English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Introduction to Selections from

Francis Bacon's Novum Organum

Francis Bacon (1551-1626) lived in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Like his much younger continental contemporary René Descartes, Bacon was trained as a lawyer, but eventually became fascinated with the new developments "natural philosophy" (as people even into the next century called what we call the natural sciences) - and, most intensely, with the question of what procedures investigators ought to adopt if they are to arrive at knowledge in this arena. In Bacon's case, training in the law may have contributed to his determined respect for observed facts as essential evidence. In the law, one is of course concerned with what the principles are that apply to a given set of facts. But before such questions can even arise, one has to have a clear conception of what the facts are that make the case what it is. Reconstructing "what actually happened" is the business of judges and juries, and it proceeds on the basis of not only documents (like deeds and letters) that are "traces" of events that led to their production, but on the basis of the testimony of witnesses as to what they saw and heard (and sometimes touched or smelled or tasted). Of course, the testimony of witnesses has to be evaluated: judges and juries have to decide whether witnesses are telling the truth and whether, even if so, they may be deceived. But what people experienced through their own senses is a major "bedrock" in the foundation of any law case. In the natural sciences, one is aiming to discover the general laws that govern the behavior of the material universe rather than the particular historical facts about the conduct of individual human agents. But Bacon's great merit was to see that the same reliance on the evidence of the senses was unavoidable in any prospects for a sound science of nature.

You should begin by acquainting yourself with the main facts of Bacon's life.  [This document is also reachable from a delightful Web site devoted to Bacon which, if you are equipped for audio, will offer you a charming piece of contemporary contrapuntal music - a crisp and clear example of simple early baroque chamber music.]   After reading the biographical sketch, return to this page and continue.

Next you should work your way through the selections from Bacon's Novum Organum. You might find it useful to begin with the long note on "syllogism," and only then take on the selections from the beginning.  There is a Study Guide that you should consult.  Consider putting your reading notes directly on that sheet.

Recommended, but not required, are



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  This page last updated 23 September 1999.