superseded by science. Such a view was hardly influential until the Enlightenment, whereas seventeenth-century natural philosophers generally followed Bacon in claiming a religious function for their investigations; this was undoubtedly one important factor in the public success of the scientific movement.

Having placed his project within the complete framework of knowledge in true Aristotelian fashion, Bacon proceeds to demolish all previous pretensions to natural philosophy. His aim is to lay the foundations of science entirely anew, neither leaping to unproved general principles in the manner of the ancient philosophers nor heaping up unrelated facts in the manner of the “empirics” (among whom he counts contemporary alchemists and natural magicians). “Histories,” or collections of data, are to be drawn up systematically and used to raise an ordered system of axioms that will eventually embrace all the phenomena of nature. Many commentators, in the seventeenth century and later, have been misled, by the apparently unorganized collections of facts that fill Bacon’s works, into supposing that his method was a merely empirical one, with no concern for theoretical interpretation. Such an impression is easily dispelled, however, by a closer reading of the text of Novum organum. We shall follow his account of the method in that work.

The first step in making true inductions is, as in a religious initiation, a purging of the intellect of the “idols” that, in man’s natural fallen state, obstruct his unprejudiced understanding of the world. Bacon holds that we must consciously divest our minds of prejudices caused by excessive anthropomorphism (the “idols of the tribe”), by the particular interests of each individual (the “idols of the cave”), by the deceptions of words (the “idols of the market place”), and by received philosophical systems (the “idols of the theater”).10 Only in this way can the mind become a tabula abrasa on which true notions can be inscribed by nature itself. The consequences of the Fall for the intellect will then be erased, and man will be able to return to his God-given state of dominion over creation.

The aim of scientific investigation is to discover the “forms of simple natures.” What Bacon means by a “form” is best gathered from his example concerning the form of heat (which is the only application of his method that he works out in any detail): “The Form of a thing is the very thing itself, and the thing differs from the form no otherwise than as the apparent differs from the real, or the external from the internal, or the thing in reference to man from the thing in reference to the universe.” Hence, when the “form or true definition of heat” is defined as “Heat is a motion, expansive, restrained, and acting in its strife upon the smaller parts of bodies,” Bacon means “Heat itself, or the quid ipsum of Heat, is Motion and nothing else.”11 Thus, the form is not to be understood in a Platonic or Aristotelian sense but, rather, as what was later called an “explanation” or “reduction” of a secondary quality (heat) to a function of primary bodies and qualities (matter in motion). In order to discover what primary qualities are relevant to the form, Bacon prescribes his Tables of Presence, Absence, and Comparison: “[the form] is always present when the nature is present.... absent when the nature is absent” and “always decrease[s] when the nature in question decreases, and... always increase[s] when the nature in question increases.”12

Therefore, we are to draw up a Table of Instances that all agree in the simple nature, heat—such as rays of the sun, flame, and boiling liquids—and then to look for other natures that are copresent with heat and therefore are candidates for its form. To ensure that as many irrelevant natures as possible are eliminated at this stage, these instances should be as unlike each other as possible except in the nature of heat. Second, a Table of Absence should be drawn up, in which as far as possible each instance in the Table of Presence should be matched by an instance similar to it in all respects except heat, such as rays of the moon and stars, phosphorescence, and cool liquids. This is the method of exclusion by negative instances, which will at once test a putative form drawn from the Table of Presence; if it is not the true form, it will not be absent in otherwise similar instances when heat is absent. The tables are the precursors of Mill’s “Joint Method of Agreement and Differences,” and clearly are more adequate than the method of induction by simple enumeration of positive instances, with which Bacon has so often been wrongly identified. Construction of the tables demands not a passive observation of nature, but an active search for appropriate instances; and it therefore encourages artificial experiment. Nature, Bacon says, must be “put to the question.”13

Inference of the form from the tables is, however, only the beginning of the method. Bacon speaks often of raising a “ladder of axioms” by means of the forms, until we have constructed the complete system of natural philosophy that unifies all forms and natures. The conception seems to be something like an Aristotelian classification into genus, species, and differentia, in which every nature has its place. It also has some affinity with the later conception of a theoretical structure that yields observation statements by successive deductions from theoretical premises. But it would be misleading to press these parallels too closely, for the essence of Bacon’s ascent to the axioms is that it is the result of a number of inductive inferences whose conclusions are infallible if they have been properly drawn from properly contrived Tables of Instances. The axioms are emphatically not the result of a leap to postulated premises from which observations may be deduced, for this is not an infallible method and gives no guarantee that the axioms arrived at are unique, let alone true. This deductive method is, in fact, what Bacon calls the method of “anticipation of nature,” which, he thinks, may be useful in designing appropriate Tables of Instances, but is to be avoided in inductive inference proper.

Bacon is not unaware that the infallibility of his method depends crucially on there being only a finite number of simple natures and on our ability to enumerate all those present in any given instance. His faith that nature is indeed finite in the required respects seems to rest upon his natural philosophy. Although he rejected atomism, he retained the belief that the primary qualities are few in number and regarded the inductive method as the means to discover which qualities they are. Forms are the “alphabet of nature”14 that suffice to produce the great variety of nature from a small stock of primary qualities, just as the letters of the alphabet can generate a vast literature. The whole investigation is further complicated, as Bacon also sees, by the fact that some natures are “hidden” and cannot be taken account of in the tables unless we employ “aids to the senses” to bring them within reach of sensation. Much of the later part of Novum organum is taken up with this problem, which leads Bacon to commend not only instruments such as the telescope, but also “fit and apposite experiments” that bring hidden and subtle processes to light.15

Complementary to Bacon’s ascent to axioms is his insistence on subsequent descent to works. The aim is not merely passive understanding of nature, but also practical application of that understanding to the improvement of man’s condition; Bacon holds that each of these aspects of his method is sterile without the other. Furthermore, he claims to have given in his method a means whereby anyone who follows the rules can do science—he has “levelled men’s wits.”16 Thus, with proper organization and financial support, it should be possible to complete the edifice of science in a few years and to gather all the practical fruit that it promised for the good of men. Such a vision inspired Bacon as early as 1592, when he described in a letter to Cecil his “vast contemplative ends... I hope I should bring in industrious observations, grounded conclusions, and profitable inventions and discoveries.”17 Throughout his life he used his status and influence in a succession of frustrated attempts to obtain the Crown’s support for this enterprise. In 1605 it was advertised in The Advancement of Learning—the only work Bacon ever published in English. His unfinished account of the ideal scientific society was published posthumously in New Atlantis, which ranks among the best-known and most delightful Utopian writings in the world and has been perhaps the most influential.

New Atlantis contains a description of the island of Bensalem, on which there is a cooperative college of science called Salomon’s House. Bacon’s account of it begins with a concise expression of his whole vision of science: “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.”18 The house is essentially a religious community, having “certain hymns and services, which we say daily, of laud and thanks to God.”19 It contains all kinds of laboratories and instruments for the pursuit of science, and is organized on the principle of a division of labor among those who perform experiments and collect information from various sources; those who determine the significance of the information and experiments, and direct and perform new and more penetrating experiments; and the “Interpreters,” who “raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms.”20 It is noticeable that while there are said to be thirty-three men assigned to the experimental parts of this task, only three are assigned to interpretation—a proportion that seems to reflect neither the status Bacon gives to the raising of axioms in his explicit accounts of method, nor the ease with which he thought this part of the task would be completed. Unfortunately, however, it does reflect the way Bacon’s ideas were subsequently understood.

Bacon’s immense prestige and influence in later seventeenth-century science does not rest upon positive achievements in either experiment or theory but, rather, upon his vision of science expressed in Novum organum and New Atlantis, and in particular upon his fundamental optimism about the possibilities for its rapid development. Now that the true method had been described, he thought all that was required was the purgation of the intellect to make a fit instrument for the method, and the human and financial resources to carry it out. When patronage and manpower for the organization of science were eventually forthcoming in the form of the Royal Society, its Philosophical Transactions was soon full of just the sort of “histories” Bacon had prescribed. His program for the raising of axioms, however, was taken less seriously than his strictures against “anticipations” and hypotheses, so that the weight of his influence was toward empiricism rather than toward theoretical system-building. At the time this did provide a useful corrective to Cartesianism, as can even be seen In Newton’s insistence on the inductive “ascent” to the law of gravitation, in contrast with the merely imagined hypotheses of Descartes. But although most leading members of the Royal Society took every opportunity to proclaim themselves Bacon’s loyal disciples, they tacitly adopted a more tolerant attitude toward hypotheses than his; and subsequent theoretical developments took place in spite of, rather than as examples of, his elaboration of method. His successors in this area should be sought among the inductive logicians, beginning with Hume and Mill, and not among the scientists.


1.Descriptio globi intellectus (1612), in Works, III, 734; V, 511.

2. Probably written before 1620, published 1653.

3.Novum organum, in Works I, 234; IV, 126.

4.De principiis atque originibus, in Works, III, III; V, 492.

5.De sapientia veterum, in Works, VI, 655, 729.

6.Novum organum, 1, 310; IV, 195.

7.Historia vitae et mortis (1623), in Works, II, 213; V, 321.

8.Sylva sylvarum, in Works, II, 429 ff.

9.De augmentis scientiarum, in Works, I, 544; IV, 341. Also Novum organum, I, 145; IV, 33.

10.Novum organum, I, 169; IV, 58 ff.

11.Ibid., I, 248, 262, 266; IV, 137, 150, 154.

12.Ibid., I, 230, 248; IV, 121, 17.

13.Ibid., I, 403; IV, 263.

14.Abecedarium naturae, in Works, II, 85; V, 208.

15.Novum organum, I, 168; IV, 58.

