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The Baconian System of Philosophy

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This system takes its name from its founder, Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, statesman and philosopher, born 22 January, 1561; died 9 April, 1626. He was the second son of Lord Keeper Bacon and Anne, his second wife, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and sister-in-law of Lord Burghley. In his thirteenth year (1573) he entered Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied under Whitgift. Before he left (1575) he had already acquired considerable reputation for his ability and learning. It was at Cambridge, as he later confessed to Rawley, that he fallen into the dislike of the Aristotelean philosophy — "not for the worthlessness of the author to whom he would ever ascribe all high attributes, but for the unfruitfulness of the way; being a philosophy, as his Lordship used to say, only for disputations and contentions but barren of the production of works for the benefit of man. In which mind he continued until his dying day".

In June, 1576, he was admitted to Gray's Inn, being destined for the profession of law; but shortly afterwards was attached to the French embassy of Sir Amyas Paulet. His father died in 1579, leaving him small provision. He thereupon returned to England to continue his legal studies and was admitted barrister 27 June, 1582. Two years later he was elected to Parliament for the Borough of Melcome Regis. In the following year he penned his "Letter of Advice to Queen Elizabeth", a document of considerable interest to Catholics, as expressing Bacon's views upon their treatment. Mary Stuart was yet alive, and there were plots and rumours of plots against the queen. There were many adherents of the old faith; and conformity might be secured either by severe measures or by insidious ones. The young member had Catholics for the queen's enemies. It was impossible, he thought, to satisfy them, dangerous to irritate by too great severity. He recommended changes in the Oath of Supremacy and even went so far as to urge a circumspect toleration of the sectaries because their teaching led to an issue "which your most excellent Majesty is to wish and desire" viz., the diminutions, and weakening of Papists. His political life and advancement, notwithstanding his intrigue and incessant suit for office, were slow; his extraordinary ambition doomed for years to infruition. He had the misfortune to incur the queen's displeasure by opposing a grant of subsidies in such form as to infringe upon the privileges of the Commons. The patronage he found in Essex led to a friendship as remarkable as its end was dramatic and disastrous. Until 1607, when James I had reigned nearly four years, he had advanced no further in office than to be given the reversion of the post of Registrar of the Star Chamber. But in 1607, he became Solicitor-General. Then, until his fall, he advanced rapidly. The Attorney-Generalship was given to him in 1613. He became successively a member of the Privy Council (1616), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1617), Lord Chancellor (1618). He was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Verulam (1618) and made Viscount St. Albans (1621). Suddenly he fell. He was accused, as Chancellor, of taking bribes. To this charge he pleaded guilty, was deprived, and declared incapable of holding any office, place, or employment in the State. He was excluded from both Parliament and Court, fined 40,000 pounds, and sentenced to imprisonment in the Tower during the king's pleasure. In time, all his sentence was remitted.

His death occurred five years later on his way to dine at Highgate, he alighted from his carriage purchased, killed, and stuffed a hen with snow in order to observe the retarding effects of cold upon putrefaction. He caught a chill which set up bronchitis. A week later he died in the house of the Earl of Arundel; and was buried, according to his wish, at St. Alban's in the church of St. Michael.

The philosophy of Lord Bacon is too fragmentary to lend itself to criticism other than discursive, too largely conceived to be brushed aside with a mere line of comment, too full of symbolic expression to be exactly and briefly set down. It is rather of the nature of a method than a system and it is a method that is incomplete. Few attempts at giving a new direction to the pursuit of truth have been more overrated; few the butt of such vigorous criticism. It might be said that Bacon suffered most in it from falling into the very pitfalls that he indicated as dangerous to others. His confidence in his own powers was colossal. Few men could have written as he did in the "Novum Organum":

The die is cast, the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity — I care not which; it may wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 6000 years for an observer. Note: This was written by Kepler, not Bacon.

