An Inheritance Recovered

  • Anthony J. Funari


The epistemological project Francis Bacon outlines in his scientific treatises calls for no less than an entire renewal of all human learning. For Bacon, learning had failed to bring humanity any closer to the dominion over Nature once enjoyed in Eden. What Bacon finds in contemporary natural philosophy is unproductive scholastic arguments, a fetishizing of words, an unwarranted veneration of classical authors, and disdain for the sensual experience of the world.1 The path Bacon envisions to lead humanity out of its intellectual morass of frivolous philosophical disputations consisted of a new intellectual program, one that would privilege the experiential over the abstract, that would look to bring the mind in contact with things themselves, and that demanded the cleansing of the mind of all its fictions. Bacon subordinates intellectual endeavors to the amelioration of humanity’s physical existence. This chapter focuses on the narrative Bacon employs to present his scientific program as a form of restoration.


Natural World Scientific Progress Moral Knowledge Human Understanding Scientific Advancement 
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  1. 1.
    See also Bacon’s discussion of scholastic contempt for experimentalism: “One evil that has grown to an extraordinary degree comes from a certain opinion … that it is beneath man’s dignity to spend much time and trouble on experiments and particulars that come under the senses and are materially bounded, especially since they are usually laborious to look into, too base for serious thought, awkward to explain, degrading to carry out, endless in number and minute in subtlety” Novum Organum—With Other Parts of The Great Instauration, ed. Peter Urbach and John Gibson (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), bk. 1, lxxxiii.Google Scholar
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    Western epistemology up to the end of the sixteenth century, as Michel Foucault describes, was based on resemblance, the guiding principle that “made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.” The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 17. Foucault identifies four types of similitudes: convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathies. These similitudes look to negate any visible distinction or difference, always moving toward a unified universe. For example, aemulatio overcame perceived distance to bring things into reflective contact with each other: “There is something in emulation of the reflection and the mirror: it is the means whereby things scattered through the universe can answer one another.” In this sense, reality acts as a mirror that allows the human observer to see himself reflected everywhere: “The relation of emulation enables things to imitate one another from one end of the universe to the other without connection or proximity: by duplicating itself in a mirror the world abolishes the distance proper to it; in this way it overcomes the place allotted to it” (19). As opposed to modern scientific epistemology that effaces the observer in the world, the search for similitudes demanded recognition of one’s presence and relationship to, not distance from, the universe, which is composed of a “series of concentric circles reflecting and rivaling one another” ad infinitum (21). The demand placed on the knower was not to separate but to join with the thing to be known. Within this episteme of resemblance, the micromacrocosmic paradigm provided a foundational model. Foucault suggests precise ways that the micromacrocosmic paradigm functioned in this epistemology: first, by providing assurance of a connected, unified reality and second, by circumscribing the universe. Ultimately, contemplation of the external would lead the knower toward self-discovery, blurring the very lines between self and other that Bacon would work so hard to make clear. Instead of a distanced observer, the premodern natural philosopher would eventually discover the macrocosm within the self. It was the knowledge of these analogies that would enable the human imagination to provide order and unity to a chaotic universe. This epistemology incorporates the self into the world.Google Scholar
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    Martin Carrier analyzes the tension between two seemingly conflicting models of scientific progress, those of scientific realism and of unlimited progress. The former envisions an end point for the accumulation of scientific knowledge. If science’s purpose is to make available the “truth” of our universe, then eventually such knowledge will be achieved: “The issue rather is conceptual in nature: the view that science gets more and more things right entails—or appears to entail—the view that the endeavor of disclosing nature will be brought to completion at some time.” “How to Pile up Fundamental Truths Incessantly,” in Science at Century’s End: Philosophical Questions on the Progress and Limits of Science, ed. Martin Carrier, Gerald Massey, and Laura Ruetsche (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 94. According to scientific realism, the scientific mind possesses the ability to completely map out Nature’s most minute, intricate workings and that a time will inevitably come when science’s work is done. Such a view does posit a stable, finite, knowable universe. It is interesting to note that Carrier finds scientific realism depicts a model of scientific progress as a “geographic picture”: “You chart the surface of the earth, and if you are successful you inevitably reach a point at which no pristine territories are left” (97). This metaphor for science is evinced by Bacon’s linking his instauration to Columbus’s exploration of the New World. Carrier contrasts scientific realism to the postmodern realization of science as a limitless project, espoused by Thomas Kuhn. As Carrier summarizes the view of science as unending task, science is no longer seen as building toward a final point, hence no longer teleological. Science as the steady accumulation of ever increasingly accurate pieces of data about Nature is supplanted by science as a series of conceptual models overthrown. However, by unhitching science from any teleological ambitions, Carrier argues that science becomes more concerned with propagating itself than with progress. I would add that the postmodern critique denies to science its ability to sustain myth, which is central to the Baconian conception of science.Google Scholar
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© Anthony J. Funari 2011

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