16.Ibid., I, 217; IV, 109.

17.Letters and Life, I, 109.

18.New Atlantis, in Works, III, 156.

19.Ibid., III, 166.

20.Ibid., III,


I. Original Works. The standard edition of Bacon’s works is The Works of Francis Bacon, J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, eds., 7 vols. (London, 1857–1859), which contains valuable prefaces and notes. The philosophical and scientific works are in Vols. I-III and VI, with English translations in Vols. IV and V. Also of value is The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, Including All HIs Occasional Works, J. Spedding, ed., 7 vols. (London, 1861–1874). All page references in the Notes are to these editions. I have modified some of the translations. For further original works and secondary literature, see R. Gibson, Francis Bacon: A Bibliography of His Works and of Baconiana to the Year 1750 (Oxford, 1950). A useful edition of an individual work with notes, introduction, and bibliography is Novum organum, Thomas Fowler, ed. (2nd ed., Oxford, 1889).

II. Secondary Literature. There are many biographies, and their quality varies greatly. The most valuable recent examples are F. H. Anderson, Francis Bacon, His Career and His Thought (Los Angeles, 1962); J. G. Crowther, Francis Bacon (London, 1960); and B. Farrington, Francis Bacon; Philosopher of Industrial Science (London, 1961). The last two interpret Bacon mainly as a “philosopher of works.”

The literature on Bacon’s philosophy and science is enormous, and there is no attempt at completeness here. The recent books and articles listed give references to further material whose absence from this list does not imply any value judgment: B. Farrington, The Philosophy ofFrancis Bacon, an Essay on Its Development From 1603 to 1609 With New Translations of Fundamental Texts (Liverpool, 1964)—neither the commentary nor the newly translated texts throw much additional light on Bacon’s scientific ideas during this period; Kuno Fischer, Francis Bacon of Verulam, Realistic Philosophy and Its Age, John Oxenford, trans. (London, 1857), which is still a useful analysis of Bacon’s method but, like most nineteenth-century works (except those of Ellis and Spedding), underestimates the significance of Bacon’s doctrine of spirits; Thomas Fowler, Bacon (London-New York, 1881), which deals with Bacon’s philosophy and scientific method and their influence; W. Frost, Bacon und die Naturphilosophie (Munich, 1927); Mary B. Hesse, “Francis Bacon,” in D. J. O’Connor, ed., A Critical History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1964), pp. 141–152; C. W. Lemmi, The Classic Deities in Bacon (Baltimore, 1933), not always accurate on Bacon’s science; A. Levi, II pensiero di F. Bacone considerato in relazione con le filosofie della natura de Rinascimento e col razionalismo cartesiano (Turin, 1925), one of the first detailed accounts of Bacon’s relation to his immediate predecessors; G. H. Nadel, “History as Psychology in Francis Bacon’s Theory of History,” in History and Theory, 5 (1966), 275–287; M. Primack, “Outline of a Reinterpretation of Francis Bacon’s Philosophy,” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 5 (1967), 123–132; P . Rossi, Francesco Bacone, dalla magia alla scienza (Bari, 1957; English trans. by S. Rabinovitch, London, 1968), which interprets Bacon’s science as being heavily indebted to the natural magic tradition and his logic as indebted to Ramist rhetoric; P. M. Schuhl, La pensée de lord Bacon (Paris, 1949); and K. R. Wallace, Francis Bacon on Communication and Rhetoric (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1943).

Recent general works with extensive references to Bacon are R. M. Blake, C. J. Ducasse, and E. H. Madden, Theories of Scientific Method: The Renaissance Through the Nineteenth Century (Seattle, Wash., 1960), ch. 3; C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford, 1965), esp. ch. 3; R. H. Kargon, Atomism in England From Hariot to Newton (Oxford, 1966), which contains a good bibliography of recent scholarly articles on Bacon, pp. 150–153; R. McRae, The Problem of the Unity of the Sciences: Bacon to Kant (Toronto, 1961); and Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation (Cambridge, Mass. 1967), esp. ch. 2.

Mary Hesse

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Bacon, Francis


London, England, 22 January 1561; d. London, 9 April 1626), philosophy of science, cosmology, theory of matter, life sciences, medicine.

For the original article on Bacon see DSB, vol. 1.

Baconian studies have seen many major developments since publication of the original DSB article in 1970. In particular, it is now clear that, in parallel to the methodological reflections culminating in the Novum organum, Bacon developed a complex and coherent system of positive natural philosophy. This key Baconian scientific interest remained in large part unrecognized until the research of Graham Rees. Both through the reinterpretation of well-known texts and the use of newly discovered sources, Rees identified and delineated what he called Bacon’s “Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology,” a “highly speculative system of the world,” with its natural background in a complex theory of matter and spirits (Rees 1975a–b;

Bacon, 1984). Conceived as early as 1592, the system’s cosmological features were mainly sketched in the works Thema coeli(c. 1612; Theory of the Heaven) and De fluxu et refluxu maris(c. 1611; On the Ebb and Flow of the Sea); however, Bacon’s theory soon after developed to include a sophisticated and elaborate analysis of life and living processes, which culminated in the late Historia vitae et mortis(1623;History of Life and Death). New, striking evidence for these interests emerged with the discovery and publication, in the early 1980s, of a hitherto unknown

lengthy Baconian treatise on biological and medical matters,De vijs mortis (1610s,The Ways of Death; see Bacon, 1984 and 1996).

In the past, many readings of the Baconian project have accentuated the weight of Bacon’s methodology and philosophy of science, while assigning an ancillary and peripheral role to his interests in natural philosophy; Mary Hesse’s original DSB entry was a fine example of this type of analysis. However, the new and reinforced evidence of Bacon’s dedicated commitment to the study of nature decisively renders this type of interpretation dated and calls for a better integration between Bacon’s scientific concerns and the other areas of his philosophy.

Theory of Matter and Cosmology. Bacon’s interest in astronomy and cosmology predated the formulation of his theory of matter. Nevertheless, these two areas became strongly associated in his mature reflection, and he developed his matter theory by integrating it with and fitting it to his cosmological ideas: for this reason, it is worthwhile to treat them jointly.

For Bacon, matter existed in both tangible and pneumatic forms. Tangible matter is concentrated on Earth and is inert and passive. By contrast, highly active pneumatic matter, or spirit, constitutes the source of any change in the Baconian universe. For instance, tangible matter confines very active attached spirits, which are interspersed in different proportion in any terrestrial body and naturally tend to escape from their bounds. This tendency produces many of the macroscopic transformations taking place on Earth and in the subterranean regions. Spirits can also be found free, outside of tangible matter: the sublunary and celestial regions are mainly occupied by spirits in this form.

Both tangible and pneumatic matter can also be classified through what Rees has called Bacon’s “quaternion theory.” According to this idea, all entities belong to a family or, to use a Baconian expression, “tribe,” possessing four constituents (a “quaternion”). Bacon identified two principal groups, respectively the mercury and sulfur quaternions. The division between mercurial and sulfuric components pertains to the entire universe: in the subterranean realm, it mainly consists in the division between the two constituents of sulfur and mercury proper, while on the surface of Earth it takes the form of the opposition between oily, inflammable substances (sulfuric in nature), and watery, noninflammable ones (mercurial).

Moving from Earth toward the heavens, four different types of free spirits can be found. Air and ether belong to the mercury quaternion, while terrestrial and sidereal fires are situated in the sulfur quaternion. Because of their constitutions, these opposite groups engage in a mutual struggle, and each zone of the heavens is dominated by a specific component (see Table 1).

Thus, the sublunary region is dominated by air, while fire is present in a weak and gross form. With an increase of distance from Earth, the influence of fire becomes stronger, balancing that of ether, a rarified and purer form of air. In the region of the fixed stars, sidereal fire is dominant, pure, and strong. In general, the various components become purer with the increase of their distance from Earth.

Bacon adjusted his theories of matter and quaternions to his idiosyncratic model of the universe. As early as 1592 he had adopted the cosmological system of the medieval Arab astronomer Alpetragius (al-Bitruji). Though little studied today, Alpetragius’s work was translated into Latin in 1217 by Michael Scot with the title De motibus celorum and was fairly well known during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Alpetragius’s work was an attempt to replace the Ptolemaic model with an astronomical system more conformable to Aristotelian physics. The Alpetragian model was geocentric and required nine celestial spheres. According to Alpetragius, the primum mobile completed its rotation in about a sidereal day and transferred its motion beneath, to the sphere of the fixed stars. However, during this process the motion of this sphere was slightly attenuated, so that the sphere would take exactly twenty-four hours to complete its rotation. This attenuation also occurred within the spheres of the planets, with a progressive delay of their motion. This progressive abatement of the spheres’ motion in relation to the primum mobile and the daily rotation of the heavens accounted for the periodic motion of a planet.

Bacon did not assign any role to the celestial spheres but adapted his quaternions theory to the Alpetragian model. In this way he explained the progressive attenuation to the motion of the planets: having a fiery nature, they find greater resistance to their motion when closer to Earth because of the opposition of the mercurial principles of ether and air. Bacon’s matter theory also accounted for the planets’ deviation from circular orbits, which intensified the closer the planet was to Earth:

for just as substances degenerate in purity and explication, so too do their motions degenerate. Now it happens that, as in their speed the higher planets move faster, and the lower more slowly, so also do the higher make closer spirals, and ones which come nearer to the circles, but the lower make spirals more distinct and open. For as they descend they always depart more and more both from that splendour of velocity and perfection of circular motion, ever in regular order. (The Oxford Francis Bacon [OFB], vol. 6, p. 183)

Bacon encountered more difficulties, however, when he tried to analyze the retrograde motion of the planets. In this case he had to turn to ad hoc explanations, using the differences and fluctuations in the physical properties of the ethereal medium in which the planets move. Also, Bacon could not accommodate Galileo Galilei’s discoveries of Jupiter’s satellites within his strongly geocentric system (OFB, vol. 6, pp. 187–193).

