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Sir Francis Bacon
1561 – 1626
 

 

Francis Bacon was one of the important thinkers of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Although Bacon was neither a mathematician nor an experimental scientist, he exerted great influence on his contemporaries by introducing a method in which science is based on observation and experimentation.

 

 

Bacon, Francis, 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 pre-eminence 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.
 


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Bacon, Francis (1561-1626) English statesman and philosopher. As a philosopher of science Bacon is the first notable example of the empiricist tendency of English thought, but perhaps more importantly the prophet and protector of the dawning scientific revolution. He was a precocious child born into a leading family, and rapidly rose in the law, although not without questionable incident, as when at the behest of Elizabeth I he prosecuted the Earl of Essex, one of his earliest and principal patrons. His legal philosophy was one of absolute duty to the sovereign, which cannot have hindered his rise to the position of Lord Chancellor. In 1620, however, he was disgraced for bribery and spent his remaining years in seclusion. His collected works run to fourteen volumes, and include Essays (1597), The Advancement of Learning (1605), the Novum Organon (1620), and the New Atlantis (published posthumously, 1660).

Bacon was the first writer to try to delineate the proper methods of successful science, to enable science to become a craft or industry producing benefits for humanity rather than the haphazard pursuit of occasional eccentrics. Although the ‘Baconian method’ is sometimes identified with simple induction by enumeration (the generalizing from instances of phenomena to experimental laws), in fact Bacon provided a sophisticated taxonomy of scientific methods, in most respects anticipating such later results as Mill's methods, and certainly including an understanding that the search for laws was an imaginative and intellectual rather than a mechanical empirical exercise. His work included a running battle against the false approaches of metaphysics, and against superstition (his own attitude to religion certainly included some sceptical elements, and he regarded the whole matter as unimportant compared to science: ‘the research into final causes, like a virgin dedicated to God, is barren and produces nothing’). Diderot said of Bacon that his work amounted to a map of what men had to learn; he has often been described in terms of a prophet standing on the edge of the promised land of scientific knowledge. See also Baconian method, idols of the mind.
 


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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.
 


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Francis Bacon was one of the important thinkers of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Although Bacon was neither a mathematician nor an experimental scientist, he exerted great influence on his contemporaries by introducing a method in which science is based on observation and experimentation.

He argued that the sciences should follow the example of the "mechanical arts" by being "founded on nature." But he also asserted that the mechanical arts should have science as their master. Bacon was one of the first thinkers to bridge the gap that existed between technology and the sciences. Since antiquity, technical invention was unrelated to science; it was the domain of the artisan. Artisans built machines based on empirical experience only. Science was thought to deal with ideas only. Bacon strongly opposed this concept and asserted that the knowledge of practical things also belongs to science. Because Bacon was not a scientist himself (although he died from a cold caught while stuffing a chicken with snow in an experiment with refrigeration), he extended his ideas on science to every aspect of human life. In Bacon's view, science not only serves to fulfill our intellectual curiosity, but it is also useful in all phases of humanity.

Bacon was one of the first to fully understand that knowledge is power. He believed science would serve to improve the human condition and create a better world, and stated that the final goal of science is "the relief of man's estate" and the "effecting of all things possible."

Bacon described a model of such a better world in his book New Atlantis. New Atlantis is an island with a utopian society whose well-being is entirely based on science and technology. In his book Bacon gave his contemporaries an extraordinary look into the future of technology. He mentions the skyscraper ("High Towers, the Highest about half a Mile in height"), the refrigeration of food, air-conditioning ("Chambers of Health, wher wee qualifie the Aire"), telephones ("meanes to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes"), airplanes, and submarines.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008