The Baconian reform of philosophy: The Apology

An essay on Modern philosophy.

30 November 2010

Prior to Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, the end of philosophy was recognized as a species of contemplation for its own sake. Philosophical inquiry dealt with the idealistic whims of the higher-ups in society, those who held power (such as the Schoolmen, as Bacon calls them, and the Divines, or clergymen), where the separation of natural philosophy and science was not yet made, and the benefit of such inquiry was directed towards the individual. As was often the case of the ancients, this method could not yield any substantial truths, but instead amounted to a set of clever yet useless arguments. Because of this, Bacon comments, “so we see, artillery, sailing, printing, and the like, were grossly managed at first, and by time accommodated and refined; but contrariwise the philosophies and sciences of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, Hippocrates, Euclides, Archimedes, of most vigour at the first, [were made] by time degenerate and imbased” (144). Philosophy was stagnating by recycling the same ideas in an effort to jump the gap between the ordinary courses of nature and the end of knowledge.

Roughly two centuries into the Renaissance, Bacon saw the opportunity to institute his own philosophy fashioned from years of instruction under the intellectual elites of the time, and born of his curiosity and criticism of his contemporaries. In his new doctrine outlined in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon creates the foundation for his new apology of philosophy. Most significantly, he renounces the end of philosophy as the inquiry into vain knowledge, or what he determines to be the brand of knowledge in accordance with the Genesis account of Creation. He insists “the greatest error above all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge” (147). The proper end is revealed to “sincerely give a true account (of one’s) gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men” (147). As regards to the relationship between the knowledge of nature and that of the divine teachings, one is not in the position “out of the contemplation of nature, or the ground of human knowledges, to induce any verity or persuasion concerning the points of faith” (192).

Bacon first constructs his apology on the novelty of philosophy to be able to procure innovative solutions to problems. He refutes the archaic teachings of the Church and the revival of the Greek philosophical maxims that inhibit this, as he believed. And in order to do this, he dismisses the teleological endeavors of the ancients in The Advancement as Machiavelli did in his 1517 narrative The [Golden] Ass. Both works were monumental to the formation and implementation of new modes and orders, yet Bacon takes his work a step further in propelling philosophy into modernity. In his letter addressed to King James I, Bacon appeals to his majesty’s vanity, subversively flattering his knowledge and at the same time writing for those who would understand his ulterior motives. For all intents and purposes, however, it appears that Bacon did not wish to simply enlighten the few, but to persuade those in power to sympathize with his position. As a notable statesman and author, Bacon’s proposal of marriage between political power and philosophy under the guise of progress was probably very well-received. From his wide rule of political offices, it may at least be asserted that once introduced, Bacon’s teachings were certainly credible to a large audience and although subtle in his letter, the linguistic master’s true intent was not overlooked.

Bacon recognized that what is held in common among philosophers and theologians, citizens, and kings alike is their insatiable desire for answers. At the core of the human condition rests a necessity to comprehend the universal reality that lies within being. The fabric of both temporal and spatial existences constitutes the traditional philosophical dogma spanning the millennia. But Bacon was aware that there was another, relatively new but much greater power that captured the minds of men. The spiritual power of Christianity in particular, enveloped in the faith of the people, was the main political force of the time, and it was an obstacle because it encouraged the passions which Bacon so disapproved of and warned against as a sign of retrogression.

Bacon thus resolved to rework the traditional duality of passion and reason. Henceforth, philosophy would be independent in its own right, and it would command the proper method of truth-seeking, so that the results gained by philosophical exercises would not be skewed by the expectations of idealists. Knowledge (as a form of reason) must then be separated from the sensible passions, for nature itself admits of no passions, but only laws. Nature is impartial to the affairs of man, and the influences of such forces as chance, fortune, and fate are relative. Bacon reasons that it is humanity’s duty to unveil the perversions it harbors which blind it from the truth, and only after this revelation can man’s ultimate aspiration be satisfied, “which is immortality or continuance” (167). Bacon proposes that the fruits of his philosophy would be never-ending. To make this possible, he renounced the inquiry into first principles, concluding: “let no man, upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far…in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both” (126). This allows the continual pursuit of second principles and ends the aimless turnings-about of the ancients.

Although the Summa Lex of popular philosophy was discarded as the end of philosophy and knowledge, Bacon did not wholly dispose of it. While he seemed to admit that he theoretically found it impossible, he nonetheless saw its importance as an incentive for the idealists. Just as Machiavelli asserted that what man is by nature does not change, Bacon also realized that he had to provide an interpretation of his work for those who would never be able to see beyond their own illusions. Thus by leaving open his discussion of the Summa Lex, Bacon appeals to those minds that strain a lesser application to second causes as well as those with religious temperaments that would prefer a nature equal in perfection to God.

Bacon’s apology of philosophy proposes a radical reform to the formerly defunct end of knowledge. The mechanics of his new teachings distinguish him from all other philosophers. Rooted in the exposition of physics, Bacon’s outline provides a potentially endless succession of technological advancements that would revolutionize how society lives, functions, and communicates. It is not a solution or remedy to the problems of ancient philosophers, but rather a meditation that has uncovered the truest method of inquiry. Combined with political power, Humanitarianism is the new caritas that will deliver humanity into the progress of modernity and secure its mastery of nature.

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