A further implication of Bacon’s quaternion theory when applied to celestial matters regarded tides and winds. Because of the “conformity” of their internal configurations, elements of the same quaternion are driven by “consent” (or consensus), that is to say, they possess similar inclinations and related behaviors. This general rule is particularly true in the case of the mercury quaternion: The daily westward motion of the ethereal heavens, even though “enormously weakened,” extends by consent to sublunary air and water. This correspondence sets a constant westward wind, tending to decrease with altitude. Also, the wind is “more observable in the tropics, because it moves there in larger circles” (The Works of Francis Bacon [WFB], vol. 2, pp. 26–27; vol. 5, p. 147). Tides are set in motion by the same mechanism: “I am entirely of the opinion that this same motion belongs to the mass of waters and exists in it, but that is slower than in the air” (OFB, vol. 6, p. 79). Bacon subsequently argued that the presence of two ebbs and flows per day was because of the presence of the “Old and New World”:

I think it necessarily follows that these two obstacles communicate and insinuate the nature of a double reciprocation to the whole mass of the waters, and from this arises that quarter of the diurnal motion; as, that is, with the waters checked on both sides, the ebb and flow of the sea unfolds itself twice a day over a six-hour period, since there is a double advance and likewise a double retreat. (OFB, vol. 6, p. 87)

Biological and Medical Ideas. Biological and medical matters have received particular attention in Baconian studies since the 1980s (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1984, 1996; Gemelli, 2004; Giglioni, 2005). In part this interest was sparked by the publication in 1984 of the newly discovered Baconian treatise on the prolongation of life titled De vijs mortis (The Ways of Death). The discovery and publication of this work were remarkable in that this treatise is Bacon’s longest Latin manuscript to be published after the seventeenth century (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1984).

Bacon’s interest in medical subjects was strong and manifest throughout his career. De vijs mortis, written sometime during the 1610s, was Bacon’s first extensive writing on biological and medical issues, subsequently elaborated and developed in his Historia vitae et mortis, published in 1623. As in the case of his cosmology, Bacon’s biological ideas had strong foundations in his theory of matter. In particular, Bacon’s biology was based on the fundamental distinction between inanimate and vital spirits. According to Bacon, when it comes to the action of the attached inanimate spirits inside them, the tangible parts of living beings are not different from those of inanimate bodies. The tripartite activity of the inanimate spirits, or actio triplex, respectively corresponds to the attenuation of the moist parts of the body and their conversion in pneumatic matter; the escape of the spirit from the body; and the consequent “Contraction of the Grosser Parts after the Emission of the Spirit” (WFB, vol. 2, pp. 119–120; vol. 5, pp. 231–232). These steps lead to the decay of the body, the final effect of the actio triplex.

By contrast, vital spirits are unconstrained and diffused continuously all over the organism. In plants, the spirit is “merely branched, and permeating through small thread-like channels.” In animals, spirit congregates and collects in “some hollow space,” or cell, mainly “the ventricles of the brain.” Furthermore, vital spirits possess a “degree of inflammation,” which supplies motion and vital faculties, “gentler by many degrees than the softest flame” but still requiring continuous nourishment. All the functions of the organisms are dependent on the activity of the vital spirits: “Attraction, retention, digestion, assimilation, separation, excretion, perspiration, and even the sense itself, depend upon the properties of the several organs, as the stomach, liver, heart, spleen, gall, brain, eye, ear, and the rest. But yet none of these actions would ever be set in motion without the vigour, presence, and heat of the vital spirit” (WFB, vol. 2, p. 215; vol. 5, pp. 323–324). The vital spirit is then like “the master-wheel which turns the other wheels in the body of man” (WFB, vol. 2, p. 221; vol. 5, p. 330). The activity of the vital spirit ends when the spirit is “deprived either of motion, or of refrigeration, or of aliment.” Any of these causes produces the death of the organism (WFB, vol. 2, p. 225; vol. 5, pp. 334–335).

The major motivations for Bacon’s biological interests were medical: in the appendix to the New Atlantis, while enumerating the magnalia naturae (wondrous works) to be achieved for the use and benefit of humankind, “prolongation of life,” “restitution of youth in some degree,” and “retardation of age” figured at the top of Bacon’s list (WFB, vol. 3, p. 167). But it was only through the knowledge of the activity of the spirits in the organism that these wonders could be achieved: As Bacon stated in The Advancement of Learning,

It is more probable, that he that knoweth the nature of arefaction, the nature of assimilation of nourishment to the thing nourished, the manner of increase and clearing of the spirits, the manner of the depredations which spirits make upon the humors and solid parts, shall by ambages of diets, bathings, anointings, medicines, motions, and the like, prolong life or restore some degree of youth or vivacity, than that it can be done with the use of a few drops or scruples of a liquor or receit. (WFB, vol. 3, p. 362)

Moreover, the Historia vitae et mortis and his posthumous Medical Remains (1679) testify to Bacon’s technical interests in medical remedies, dietary directions, and pharmacology. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Bacon’s research on longevity was quoted and admired by medical authors like Johannes Antonides Van der Linden, Martin Lister, Hermann Boerhaave, and Albrecht von Haller (Gemelli, 2005).

The Role of the Speculative Philosophy. The various features of Bacon’s system of speculative philosophy well show the eclecticism of his intellectual construction. Bacon employed a variety of sources from very different traditions. Several characteristics of his system were certainly Paracelsian: in particular, like the Paracelsians, Bacon associated air and water with the mercurial aspect, and fire with the sulfuric one. Moreover, Bacon’s chemical theory of the world bears a strong resemblance to similar ideas developed by Paracelsians like Petrus Severinus, Oswald Croll, and, in particular, the French chemical author Joseph Duchesne (Quercetanus). However, other characteristics of his system clearly diverged from Paracelsianism. For instance, Bacon did not assign any special role to salt, the third of Paracelsus’s tria prima. Moreover, Bacon’s very atypical merging of chemical ideas with the astronomical doctrine of Alpetragius is original and not reflected in the work of other authors. Also, Bacon never tried to reinterpret scripture (and in particular the account of the creation in Genesis) in light of his chemical notions, as in the case of the Mosaic chemical cosmogonies of the Paracelsians. It is clear, then, that Bacon’s appropriation of Paracelsian concepts was far from uncritical. Another tradition that clearly informs Bacon’s conceptions of spirits is Renaissance pneumatism, very likely mediated by such figures as Bernardino Telesio and Agostino Doni (Bacon [edited by Rees], 1996). All of these sources show Bacon’s close association with many intellectual trends of Renaissance natural philosophy, and warn us against anachronistic readings and interpretations of Bacon’s enterprise.

Several issues have been raised regarding the new picture of the Baconian project emerging from this impressive body of works and speculative theories. Was Bacon’s speculative philosophy a radically different enterprise from his project for the reform of knowledge in the Great Instauration? And, more specifically, what was the precise philosophical significance of these speculative doctrines?

In her DSB entry on Bacon, Hesse suggested that the role of Bacon’s natural reflections inside his more general philosophical system was merely ancillary and preparatory. According to Hesse, “unlike [René] Descartes, Bacon was not attempting to reach theoretical conclusions but, rather, to lay the necessary foundations for his inductive method” (p. 374). This interpretation is questionable, both in light of Bacon’s speculative philosophy and also in terms of some of the clues that Bacon himself left regarding his general intentions and the value to be assigned to this work. As he explained in the “Distributio operis” (“Plan of the Work”), Bacon divided the project of his Great Instauration into six parts. De augmentis scientiarum and the Novum organum constituted the first and second sections, while a third was reserved for Natural Histories(including the Historia vitae et mortis). If the sixth and final part of the Instauration was to be occupied by the ultimate fruits of Bacon’s new induction, the fourth and the fifth ones were likely to be devoted to examples and expositions of the speculative philosophy. Bacon explicitly stated the provisional character of this latter material. This was not yet a “universal or systematic theory,” he said (OFB, vol. 11, p. 175). Instead, he compared it to “interest payable until the principal can be had” and the true philosophy established. Certainly this provisional research was going to be presented by way of “examples of investigating and discovering according to my plan and way” (this being the purpose of the fourth part). However, at the same time, Bacon also suggested that one assign considerable value and significance to these investigations. For instance, with some false modesty, he stated that he hoped that his speculations “from my unceasing acquaintance with nature ... may be greater than the measure of my mind leads me to expect” (OFB, vol. 11, p. 43). In fact, as he more bluntly affirmed in the Novum organum, he thought that his work on natural philosophy was greatly superior to anything thus far produced: “here and there I have in some special subjects conclusions ... which are far truer, more certain and also (I think) more fruitful than those that men have employed hitherto” (OFB, vol. 11, p. 175). He even suggested that some of this material, once properly confirmed by his method, could directly become part of the sixth and final part of the Instauration(WFB, vol. 3, p. 547). Thus, Bacon’s aims were not simply methodological but implied the achievement of a body of positive knowledge.

Still, the more general question regarding the exact role and significance of the speculative philosophy inside Bacon’s work considered as a whole remains open to interpretation, and charting this precise degree of integration is one of the important tasks with which Baconian scholars are now confronted. For instance, in what ways do the speculative doctrines conform to the more “traditional” elements of Bacon’s philosophy, such as his theory of forms, or the new induction? These and other problems, still to be thoroughly examined, nevertheless confirm the fact that the study of Bacon’s philosophy and science remains a lively and stimulating area of research.