His misconstruction and minimizing of the work of the old philosophers — except, perhaps, Democritus — is as startling as his ignorance of the contemporary science of his day or as the application he makes of his own principles; for the incipient rules of induction" (their use already exemplified in Aristotle's "Analytica Posteriora"), that find their more exact expression in Mill's Canons, should have prevented some, at least, of his cruder scientific views. With all his signalling of the insidious dangers of the Idola, he could not altogether rid his understanding of the preoccupations caused by them, even in the presentation of his Inductive Method. These celebrated phantoms of the mind, of which we must be at pains to rid ourselves, are four in number:

Still the fact that he pointed them out and laid stress upon the danger is an advance. His lists, too, of facts, his confused congeries of instances, point the way to a Scientific examination of Nature. Their contents are to be treated by

Roughly speaking, this would be tantamount to the use of the Method of Agreement and Difference, taken together with that of Concomitant Variations. What is not brought into sufficient prominence is the extremely useful part played by guesswork and hypotheses in the generalization and grouping of facts and instances; but this is scarcely to be wondered at, since Bacon, though he does allow a grudging value to it, proposed to inaugurate certain process by which inductions might be readily produced from facts by an almost mechanical or mathematical process.

Interesting to the scholastic philosopher is his treatment of causes--and particularly of the formal causes. There are the usual four causes, the formal and the final belonging, in Bacon's scheme, to metaphysical investigation; the efficient and material to physical. The aim of the author of the "Novum Organum" was to banish final causes from the scope of physical science. His limiting of the efficient cause to physical science throws light on his abrupt separation of philosophy and theology (vide infra). With regard to the formal cause of being, our author is peculiarly inconsistent. He uses the term in a succession of different suppositions, so that his true meaning is effectually obscured in the varying uses of the word. But, from a passage in the "De Augmetis", it may be inferred that he treated of what is known to the scholastic as the forma accidentalis. The "forms" of colour, gravity, density, heat, etc. "of which the essences, upheld by matter, of all creatures do consist" are proposed for investigation — not the forms of substances. It will be noted that he makes the essences consist of these "forms" sustained by matter--a view that, with slight modifications, is to be found in several more modern systems.

Bacon's object was avowedly a practical one. Given the inductive knowledge of the "form" we ought to be able to produce the logically consequent quality in matter. He conceived it a possibility to juggle with the "forms" in much the same sense as the alchemist of earlier days hoped to transmute essences. His own positive contributions to the advancement of science were meagre in the extreme. No philosopher go to his works for guidance, no scientist for information. Indeed, Dr. Whewell says that no scientific discovery has ever been made by Bacon's method. The gaps in his system were never bridged by those processes that were to render it complete. But it would be a mark of superficial consideration and historical inaccuracy to label the method that he advanced wholly jejune or useless. As a matter of fact, he called attention to the dangerous neglect of accurate observation that was the reproach of the later scholastics; and he gave an undoubted incentive to the persecution of positive science. If he did little himself to raise science to the position of dignity it now occupies, he at least indicated the path upon which it should proceed. But in creating the method of induction he abased that of deduction; and without a single general principle as a basis, any philosophy, systematic or mathematical, is open to the charge of inconsequence.

Bacon's position in regard to revelation is well known. Reason can attain no positive knowledge of God. This must come by faith alone. Religion is above reason, but is not opposed by it. On the contrary it is the office of reason to meet the objections and refute the arguments that are urged against the truths of revelation, whether Bacon was really a rationalist or a believer has been disputed. As a statesman, he was an Anglican and Erastian. As a philosopher, religion does not come within his purview. But there are passages in his writings that show a decidedly reverent and religious spirit, especially in some of the "Essays".

Lord Bacon's chief works are contained in the following list. The dates given are those of publication:

The chief editions of Bacon's works were made by Rawley (1627-57); Tenison (1679); Stephens (1734). "Complete editions" by Blackbourne (1730); Mallet (1740); Birch (1763); Montague (1834); Spedding, Ellis, and Heath (1857-83).

About this page

APA citation. Aveling, F. (1907). The Baconian System of Philosophy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Aveling, Francis. "The Baconian System of Philosophy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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