Francis Bacon: Essays and Major Works Background

Francis Bacon: Essays and Major Works Background

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a prominent figure in 16th century Britain, and was known for his consistent efforts in creating an academic setting dedicated to the rigorous and meticulous pursuit of gathering knowledge. In his lifetime, he was not only a prominent philosopher whose works hold great academic credibility even today, but also a lawyer, statesman, essayist, historian, and most of all, a great advocate of reform in the intellectual spheres, which he believed were highly flawed. He dedicated his life to the restructuring of "traditional" learning, and to promoting learning through the scientific principles of experimentation and intensive research.

Born into a family of aristocratic connection in London, Bacon was educated till the age of twelve by his highly learned parents. He then entered Trinity College in Cambridge, and had strong opposition to the methodology employed in learning. Cambridge, an institute of high repute, failed to impress Bacon, who began to disapprove of the Aristotelian method employed in the universities of England at that time. The academic traditions and works of Plato, Aristotle and other classical thinkers did not resonate with Bacon. After a brief stint studying law, he went to France on diplomatic work. However, the death of his father who left him barely any money, forced Bacon to return to England in search of better prospects. After completion of his law degree in 1582 and subsequently becoming a lecturer, he began his foray into political life in 1584- after being elected a member of the British Parliament. Unfortunately, his criticism of a new tax scheme landed him on the negative side of the reigning monarch-, which was a highly unfavorable situation in those times. It was only when King James I became monarch in 1603 did Bacon's rise to political power begin. He ascended the ranks rapidly, becoming Lord Chancellor in 1618- a very high rank in the hierarchical structure of those times. However, he did not remain at the top very long. Accusations of bribery landed him in jail in 1621, and while he spent only four days in jail, Bacon was not allowed to be a Member of Parliament or hold any political office as a consequence. It was after his humiliating experience that he entered a spurt of intellectual activity, published a great number of notable essays and novels, and conducted intensive research until his untimely death in 1626.

The times in which Bacon lived and worked were conducive to the formation of his principles. Being alive during the Renaissance period exposed Bacon to the idea that one could question established norms of thought and learning. Bacon, as a result, participated in the intellectual awakening. He was popularly known as the "father of Empiricism". Empiricism was a movement in philosophy, which believed that experience was the source of all human knowledge, and not innate ideas (creationism) or a result of the mind's capacity to reason (rationalism, which was largely championed by Rene Descartes). Bacon, who believed in intensive scientific enquiry, championed the cause of the Empiricists. As we will see later, a lot of his work on induction was based on inferring general principles after a highly detailed study of specific instances, and gradually building up a stable edifice of knowledge, which could not tumble down any time, as all elements comprising the final principle had been individually analyzed and verified to be correct.

Moreover, in Bacon's times, the word of the Church and the monarch were considered sacrosanct, and no one dared to openly defy or question either their authority or beliefs. This state of affairs made Bacon disillusioned with human nature, and he went on to publish certain works that greatly critiqued the innate nature of the human mind. He believed that if society was to progress, human minds would have to be cleared of their inherent obstructions in order to embrace true learning and knowledge, which was constructive and would lead to society's advancement. One such prominent theory is that of the "Idols of the Mind", published in Bacon's New Organon which describes four innate flaws of the mind: idols of the tribe (common to all of the human race), cave (those which arise out of our personal experiences), marketplace (arising from "the association of man with man" or human interaction) and theatre (that which is an artificial version of truth, which may be called as an imitation).

His work in the field of advancement of learning was arguably his greatest contribution. One of his works titled "The Proficience and Advancement of Learning" published in 1605 dealt with Bacon's famous distempers of learning, wherein he describes three types of unproductive and baseless enquiry: fantastical, contentious and delicate learning (alternatively known as vain imaginations, vain altercations and vain affectations). These distempers deal with faulty learning as a result of believing excessively in religious or supernatural entities, learning for the sake of endless debate and nitpicking and the undue emphasis on rhetoric, with style being more important than form. Additionally, he wrote a Utopian science fiction novel called New Atlantis, which was published after his death. While this novel's acclaim does not lie in its plot or artful storytelling, it provided eloquent descriptions of the kind of research work Bacon believed in. The New Atlantis, in brief, is about a research faculty wherein there are teams of specially trained and curious investigators who conduct experiments, and then apply the results of these to create useful inventions for society. This approach proposed by Bacon, of the fruits of intellectual activity reaching out to the common man, was a far cry from the culture of thinkers back in the time of Aristotle. Bacon strongly opposed what is today known as the "intellectual armchair."

In addition to identifying how the human mind was incorrectly programmed to truly absorb knowledge (idols of the mind), explaining how the knowledge we did learn was incorrectly done so (distempers of learning) and even giving a method to collect knowledge in a methodical, foolproof manner (Baconian induction), Bacon realized he needed to restructure knowledge into categories that better fit with his philosophy of the world. He proposed dividing knowledge into history, poesy (poetry) and philosophy, which represented the three faculties of mind: memory, imagination and reason respectively. Bacon's idea of progress was rather different to many intellectuals of that time. They emphasized on literature and philosophy as subjects of substance and worth. Bacon, with his scientific spirit, believed the true essence of progress lay in technical and mechanical inventions that would help in society's march forward. He believed in redirecting mental efforts to the area of tangible progress, and not merely progress that leads to the intellectual satiation of a few thinkers. In this way, his approach truly was novel.

Bacon has a fair number of critics, with some opposing the ideology of Empiricism that he held so dear, and others specifically targeting his work. Contemporary thinkers have especially critiqued his theory of induction. However, without Bacon's incisive insights into the intellectual climate of the 17th century, many of which are still relevant today, the world of philosophy would have been deprived of a great thinker, and students of the subject a philosopher who is both practical and a lot more relatable than many of his contemporaries.

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