Historically, the primary source for Baconian scholarship has been the Victorian edition of Bacon’s works by Spedding, Ellis, and Heath (abbreviated as WFB ). This edition is commonly referred to in two parts: Volumes one through seven comprehend Bacon’s works, while volumes eight through fourteen cover Bacon’s correspondence. At this writing a new edition comprising both is being prepared by Oxford University Press, The Oxford Francis Bacon (abbreviated as OFB ), with Graham Rees and Lisa Jardine as general editors. This edition includes new material plus new facing-page translations of all Bacon’s Latin works. The volumes also contain comprehensive introductory essays. To date, five volumes have been edited (vols. 4, 6, 11, 13, and 15). In addition, 1984 saw the first edition and annotated translation of the newly discovered Baconian treatise De vijs mortis. The same treatise has been published with improved typographical standards and readings in the OFB, vol. 6.


The Works of Francis Bacon. Edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. 14 vols. London: Longman, 1857–1874.

Francis Bacon’s Natural Philosophy: A New Source. A Transcription of Manuscript Hardwick 72A. Edited, translated, and with commentary by Graham Rees, assisted by Christopher Upton. Chalfont St. Giles, U.K.: British Society for the History of Science, 1984.

Philosophical Studies c. 1611–c. 1619. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 6 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

The Advancement of Learning. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Vol. 4 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Instauratio Magna: Last Writings. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 13 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Vol. 15 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

The Instauratio Magna. Part 2: Novum Organum and Associated Texts. Edited by Graham Rees. Vol. 11 of The Oxford Francis Bacon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.


Gaukroger, Stephen. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gemelli, Benedino. Aspetti dell’atomismo classico nella filosofia di Francis Bacon e nel Seicento. Florence, Italy: Leo S. Olschki, 1996. An excellent analysis of Bacon’s debt to classic atomism and Lucretius.

———. “Francis Bacon: Un riformatore del sapere tra filosofia e medicina.”Cronos 7, no. 2 (2004): 227–276.

Giglioni, Guido. “The Hidden Life of Matter: Techniques for Prolonging of Life in the Writings of Francis Bacon.” In Francis Bacon and the Refiguring of Early Modern Thought: Essays to Commemorate The Advancement of Learning (1605–2005). Edited by Julie Robin Solomon and Catherine Gimelli Martin. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Jardine, Lisa, and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. An authoritative modern biography.

Martin, Julian. Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Natural Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 1992.

Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A useful collection of introductory essays by leading Baconian scholars.

———. “Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561–1626).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, September 2004. Available from A useful short biography.

Pérez-Ramos, Antonio. “Essay Review: Bacon in the Right Spirit.” Annals of Science 42, no. 6 (1985): 603–611.

———.Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. An important philosophical analysis of Bacon’s project.

Rees, Graham. “Francis Bacon’s Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology.” Ambix 22 (1975a): 81–101.

———. “Francis Bacon’s Semi-Paracelsian Cosmology and the Great Instauration.” Ambix 22 (1975b): 161–173.

Urbach, Peter. Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science: An Account and a Reappraisal. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. Review of The Oxford Francis Bacon Volume VI: Philosophical Studies c. 1611–c. 1619, edited by Graham Rees. Isis 90 (1999): 117–119.

Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. A good introductory survey of Bacon’s life and philosophy.

Cesare Pastorino

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Bacon, Francis

Bacon, Francis



Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, English statesman and philosopher, was born in 1561. His father, a leading official in Queen Elizabeth’s government, had Bacon educated at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn. At the university he soon began to develop the impatience with traditional philosophy that was to run through his writings; at the Inn of Court he learned what he always called “my profession.” The law was to be the career that eventually took him to high political office, and it was also one of the objects of his schemes for reform.

Reform was the constant preoccupation of Bacon’s life. Apart from his love of luxury and ostentation, the chief reason he sought political power was his conviction that his plans could be implemented only with governmental support. For over forty years he prepared a succession of memoranda and dedications of books for his monarchs, asking them to overhaul almost every element of English society, from agriculture to education. His most cherished and comprehensive project, the “Great Instauration” of science, designed to relieve man’s estate, required a marshaling of effort that, so he believed, only the crown was capable of organizing. Despite many excellent connections (his uncle, Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth’s chief minister), over two decades of futile office seeking passed before Bacon was appointed solicitor general to James I in 1607, then attorney general in 1613, lord keeper in 1617, and finally lord chancellor in 1618. But when he was impeached and disgraced in 1621, largely as a result of the efforts of his archrival, Sir Edward Coke, in the House of Commons, his short political career proved to have been in vain, and his attempts to return to favor during the remaining five years of his life were to no avail. Even in a position of considerable influence, as lord chancellor, Bacon was unable to persuade the king, in whose power and wisdom he trusted completely, to support the reforms he proposed. James reputedly found the Novum organum to be “like the peace of God, that passeth all understanding.”

Various historians of Stuart England, including S. R. Gardiner (1885, pp. 812–813), have suggested that the execution of Bacon’s program might have averted the English Civil War; but in the long run the lord chancellor’s fame has rested on his vision for the future of mankind, not on his recommendations for immediate political action, which his contemporaries ignored. Less than twenty years after his death he became the inspiration for an entire generation of scientists and social reformers in England, and thereafter his reputation, despite attacks, was secure. It has been pointed out that Bacon himself was a poor scientist; that he missed completely the significance of the conceptual and mathematical breakthroughs achieved by contemporaries such as Gilbert, Galileo, and Harvey; and that his much vaunted inductive method was neither original nor particularly helpful to scientific advance. It has also been shown that he owed a great debt, usually unacknowledged, to some of the very traditions and thinkers he attacked. Men such as Palissy, Telesio, Cardano, and Campanella, who advocated observation and experience and questioned accepted attitudes; the hopeful view of the future held by Leroy and others; Ramus’ criticism of Aristotelian logic and method; and the wish to control nature expressed by alchemists and practitioners of magic—all had a profound influence on Bacon’s ideas. And yet he was able to combine these various elements of late sixteenthcentury thought into a distinct and personal message. As he himself rightly saw, he was not really a “combatant,” a participator in the philosophical inquiries of his day. Rather he was a “trumpeter,” calling men to action, urging them to turn “with united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds, and extend the bounds of human empire, as far as God Almighty … may permit” (De augmentis scientiarum [1623] in The Works of Francis Bacon, vol. 9, p. 14).

Man’s dominion over nature; the resultant amelioration of his lot on earth; and the improvement of the educational, administrative, legal, and religious institutions into which his society is organized—these were the goals toward which Bacon’s writings and propaganda were directed. It is difficult to consider him a philosopher in the literal sense, because all his concerns were so intensely practical. Wisdom on its own was of little interest. Only if it had some obvious material value was it worth achieving. Bacon completely separated divine from secular learning, and concerning the latter category he wrote, “Human knowledge and human power meet in one.” “Truth … and utility are here the very same things.” Man’s highest ambition in temporal matters should be “to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe.” But he cautioned, “the empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her” (Novum organum [1620] in The Works, vol. 8, pp. 67, 157, 162–163).

It was crucial, therefore, to supply mankind with a method of inquiry into nature that would ensure practical and productive results. Method thus came to be Bacon’s chief interest, receiving more attention in his writings than any other subject. At an early age he grew disillusioned with the investigations of traditional philosophy, and he repeatedly attacked Greek, scholastic, and Renaissance thinkers for not producing “any magnitude of works.” Impelled by profound humanitarian concerns and a deeply Christian sense of charity, he denounced his predecessors and their unquestioning adherents for failing to improve life on earth. While faith helped man to recover the innocence he had lost at the Fall, science should help him to recover the dominion over nature he had lost at the same time. It was no less than a sin for a philosopher to ignore this ultimate purpose of his work, and so Bacon condemned all earlier methods of inquiry for this one overwhelming failure. But if he were to pose as the prophet of an advancement of learning, he had to furnish mankind with an approach to knowledge whose efficacy and fruitfulness were guaranteed.

It has often been assumed by his detractors (e.g., Cohen 1926) that Bacon’s “method” consisted simply of a recommendation to return to nature: careful and exhaustive observation, followed by a painstaking process of induction, which led very slowly to absolutely certain generalizations. In essence, this was indeed the antidote he proposed for the vague hypotheses and abstractions of previous philosophers; but it was only one-half of his program. The other half, the organization of the effort of inquiry, was equally important and just as much a part of his over-all “method.” For Bacon wanted to control the social and psychological influences that stimulated scientific advance as carefully as he wanted to control the procedures used by individual scientists. Thus, when he explained why learning had progressed so little in past ages, he concentrated on the cultural, political, and other defects of the unproductive societies. The Greeks, for example, had been too close to their myths and had lacked the awareness of history and a sense of the difference of other nations necessary for an interest in the study of nature. Conversely, a great age could be created by social forces, such as proper governmental encouragement, exemplified by the policies of the Roman emperors from Nerva to Commodus. Bacon’s famous doctrine of the four idols that hinder intellectual advance—“Idols of the Tribe,” errors caused by human nature; “Idols of the Cave,” errors caused by personal idiosyncrasies; “Idols of the Market Place,” errors caused by misleading words; and “Idols of the Theatre,” errors caused by the wish to create philosophical systems (Novum organum [1620] in The Works, vol. 8, aphorisms XXXVIII-LXIX)—outlined the principal psychological, cultural, and linguistic pressures that interfere with man’s reason. Knowledge was held back not only by the inherent shortcomings of the human mind but also by the effects of one’s physical needs, background, and environment. When Bacon surveyed the reasons for stagnation of learning in his day (Advancement of Learning [1605] in The Works, vol. 8, pp. 383–520; vol. 9, pp. 13–357), he stressed the inadequacies of institutions, patronage, education, and society as a whole, rather than the mistakes of individual thinkers. Certainly scientists would have to adopt a better approach to nature, but this would have to be accompanied by a complete reorganization of the scholarly community. He wanted to see rewards for inventors, drastic revisions of university curricula, more frequent exchanges between scholars, and an expansion of the physical resources available to researchers, such as libraries. His description of Salomon’s House, a college of scientists in his ideal state (New Atlantis [1627] in The Works, vol. 5, pp. 347–413), suggested that only with careful planning could constant progress be assured.

