The father of modern science?

The father of modern science? Source: The father of modern science? By: Pyle, Andrew, Lancet, 00995355, 3/23/2002, Vol. 359, Issue 9311

Dissecting Room

Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early Modern Philosophy

Stephen Gaukroger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp 249. £14.95. ISBN 0521805368.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is a puzzling figure for historians of philosophy and of the natural sciences. We all know that he was an important and influential figure, whose works were widely read not just in the UK but also across Continental Europe. But what exactly was Bacon's role in the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century? His admirers have claimed that Bacon set out the first conception of scientific method, firmly based on experimental evidence and inductive reasoning. His detractors have replied that the account of induction in Novum Organum (1620) is full of holes, and that Bacon provides no credible method of reasoning from his tables of instances to the "forms" of, for example, heat or whiteness. His admirers have hailed him as the prophet of a new alliance between science and technology, with important public benefits from the application of science to traditional arts and industries. His detractors have replied that there was little to show for such promises in the 17th century, and that technology directed and informed by science was a much later development. (One might look, for example, at the Lunar Society of Birmingham in the late 18th century). All historians agree that Bacon was an important figure, but there is little or no consensus about the exact nature of his significance.

Bacon's contribution, according to Stephen Gaukroger, lay in his articulation and legitimation of the discipline of natural philosophy and of the identity of the natural philosopher. It was Bacon who, we are told, "inaugurated the transformation of philosophy into science, and philosophers into scientists". This is not, of course, a verbal point about the terms "science" and "scientist". To a philosopher in the 17th century, "science" meant any body of demonstrative knowledge, whether in geometry (Euclid), kinematics (Galilieo), or even politics (Hobbes). As for the term "scientist", it was a coinage of the 19th century. It remains true, however, that our modern notion of natural science scarcely existed before Bacon. There was a tradition of natural philosophy, based in the universities, but this was scholarly rather than experimental--Aristotelian theories predominated. There were various branches of applied mathematics (astronomy, optics, mechanics), but these were based on abstractions, divorced from the theory of matter. There was the anatomy and physiology of the medical schools. And there were the practical crafts of the metallurgist and the apothecary, often allied to various forms of occult philosophy such as natural magic. With the benefit of hindsight, we can assess the contributions made by each of these different traditions to the emergence of what we call the natural sciences. But if we are to avoid historical Whiggism, we must not see that process as inevitable. There have been other advanced civilisations (for example, the Islamic world and China) that have had a similar mix of scholarly and craft traditions, but in which the distinctive features of western science have not emerged.

What Gaukroger does is to pursue a largely contextual approach to his subject, seeking to illuminate both Bacon's borrowings and his transformation of his source materials. Important sources include natural philosophers, such as Bruno and Telesio, logicians like Ramus and Everard Digby, theorists of the state, such as Machiavelli and Bodin, such rhetoricians as Cicero and Quintilian, occultists like Paracelsus and Agrippa, and many more besides. Many students of Bacon have read him in the light of his successors, looking to his role as a trailblazer for the Royal Society and to his influence on the work of those eminent 17th-century natural philosophers Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Robert Hooke. Such an approach risks a form of historical blindness, and assumes that notions of a natural science and of scientific method were just timelessly "there", like America waiting to be discovered, and that we could assess Bacon's contribution in terms of how much of this territory he succeeded in mapping out. Such an attitude is deeply mistaken. Modern science, unlike America, was a creation rather than a discovery--the creation of a particular culture at a specific time--and Bacon played a prominent part among its creators. By looking closely at prevailing ideas at the start of the 17th century about nature and the proper methods for investigating nature, Gaukroger is able to document Bacon's borrowings and to shed light on his originality.

What Bacon wanted was a state- supported, communal, cooperative enterprise, public rather than private in its ethos, experimental in its methodology, directed towards a knowledge of nature that would bear tangible practical fruits for the benefit of the state. What he was against was the book-learning and the disputatious methods of the schools, the abstractions of the mathematicians, the trade secrets of the crafts, and the meaningless jargon of the occultists. To achieve this new enterprise, Bacon realised, a new type of man would be needed--sober, painstaking, and industrious. Such a man would take no pride in any supposed supremacy of wit or learning, but be content to make his modest contribution--perhaps just a well-verified observation or a single eliminative inference-- to the growing sum of useful knowledge. To create the enterprise would require the resources of the state; only a king could command the necessary means. To create the men (the scientists, in our terms) would require a fundamental rethink of our educational ideas and practices. It is in this pair of related insights, according to Gaukroger, that we should see Bacon's importance and his originality.

Gaukroger's book will be of more interest to intellectual historians of various kinds than to pure philosophers. He does discuss Bacon's ideas on scientific method and on natural philosophy, but his treatment of these topics, although well informed and highly competent, adds little to what is already known. So who should read this book? In the first place, anyone interested in the scientific revolution of the 17th century and its intellectual origins. Gaukroger's account of Bacon helps us to understand how our modern notion of natural science emerged from a chaos of pre-existing traditions and disciplines. More fundamentally, once we grant that natural science is a cultural artifact rather than a natural kind, we can address deep and difficult questions about why it emerged in western Europe in the 17th century rather than in, say, Ottoman Turkey or Imperial China. The question is not explicitly addressed in this book on Bacon, but it lurks in a disturbing manner beneath the surface of the text.


By Andrew Pyle, Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TB, UK

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