In Salomon’s House laboratories were established for every possible type of experiment or investigation. Constant contact with foreign advances was maintained by a special group of traveling scholars, and each stage of scientific research, arranged according to Bacon’s inductive process, was carefully organized and assigned to those whose talents were suitable for each level of inquiry. Unhampered and undistracted, the scientists would undertake a steady stream of experiments, seek practical applications for their discoveries, and reach higher and higher generalizations. As Bacon himself admitted, he was hoping “to level men’s wits.” Having dwelt at length on the weakness and proclivity to error of the human mind, he wished to reduce reliance on “individual excellence.” But it is misleading to conclude that Bacon saw no place for genius or considered one researcher as good as another. His wish was to place genius within a precise structure so that it could have maximum effect. The brilliant mind, instead of working in lone and purposeless splendor, must be harnessed to a well-coordinated effort. Each researcher would work according to his abilities in the framework of a program that remorselessly increased man’s dominion over nature. Bacon allowed his optimism to get the better of his remarkable foresight only when he suggested that the final encyclopedia containing all natural science would be merely a few times larger than Pliny’s Natural History.

Nearly all of Bacon’s writings discussed reforms of one kind or another. He wanted to simplify and codify England’s legal system in order to eliminate litigiousness, delays, and uncertainties in the law. Because of the obviously practical value of technology and the mechanical arts, he hoped to raise their status. He suggested the relief of poor economic conditions and a re-evaluation of relations betwen king and Parliament in order to prevent political troubles. He also had a solution—peaceful colonization—for the perennial problem of Ireland. It has been shown (Crane 1923) that even in his later literary works, the last two editions of his Essays (first published in 1597, enlarged in 1612 and again in 1625) he kept his long-term aims in mind. He wrote on subjects such as anger and sedition because of the insufficiency of studies of human nature and “civil knowledge.” One of his greatest hopes was that eventually research would enable man to control his passions, and the Essays gave him the opportunity to make preliminary investigations that would eventually form part of a complete body of knowledge about the mind. In political science and ethics he admired, with reservations, the realism of Machiavelli; but studies of history, which could teach man so much, he found woefully inadequate, particularly in the case of intellectual history. He envisioned vast projects to remedy these deficiencies, and his History of the Reign of King Henry VII ([1622] in The Works, vol. 11) was intended as part of a complete history of England. Medicine, too, occupied his interest; he believed that like all sciences, it had to be systematized if it was to progress toward its ultimate goal, the prolongation of life.

Bacon’s writings ranged over so many topics— from ethics to teratology—because he believed in an essential unity of all the sciences. Methods of inquiry should be the same in all subjects, starting with observations of fact and moving slowly to careful generalizations. The highest study of all, which he called the prime philosophy, would contain generalizations about the entirety of knowledge, and he wanted researchers in different disciplines to be in contact so that they could learn from one another. When in 1592 he wrote, “I have taken all of knowledge to be my province,” he was stressing the basic unity of science, which enabled him to study many widely separated fields. But the very breadth of his vision, combined with an active public life, forced him to leave most of his work unfinished. Only fragments of his sweeping program for the Great Instauration ever came to be written. Its most complete section, the Novum organum, where Bacon outlined the shortcomings of past science and expounded his inductive method, consisted of aphorisms that he himself said served to “invite men to enquire farther” (Advancement of Learning [1605] in The Works, vol. 8).

Nonetheless, the indifference he faced in his lifetime soon gave way to widespread admiration. William Harvey’s gibe that he wrote “philosophy like a Lord Chancellor” may have pinpointed Bacon’s mediocrity as a scientist—he knew too little to appreciate the vital importance of hypotheses and mathematics—but it also hinted at Bacon’s unique position in the thought of his century. He has been called a statesman and strategist of science, and he was indeed primarily an organizer and a prophet, not a notable discoverer. Although much respect was later accorded to his general stress on experiment and induction, the reverence he inspired was due mainly to his vision of science as an organized, collaborative, and fruitful inquiry. Leibniz acknowledged his importance, even though he felt that Bacon’s ignorance of mathematics put him outside the course of actual scientific development. Descartes, too, despite a radically different view of scientific thought, paid homage to the lord chancellor. And during the English Civil War, the man who had been ignored by his contemporaries suddenly became a hero not only to revolutionaries who wanted to reform society but also to the scientists, such as Boyle, who were to found the Royal Society of London in 1662 in a deliberate attempt to put his program into practice. Other scientific academies throughout Europe followed suit, and in the realm of philosophy Hobbes, Locke, the eighteenth-century encyclopedists, and Bentham joined the many who reflected his influence. In his advocacy of a systematic organization of learning, a skeptical attitude toward knowledge, a humanitarian goal for science, and a study of society and the mind as well as nature, Bacon heralded the beginning of a new era in man’s conception of himself and his universe.

Theodore K. Rabb

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Bacon’s ideas, see the articles underScienceand the biographies ofBentham; Descartes; Hobbes; Locke.]


The Works of Francis Bacon. Collected and edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. 15 vols. New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1863–1872. → Volumes 1–7: Philosophical Works. Volumes 8–10: Translation of the Philosophical Works. Volumes 11–15: Literary and Professional Works. The Essays are contained in Volume 12.


Anderson, Fulton H. 1948 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A major work that has influenced all subsequent studies.

Anderson, Fulton H. 1962 Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. → The best concise biography.

Bertolino, Alberto 1929 Bacone e I’economia. Siena (Italy): Circolo Giuridico della R. Università.

Bock, Hellmut 1937 Staat und Gesellschaft bei Francis Bacon: Ein Beitrag zur politischen Ideologie der Tudorzeit. Berlin: Junker & Dünnhaupt.

Broad, C. D. 1926 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Address Delivered at Cambridge. Cambridge Univ. Press. → An excellent brief exposition of Bacon’s classification of knowledge.

Cohen, Morris R. 1926 The Myth About Bacon and the Inductive Method. Scientific Monthly 23:504–508.

Crane, Ronald S. 1923 The Relation of Bacon’s Essays to His Program for the Advancement of Learning. Pages 87–105 in Schelling Anniversary Papers. New York: Century.

Farrington, Benjamin 1949 Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science. New York: Schuman. → A pioneering study of the social aims of Bacon’s thought. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Farrington, Benjamin 1964 The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Essay on Its Development From 1603 to 1609. Liverpool (England) Univ. Press.

Gardiner, Samuel rawson 1885 Francis Bacon. Volume 1, pages 800–821 in Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith & Elder.

Hill, Christopher 1965 Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon. → See Chapter 3, on Bacon’s milieu.

Jones, Richard F. (1936) 1961 Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-century England. 2d ed. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington Univ. Press.

Kocher, Paul H. 1957 Francis Bacon on the Science of Jurisprudence. Journal of the History of Ideas 18:3–26.

Macaulay, Thomas B. (1837) 1898 Lord Bacon. Volume 8, pages 496–647 in Thomas Macaulay, Works of Lord Macaulay. London: Longmans.

Mcrae, Robert 1957 The Unity of the Sciences: Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz. Journal of the History of Ideas 18:27–48.

Merton, Robert K. 1961 Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 105:470–486. → A paper delivered at a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Bacon’s birth; sees Bacon as making contributions to the sociology of science.

Orsini, Napoleone 1936 Bacone e Machiavelli. Genoa (Italy): Orfini.

Prior, Moody E. 1954 Bacon’s Man of Science. Journal of the History of Ideas 15:348–370.

Rossi, Paolo 1957 Francesco Bacone: Dalla magia alla scienza. Bari (Italy): Laterza. → Reveals Bacon’s debt to magic and other contemporary traditions. Together with Anderson and Farrington, Rossi has brought about a complete revaluation of Bacon’s significance.

Whitaker, Victor K. 1962 Francis Bacon’s Intellectual Milieu. Los Angeles: Univ. of California, William Andrew Clark Memorial Library.

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Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

The English philosopher, statesman, and author Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the chief figure of the English Renaissance. His advocacy of "active science" influenced the culture of the English-speaking world.

Francis Bacon was born in London on Jan. 22, 1561, the younger son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife, Lady Anne Bacon. Through the families of both parents he had important connections with the political and cultural life of Tudor England. His father was lord keeper of the great seal under Elizabeth I, and his maternal grandfather had been tutor to Edward VI.

Bacon entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in April 1573 and completed his studies there in December 1575. He began to study law at Gray's Inn, but his studies were interrupted for 2 1/2 years while he served with Sir Amyas Paulet, the English ambassador to France. Upon his father's death Bacon returned to England, reentered Gray's Inn, and became a barrister in June 1592.

Bacon's literary work was accomplished, for the most part, during a life taken up with affairs of state. His public career began with his first election to Parliament in 1584. He early sought a position at court and Elizabeth I did make him Queen's counsel, but his ambitions for higher positions, supported by the Earl of Essex, were frustrated.

In 1592, on the anniversary of the Queen's coronation, Essex presented an entertainment composed by Bacon. In the speech in praise of knowledge he states his lifelong theme: "the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge … now we govern nature in opinions, but are thrall to her in necessities; but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her in action." Bacon tied himself closely to Essex and received many favors from him but later helped prosecute him for treason. While his part in the fate of Essex has been criticized as an ungrateful betrayal, it has also been defended as a duty painfully performed.

His Publications

Bacon's first publication, in 1597, was a collection of 10 essays mainly devoted to aphorisms on political behavior. These were expanded and 29 new essays published with them in 1612. A still further enlarged edition, including 58 essays, appeared in 1625.

Bacon was knighted 4 months after the accession of James I in 1603, and in 1607 he was appointed solicitor general. In the meantime he had published The Advancement of Learning (1605), hoping to move James to support science. De sapientia veterum (On the Wisdom of the Ancients), an interpretation of ancient myths, was published in 1609. In the next dozen years Bacon's fortunes soared. In 1613 he was appointed attorney general; in 1616 to the Privy Council; in 1617 lord keeper; and in 1618 lord chancellor and Baron Verulam.

In 1620 Novum organum (New Method), was published as Part II of The Great Instauration. The entire project was never completed, and this part is not complete itself, but Bacon's reputation as a philosopher of science rests mainly upon it. The plan for the renewal of the sciences had six parts: a survey of existing knowledge, Bacon's inductive logic, an encyclopedia of all natural phenomena, examples of the New Method's application, Bacon's discoveries, and an exposition of the New Philosophy that would finally emerge.

Last Years

In 1621, on his sixtieth birthday, Bacon was at the height of his career. He celebrated the occasion with a party at York House on the Strand, his birthplace. Among the guests was Ben Jonson. Five days later Bacon was created Viscount St. Albans. Disaster struck soon after. He was convicted by the High Court of Parliament for accepting bribes, sentenced to a fine and imprisonment, and banned from public office and Parliament. Here again, the degree of Bacon's guilt, which he admitted, and its moral evaluation have raised controversy.

The last 4 years of his life he devoted to writing History of Henry VII, De augmentis scientiarum (1623), The New Atlantis (1624), Sylva sylvarum (1627), and a number of other pieces.

He died on April 9, 1626, appropriately, however unfortunately, as the combined result of a scientific experiment and a political gesture. Leaving London, he decided to try the effect of cold in inhibiting putrefaction, and he stuffed with snow a hen he purchased from a woman along the way. He caught a chill and went to the nearby house of Lord Arundel, where the servants, in deference to his importance, made available the best bed. It, disastrously, was in a room that had not been adequately warmed or aired out, and Bacon contracted the bronchitis that brought about his death a week later.

Bacon's Philosophy

Bacon developed a dislike for Aristotelian philosophy at Trinity College, and he also opposed Platonism. He felt that Aristotle's system was more suited to disputation than to discovery of new truth and that Plato's doctrine of innate knowledge turned the mind inward upon itself, "away from observation and away from things." Bacon's new method emphasized "the commerce of the mind with things." Science was to be experimental, to take note of how human activity produces changes in things and not merely to record what happens independently of what men do. This is part of what Bacon means by "active science." Still more fundamental is an ethical component. Science should be a practical instrument for human betterment. Bacon's attitude is best summed up in a passage from "Plan of the Work" in The Great Instauration, describing the sixth part, on "The New Philosophy or Active Science." "Man is the helper and interpreter of Nature. He can only act and understand insofar as by working upon her he has come to perceive her order. Beyond this he has neither knowledge nor power. For there is no strength that can break the causal chain. Accordingly these twin goals, human science and human power, come in the end to one. To be ignorant of causes is to be frustrated in action."

In the aphorism which concludes Book I of Novum organum, two rules of scientific procedure are emphasized: "to drop all preconceived notions and make a fresh start; and … to refrain for a while from trying to rise to the most general conclusions or even near to them." The fresh start requires the mind to overcome the influence of four "ldols," tendencies that inhibit the search for truth. The Idols of the Tribe are common to mankind generally. The Idols of the Cave are the tendencies of each man to see truth in relation to his own particular interests and disposition. The Idols of the Theater are the traditional philosophical systems. The Idols of the Market Place are errors that arise from language.

Science should start with what Bacon called Tables of Investigation. The Table of Presence lists instances in which the phenomenon being studied occurs. The Table of Absence in Proximity includes the important negative instances; these are the ones most like the positive instances. The Table of Comparison compares the degrees of the phenomenon.

Interpretation begins with a brief survey which will suggest the correct explanation of the phenomenon. Although this "anticipation" resembles a hypothesis, there is in Bacon's discussions no clear indication that he recognized the central scientific importance of devising and testing hypotheses. He goes on to consider "prerogative instances," those most likely to facilitate interpretation, of which he classifies 27 different types. By following the method outlined, scientific investigation is supposed to produce, almost mechanically, a gradually increasing generality of understanding, a "ladder of axioms" upon which the mind can climb up or down.

Bacon's program was too ambitious and in its particulars it has been of little influence. His approach did serve, however, to encourage detailed, concrete observation and experimentation and a system of scientific theory tied to them. His identification as the Moses of modern science or the Columbus of the mind is therefore not entirely inapt.

Further Reading

The definitive edition of Bacon is James Spedding, Robert L. Ellis, and Douglas D. Heath, eds., The Works of Francis Bacon (14 vols., 1857-1874). The last seven volumes, edited by Spedding, were also printed separately as The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon Including All His Occasional Works. Among the most helpful works on Bacon are C. D. Broad, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1926); Fulton H. Anderson, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1948) and Francis Bacon: His Career and Thought (1962); Benjamin Farrington, Francis Bacon, Philosopher of Industrial Science (1949); Karl R. Wallace, Francis Bacon on the Nature of Man (1967); Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (trans. 1968); and Brian Vickers, ed., Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon (1968), which includes selected articles and useful bibliographical references. □

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Bacon, Sir Francis


Sir Francis Bacon was an English lawyer and statesman whose philosophical theories and writings influenced the development of scientific

and legal thought in Great Britain and the United States.

Bacon was born in 1561, the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the lord keeper of the great seal, and Lady Ann, whose brother-in-law was Baron Burghley (William Cecil), the first minister to Queen Elizabeth I. Bacon, like his father, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he enrolled at the age of twelve. In 1576 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London, which were institutions established for legal education. He also spent time in France as a member of the English ambassador's staff, before his father's sudden death required him to return to England and resume his legal education so that he could support his family. After completing his studies, Bacon became a barrister in 1582 and then attained the posts of reader (lecturer at the Inn) and bencher (senior member of the Inn).

In 1584, at the age of twenty-three, Bacon was elected to the House of Commons, representing Taunton, Liverpool, the county of Middlesex, Southampton, Ipswich, and the University of Cambridge. In 1594, he argued his first major case, Chudleigh's Case (1 Co. Rep. 1136, 76 Eng. Rep. 261 [K.B. 1594]), which involved the interpretation of complex inheritance statutes. He also began writing about science and philosophy and started work on his first major volume, Temporis Partus Maximus (The greatest part of time), though the book, along with many of his earliest works, was never published and so disappeared.

Through his friendship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Bacon became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth I and he eventually became her counsel around 1600. As counsel, Bacon later took part in the prosecution of Essex, from whom he had become estranged, for treason, and for these efforts Bacon was knighted in 1603. In 1605, he published his first book, The Advancement of Learning, a collection of essays on philosophy that he dedicated to King James I. Later the same year, he married Alice Barnham, the daughter of a wealthy London politician.

Bacon continued to curry the king's favor by assisting James in his plans to unite Scotland with England, and was named to the post of solicitor general in 1607. He also continued to write, publishing in 1609 The Wisdom of the Ancients, in which he analyzed the meaning of ancient myths. Seeking promotion to attorney general, Bacon advised the king concerning affairs of state and the relationship between the Crown and Parliament. He successfully engineered the ouster of the chief justice of the common pleas, sir edward coke, a longtime rival who had earlier occupied solicitor and attorney general posts that Bacon had sought. Bacon finally became attorney general in 1613, which enabled him to continue his feud with Coke. He eventually prosecuted Coke for his role in the case of Edmond Peacham, a clergyman charged with treason for advocating rebellion against oppression in an unpublished treatise, leading to Coke's dismissal in 1616. Bacon continued his service to the king and was appointed lord keeper of the great seal in 1617. A year later, he became lord chancellor of England, a post he held until 1621.

"Judges must be aware of hard constructions and strained inferences, for there is no worse torture than the torture of laws."
—Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon, a man of great intellect and energy, was often torn between his ambitions for higher office and his keen interest in science and philosophy. Though he was primarily concerned with his service to the Crown during most of his adult life, he did devote time to the study of philosophy. He was an early proponent of inductive reasoning, the theory that by analyzing observed facts, one can establish general laws or principles about how the world works. This theory is the opposite of deductive reasoning, which holds that one can draw specific conclusions by reasoning from more general premises. Bacon believed inductive reasoning to be more useful because it permitted the development of new theories that could be more generally and widely applied to a variety of situations. The legal systems of many countries, including the United States, were eventually grounded on the application of general laws derived from specific fact situations to govern conduct.

Bacon was likewise a strong believer in empiricism, the belief that experience is the most important source of knowledge. According to Bacon, scientists should try to learn about the world by using information gathered through the senses rather than by using reason or rules set forth by religious or political authority. Empiricism, like inductive reasoning, also influenced the development of later legal philosophies, in this case theories that viewed the law and justice as emerging from social life and experience.

Bacon was a prolific writer throughout his life, authoring a number of works expounding his theories. The Novum Organum, his most well known and widely read philosophical work, was published in 1620. The Instauratio Magna (Great instauration, from the Latin word instaurare, "to renew or begin afresh") was a comprehensive plan in which Bacon attempted to reorganize and redefine the sciences; it also contained his views concerning logic and scientific experimentation. In his philosophical writings, Bacon argued that the mind should be purged of what he termed idols, or tendencies to err. These idols, he maintained, arose from human nature, individual experience, and language. In addition, Bacon kept an extensive diary, which was discovered after his death. The notebook, known as the Commentarius Solutus (Loose commentary), contained his notes about, among other things, his debts, his garden, and his health.

Later in his life, Bacon began to fall out of favor with the Crown. In 1618, the king criticized him for interfering in the marriage of Coke's daughter. In 1621, Bacon was charged with accepting a bribe concerning a grievance committee over which he had presided. Bacon admitted in a full confession that he had received gifts, but denied that they had influenced his judgment. Though he begged for mercy, Bacon found the king unsympathetic to his case and was forced to resign his office. Bacon was sentenced to a stiff fine (which was later suspended), imprisonment in the Tower of London (which actually lasted only four days), exclusion from holding any state office, and prohibition from coming within the vicinity of the Court of King's Bench.

Following his ouster from the court, Bacon returned to his large estate at Gorhambury, in rural England, to devote all of his energies to research and writing. He prepared digests of the laws and wrote a history of Great Britain and its monarchs. He planned to write six separate natural histories, but only two were completed: Historia Ventorum (History of the winds), which was published in 1622, and Historia Vitae et Mortis (History of life and death), which appeared the following year. He also wrote the History of Henry VII, published in 1622. In 1621, he enlarged his volume of Essays, which he had first published in 1597, and in 1627, he published The New Atlantis. He also corresponded with Italian philosophers and sent his work to them. Over the years, some writers have suggested that Bacon may have been the true author of William Shakespeare's plays, but because no concrete proof has been offered, the theory has been discounted by most scholars.

Sometime around 1623, Bacon, in ill health, was finally granted an audience with the king,

but he was not granted a pardon for his offenses. In London, on April 9, 1626, he died of bronchitis he contracted while conducting experiments on the effects of refrigeration on poultry.

further readings

Bowen, Catherine D. 1963. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hogan, John C., and Mortimer D. Schwartz. 1985. "A Translation of Bacon's Maxims of the Common Law." Law Library Journal 77 (fall): 707–18.

Whitney, Charles. 1986. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Zagorin, Perez. 1998. Francis Bacon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.


Coke, Sir Edward; Inns of Court.

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Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)

BACON, FRANCIS (15611626)

BACON, FRANCIS (15611626), English natural philosopher, essayist, and statesman. Francis Bacon was the youngest son of Elizabeth I's lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, and his second wife, Anne Cooke. Nephew by marriage to William Cecil, chief councillor to the queen, young Bacon was well positioned to succeed at court. Educated at Cambridge from the age of twelve, Bacon in 1576 began the study of law at Gray's Inn. He interrupted his legal studies that same year to accompany Sir Amias Paulet on a diplomatic mission to France. His father's sudden death recalled him home after three years' residence abroad. Because Sir Nicholas had not made adequate financial provisions for his youngest son, Francis now had to fend for himself financially. He continued his legal studies, becoming a bencher, or senior member, at Gray's in 1586. In 1584 Bacon became a member of Parliament, but thereafter failed to secure the position of solicitor general despite the assistance of his patron, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. In 1597 he published the first version of his Essays, which he continued to revise and augment in later years. During Elizabeth's reign, Bacon only attained to the post of learned counsel extraordinary and the dubious honor of prosecuting his recalcitrant ex-patron, the earl of Essex, for his treasonous uprising in 1601.

James I's ascension to the English monarchy in 1603 marked a decided turn in Bacon's fortunes. Knighted and appointed to the position of king's counsel, Bacon thereafter became solicitor general (1607), attorney general (1613), member of the privy council (1616), and lord keeper (1617). He married Alice Barnham in 1606. In 1618, he was created Baron Verulam, and became lord chancellor. From 1604 until 1621, when he was impeached for bribery, Bacon advised the king on religious, financial, administrative, parliamentary, judicial, and foreign policy matters, as well as advocating for the political union of England and Scotland. As lord chancellor, he wrote important judicial decisions and sought to reform English law.

During this period, Bacon wrote extensively about ameliorating the human condition through his plans for the advancement of natural philosophy. His Advancement of Learning appeared in 1605, his natural philosophic reinterpretation of Greek mythology, De Sapientia Veterum, in 1609, the Novum Organum in 1620, and the Historia Ventorum in 1622. After his impeachment, Bacon devoted his final years to scientific writing and experiments. He died childless in 1626 from pneumonia contracted after a foray into winter snows with a chicken carcass to conduct an experiment in refrigeration.

Bacon achieved an incisive grasp of the most significant philosophical, social, and political issues of early modernism. In The Advancement of Learning, he took the measure of the intellectual ferment that comprised the contemporary intellectual scene. Aristotelian natural philosophy had lost preeminence and now competed with Neoplatonism, empiricism, alchemy, and ancient atomism, among other philosophical theories, in the effort to explicate the natural world. Bacon articulated the weaknesses of each intellectual movement and reincorporated its strengths into his own philosophical program. For Bacon, natural philosophy should begin with empirical observation and the painstaking compilation of natural histories. Inductive inquiry and the noting of particulars would be followed by controlled experiments (under natural and artificial conditions), which would yield first-level axioms or generalizations. These, in turn, would be corrected and refined by further inductive inquiry and experimentation until higher-level axioms, which were capable of producing useful material effects, were attained. To ensure the validity of inductive and experimental findings, Bacon required the natural philosopher to eschew the four "Idols of the Mind," those ways in which the human mind distorted knowledge through the peculiarities of nature, nurture, language, and ungrounded theorizing.

Bacon tried to ensure that his program was politically practical. He designed his new science to fit within the institutional framework of a Jacobean monarchy purportedly interested in mutually beneficial relations with commercial and artisanal sectors. Bacon imagined the scientific enterprise as a grand public works project that would enlist the energies and ideas of broad sectors of society but would remain under the auspices of royal government. Bacon's institution of natural philosophy would be to reconcile private intellectual ambitions with public interests to the benefit of civil society, as his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis (1627), envisioned.

Francis Bacon never gained financial or political support for his scientific program during his lifetime. His philosophic influence in England was negligible during the first third of the seventeenth century, although his importance was understood in the 1620s by Continental philosophers such as Pierre Gassendi, Marin Mersenne, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, and Isaac Beeckman. By mid-century, however, Bacon's works were highly valued everywhere. In the 1640s, Protestant educational reformists led by Samuel Hartlib saw Bacon as a forerunner. John Wilkins, Seth Ward, and John Webster followed Bacon in attempting to devise an accurate scientific language. But Bacon's greatest influence was on the early members of England's Royal Society (est. 1662), who viewed him as their intellectual progenitor. Bacon's star blazed bright into the eighteenth century, but was clouded in the nineteenth, when biographers charged him with perfidy in prosecuting his treasonous former patron, the earl of Essex. Nonetheless, the upsurge in published studies of Bacon's life and work at the turn of the twenty-first century makes evident his status as a seminal figure in the history of early modern science.

See also Alchemy ; Aristotelianism ; Descartes, René ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Empiricism ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Hartlib, Samuel ; Huygens Family ; James I and VI (England and Scotland) ; Mersenne, Marin ; Neoplatonism ; Wilkins, John .


Primary Sources

Bacon, Francis. The Advancement of Learning. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Oxford, 2000.

. The Essayes or Counsel, Civill and Morall. Edited by Michael Kiernan. Oxford, 1985.

. The New Organon. Edited by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000. Translation of Novum Organum (1620).

Secondary Sources

Solomon, Julie Robin. Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry. Baltimore, 2003.

Weinberger, Jerry. Science, Faith, and Politics: Francis Bacon and the Utopian Roots of the Modern Age. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985.

Whitney, Charles. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, 1986.

Julie Robin Solomon

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Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)

Bacon, Francis (15611626)

English philosopher and essayist, and a key voice and advocate of the Scientific Revolution that followed on the heels of the Renaissance. Bacon was born in London, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Queen Elizabeth's Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and Ann Cooke Bacon. He was the nephew of William Cecil, the chief counselor to the queen, and his family connections prepared him from an early age for a public career. At the age of twelve, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied Aristotelianism but found it lacking in objectivity. In 1576 he traveled to France, where he stayed until 1579, upon the death of his father. Unable to prosper from his father's meager legacy, he studied law at Cambridge and became a barrister in 1582.

Bacon took a seat in the English parliament in 1584 and began seeking advancement and the patronage of the queen. His opposition to a scheme for raising taxes, however, brought him into Elizabeth's disfavor. He improved his prospects by allying himself with the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Elizabeth, and serving as Essex's counselor. In 1596 Bacon was appointed counsel to the Queen, but his financial situation did not improve and in 1598 he was arrested for debt. After a falling out with the Earl of Essex, Bacon was appointed to investigate Essex on the suspicion of treason. Essex was executed in 1601; Bacon explained his findings in the essay A Declaration of the Practices and Treasons of the Earl of Essex. On the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, James I, the first of the Stuart dynasty, ascended the throne of England. Bacon earned recognition from the crown for his help in condemning the Earl of Essex.

He was bestowed a knighthood in 1603, became a solicitor in 1607, and was appointed clerk of the king's Star Chamber in 1608. In 1613 James named him attorney general, and in 1616 Bacon became a member of the king's Privy Council. In 1618 he attained the post of Lord Chancellor, in which he advised the king on

economic and political matters and also advocated the union of England and Scotland under a single monarch. At the same time, his continuing financial troubles brought him under suspicion of corruption. In 1621 Bacon was investigated and then forced out of office for taking bribes. He was fined forty thousand pounds, imprisoned in the Tower of London for several days, and banned from holding any official position in the future. After this fall from grace Bacon retired from public life and turned to studying and writing.

Bacon's works include The Colours of Good and Evil, Meditationes Sacrae, The Advancement of Learning (1605), and Novum Organum, published in 1620. His most famous work is a book titled Essays, a collection of writings that he began assembling in 1597 that span thirty years. In his essays and books Bacon describes a new method of deductive reasoning, urging scientists and philosophers to proceed on the foundation of observable facts instead of from popular religious or philosophical doctrines, whether they originated in the ancient or medieval world. Further, the scientist should avoid certain habits of mind, which Bacon called Idols, that arose from their own nature, from their use of language, from their upbringing, and from the society in which they lived. In his view a rigorously factual investigation and controlled experiments would eventually lead to the discovery of general principles that governed all natural phenomena. In De Augmentis Scientiarum, published in 1623, Bacon separates duty to society from duty to God, and denies the idea that universal principles should govern human actions in their social, nonreligious lives. He recognizes the separation of science and religion, maintaining that faith could not be justified through the intellect and that scientific investigation could not proceed on faith. This philosophy marked the end of an age in which strict religious doctrines bound European thinkers, writers, and scientists; and when philosophers constructed elaborate but artificial systems to explain the evidence of their senses.

New Atlantis is a novel Bacon wrote in the 1620s in which he creates a utopian society founded on scientific principles that bring about a variety of useful inventions: a way to preserve food by chilling it, a system of controlling the air temperature within closed rooms, and a method of speaking across long distances. Although he was no scientist, throughout his life Bacon sought to apply his philosophical principles to experiments to the best of his ability, using materials at hand. In 1626, while traveling on a cold winter's day, he was inspired by a new idea for preserving food. He had a woman kill and clean a chicken that he then stuffed with snow. Falling ill with pneumonia, he then ate the chicken in an attempt to ward off the illness and soon came down with a fatal case of food poisoning.

Bacon enjoyed little popularity during his lifetime, but his reputation grew post-humously through the seventeenth century, when many scientists relied on the philosophical foundation he had laid in their pursuit of scientific truth. The establishment of England's Royal Society in 1660 was largely inspired by Bacon's philosophy, which advocated benefitting the general public welfare through the advancement of science.

See Also: Aristotelianism; Elizabeth I; James I of England

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Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Albans

Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Albans (1561–1626). Lawyer, philosopher, and essayist. The son of a prominent lawyer, Bacon went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and then to the Inns of Court. In constant need of money, in 1584 he became an MP. In the course of his public career, he prosecuted the earl of Essex, his former patron: he became much disliked. On the accession of James I Bacon achieved rapid promotion, prosecuting Ralegh, raised to the peerage, and ending up as lord chancellor. But in 1621 he was convicted of taking bribes, and though soon pardoned and released, he had to give up public life.

His witty and pithy Essays were first published in 1597, and are splendid examples of English prose; and in 1605 he brought out his Advancement of Learning. In this first exercise in writing about science, he was highly critical of the humanistic education he had received at Cambridge, and saw classical texts as flotsam carried down on the river of time. He believed that the Bible and the Book of Nature were, rightly understood, compatible; and that scientific knowledge properly applied would bring us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In 1620 he published his Novum organum, presenting his philosophy of science in the form of aphorisms, many of them memorable. In retirement, he collected and published information of a rather miscellaneous kind, in what was to be the Great Instauration: his title-pages indicate that he saw himself as an intellectual Columbus, revealing the new world of science to his contemporaries, and bringing back ships freighted with useful knowledge. He died a martyr to science, from a chill caught trying to preserve a chicken by stuffing it with snow. After his death, the fragmentary New Atlantis was published in 1627: with its vision of an island governed by an Academy of Sciences, founded ‘for the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. This is the most accessible and exciting of his writings on science.

Bacon is an important figure in the scientific revolution; Robert Boyle and other founders of the Royal Society saw themselves as his disciples. His was a cautious experimental method, the mind being cleared of preconceptions or ‘idols’ and proceeding by induction and generalization to the discovery of causes or ‘forms’. He was sceptical about mathematics, as Aristotle had been; and was similarly doubtful about the motion of the earth, and the atomic theory. He was scornful about his contemporary William Gilbert, who had done careful studies of magnetism. Galileo praised Copernicus for defying common sense; Bacon's science was organized common sense; and his vision of utility was gripping.

Britain's industrial revolution depended upon this kind of thinking, but the systematic application of science was a feature only of the 19th cent. Britons in the 1790s saw Baconian science as safe; the French philosophes had been led into dangerous speculation, and had brought atheism and revolution upon their country. Baconian induction lay behind the public health measures of the 19th cent., and John Stuart Mill sought to formalize his methods in his System of Logic of 1843. All efforts to show that inductive inference can bring certainty seem, however, to have failed; and in the 20th cent., while Baconian induction was often taught to schoolchildren as ‘the scientific method’, it fell out of favour amongst philosophers of science. Nevertheless, we can appreciate his vision of the scientist not as a spider, which spins webs; nor as an ant, which rushes around seizing upon everything; but as a bee, which collects nectar and turns it laboriously into honey.

David Knight


Wormald, B. H. G. , Francis Bacon (Cambridge, 1991).

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Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)

Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)

Francis Bacon, generally considered the father of modern science, is also revered by modern astrologers and occultists for his incorporation of magic and the astrological arts into his worldview. Bacon was born on January 22, 1561, in London, England. He was but 12 years old when he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and three years later moved on to Gray's Inn to pursue legal studies. He was admitted to the bar in 1582. Two years previously he had been elected to Parliament. His political maneuverings would ultimately lead to his downfall. He steadily advanced in office until he offended Queen Elizabeth in 1593. He subsequently made some unfortunate political alliances but recovered during the reign of James I. He was knighted and became successively attorney general (1613), Lord Keeper (1617), and Viscount St. Albans (1621). Then at the height of his power, he was charged with taking bribes, stripped of his offices, and cast into the Tower of London.

Bacon is best remembered not for his political career, nor even the many essays he wrote on political life, but for the two works produced near the end of his life, Maga Instauratio and Novum Organum, both of which were published in 1620. In the former, he laid out a plan for the reorganization of human knowledge based on science. In the latter he produced a new natural history and laid out a program for studying nature through the empirical method. He complained that science was not moving forward because it was based in false theories derived from Aristotle and Plato rather than the observation of nature and a process of induction reasoning developed out of such observation. He thus criticized alchemy, for example, and suggested that its few successes derived from mere change occurrences.

Bacon tried to rehabilitate himself during the last few years of his life, but he died on April 9, 1626, without the full pardon he sought from the king. In the twentieth century, Rosicrucians have invoked Bacon's name in their attempt to trace a lineage of thinkers back to ancient Egypt, but there is no evidence of his association with Rosicrucianism, which had just appeared in Germany toward the end of Bacon's life. On the other hand, some modern astrologers have claimed Bacon in their drive to recast their art in a post-scientific format based upon empirical observation.


Anderson, Fulton H. Francis Bacon: His Career and Thought. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1962.

The Works, Letters and Life of Francis Bacon. Edited by James Speddong, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath. 14 vols. London: Longmans, 1857-74.

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Bacon, Francis (English philosopher and statesman)

Francis Bacon, 1561–1626, English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, b. London, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at Gray's Inn. He was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper to Queen Elizabeth I. Francis Bacon was a member of Parliament in 1584 and his opposition to Elizabeth's tax program retarded his political advancement; only the efforts of the earl of Essex led Elizabeth to accept him as an unofficial member of her Learned Council. At Essex's trial in 1601, Bacon, putting duty to the state above friendship, assumed an active part in the prosecution—a course for which many have condemned him. With the succession of James I, Bacon's fortunes improved. He was knighted in 1603, became attorney general in 1613, lord keeper in 1617, and lord chancellor in 1618; he was created Baron Verulam in 1618 and Viscount St. Albans in 1621. In 1621, accused of accepting bribes as lord chancellor, he pleaded guilty and was fined £40,000, banished from the court, disqualified from holding office, and sentenced to the Tower of London. The banishment, fine, and imprisonment were remitted. Nevertheless, his career as a public servant was ended. He spent the rest of his life writing in retirement.

Bacon belongs to both the worlds of philosophy and literature. He projected a large philosophical work, the Instauratio Magna, but completed only two parts, The Advancement of Learning (1605), later expanded in Latin as De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), and the Novum Organum (1620). Bacon's contribution to philosophy was his application of the inductive method of modern science. He urged full investigation in all cases, avoiding theories based on insufficient data. However, he has been widely censured for being too mechanical, failing to carry his investigations to their logical ends, and not staying abreast of the scientific knowledge of his own day. In the 19th cent., Macaulay initiated a movement to restore Bacon's prestige as a scientist. Today his contributions are regarded with considerable respect. In The New Atlantis (1627) he describes a scientific utopia that found partial realization with the organization of the Royal Society in 1660. Noted for their style and their striking observations about life, his largely aphoristic Essays (1597–1625) are his best-known writings.

See his works (14 vol., 1857–74, repr. 1968); biography by L. Jardine and A. Stewart (1999); studies by J. Weinberger (1985) and P. Urbach (1987); D. W. Davies and E. S. Wrigley, ed., Concordance to the Essays of Francis Bacon (1973).

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Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Albans

Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Albans (1561–1626) British philosopher, statesman and early advocate of the scientific method. He was also an important essayist. Successively attorney-general, lord keeper and lord chancellor, he was forced to resign his offices in 1621 when found guilty of corruption. None of this interrupted his efforts to break the hold of Aristotelian logic and establish an inductive empiricism. He entertained the idea of cataloguing all useful knowledge in his Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum Organum (1620). The New Atlantis (1627) discusses his philosophy as practised in an imaginary nation.

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