Previously: Ruby's introduction to the Novum Organum sequence

We have used Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in the version presented at Translated by and copyright to Jonathan Bennett. Prepared for LessWrong by Ruby.

Ruby's Reading Guide

Novum Organum is organized as two books each containing numbered "aphorisms." These vary in length from three lines to sixteen pages. Titles of posts in this sequence, e.g. Idols of the Mind Pt. 1, are my own and do not appear in the original.
While the translator, Bennett, encloses his editorial remarks in a single pair of [brackets], I have enclosed mine in a [[double pair of brackets]].

Bennett's Reading Guide

[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations, are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Longer omissions are reported between brackets in normal-sized type.
‘Organon’ is the conventional title for the collection of logical works by Aristotle, a body of doctrine that Bacon aimed to replace. His title Novum Organum could mean ‘The New Organon’ or more modestly ‘A New Organon’; the tone of the writing in this work points to the definite article.

Aphorism Concerning the Interpretation of Nature: Preface

by Francis Bacon

Those who have taken it on themselves to lay down the law of nature as something that has already been discovered and understood, whether they have spoken in simple confidence or in a spirit of professional posturing, have done great harm to philosophy and the sciences. As well as succeeding in •producing beliefs in people, they have been effective in •squashing and stopping inquiry; and the harm they have done by spoiling and putting an end to other men’s efforts outweighs any good their own efforts have brought. Some people on the other hand have gone the opposite way, asserting that absolutely nothing can be known—having reached this opinion through dislike of the ancient sophists, or through uncertainty and fluctuation of mind, or even through being crammed with some doctrine or other. They have certainly advanced respectable reasons for their view; but zeal and posturing have carried them much too far: they haven’t •started from true premises or •ended at the right conclusion. The earlier of the ancient Greeks (whose writings are lost) showed better judgment in taking a position between

  • one extreme: presuming to pronounce on everything,


  • the opposite extreme: despairing of coming to understand anything.

My method is hard to practice but easy to explain. I propose to •establish degrees of certainty, to •retain ·the evidence of· the senses subject to certain constraints, but mostly to •reject ways of thinking that track along after sensation. In place of that, I open up a new and certain path for the mind to follow, starting from sense-perception. The need for this was felt, no doubt, by those who gave such importance to dialectics; their emphasis on dialectics showed that they were looking for aids to the intellect, and had no confidence in the innate and spontaneous process of the mind.

[Bacon’s dialectica, sometimes translated as ‘logic’, refers more narrowly to the formalized and rule-governed use of logic, especially in debates.]

But this remedy did no good, coming as it did after the processes of everyday life had filled the mind with hearsay and debased doctrines and infested it with utterly empty idols. (·I shall explain ‘idols’ in 39–45·.) The upshot was that the art of dialectics, coming (I repeat) too late to the rescue and having no power to set matters right, was only good for fixing errors rather than for revealing truth.

[Throughout this work, ‘art’ will refer to any human activity that involves techniques and requires skills.]

We are left with only one way to health—namely to start the work of the mind all over again. In this, the mind shouldn’t be left to its own devices, but right from the outset should be guided at every step, as though a machine were in control.

Certainly if in mechanical projects men had set to work with their naked hands, without the help and power of tools, just as in intellectual matters they have set to work with little but the naked forces of the intellect, even with their best collaborating efforts they wouldn’t have achieved—or even attempted—much. . . . Suppose that some enormous stone column had to be moved from its place (wanted elsewhere for some ceremonial purpose), and that men started trying to move it with their naked hands, wouldn’t any sober spectator think them mad? If they then brought in more people, thinking that that might do it, wouldn’t he think them even madder? If they then weeded out the weaker labourers, and used only the strong and vigorous ones, wouldn’t he think them madder than ever? Finally, if they resolved to get help from the art of athletics, and required all their workers to come with hands, arms, and sinews properly oiled and medicated according to good athletic practice, wouldn’t the onlooker think ‘My God, they are trying to show method in their madness!’?

Yet that is exactly how men proceed in intellectual matters—with just the same kind of mad effort and useless combining of forces—when they hope to achieve great things either through their individual brilliance or through the sheer number of them who will co-operate in the work, and when they try through dialectics (which we can see as a kind of athletic art) to strengthen the sinews of the intellect. With all this study and effort, as anyone with sound judgment can see, they are merely applying the naked intellect; whereas in any great work to be done by the hand of man the only way to increase the force exerted by each and to co-ordinate the efforts of all is through instruments and machinery.

Arising from those prefatory remarks, there are two more things I have to say; I want them to be known, and not forgotten. ·One concerns ancient philosophers, the other concerns modern philosophy·.

(1) If I were to declare that I could set out on •the same road as the ancient philosophers and come back with something better than they did, there would be no disguising the fact that I was setting up a rivalry between them and me, inviting a comparison in respect of our levels of excellence or intelligence or competence. There would nothing new in that, and nothing wrong with it either, for if the ancients got something wrong, why couldn’t I—why couldn’t anyone—point it out and criticise them for it? But that contest, however right or permissible it was, might have been an unequal one, casting an unfavourable light on my powers. So it is a good thing—good for avoiding conflicts and intellectual turmoil—that I can leave untouched the honour and reverence due to the ancients, and do what I plan to do while gathering the fruits of my modesty! There won’t be any conflict here: my aim is to open up •a new road for the intellect to follow, a road the ancients didn’t know and didn’t try. I shan’t be taking a side or pressing a case. My role is merely that of a guide who points out the road—a lowly enough task, depending more on a kind of luck than on any ability or excellence.

(2) That was a point about persons; the other thing I want to remind you of concerns the topic itself. Please bear this in mind: I’m not even slightly working to overthrow the philosophy [here = ‘philosophy and science’] that is flourishing these days, or any other more correct and complete philosophy that has been or will be propounded. I don’t put obstacles in the way of this accepted philosophy or others like it; ·let them go on doing what they have long done so well·—let them give philosophers something to argue about, provide decoration for speech, bring profit to teachers of rhetoric and civil servants! Let me be frank about it: the philosophy that I shall be advancing isn’t much use for any of those purposes. It isn’t ready to hand; you can’t just pick it up as you go; it doesn’t fit with preconceived ideas in a way that would enable it to slide smoothly into the mind; and the vulgar won’t ever get hold of it except through its practical applications and its effects.

[In this work, ‘vulgar’ means ‘common, ordinary, run-of-the-mill’ (as in ‘vulgar induction’ 17) or, as applied to people, ‘having little education and few intellectual interests’.]

So let there be two sources of doctrine, two disciplines, two groups of philosophers, and two ways of doing philosophy, with the groups not being hostile or alien to each other, but bound together by mutual services. In short, let there be one discipline for cultivating the knowledge we have, and another for discovering new knowledge. This may be pleasant and beneficial for both. Most men are in too much of a hurry, or too preoccupied with business affairs, to engage with my way of doing philosophy—or they don’t have the mental powers needed to understand it. If for any of those reasons you prefer the other way—·prefer cultivation to discovery·—I wish you all success in your choice, and I hope you’ll get what you are after. But if you aren’t content to stick with the knowledge we already have, and want

  • to penetrate further,
  • to conquer nature by works, not conquer an adversary by argument,
  • to look not for nice probable opinions but for sure proven knowledge,

I invite you to join with me, if you see fit to do so. [In this context, ‘works’ are experiments.] Countless people have stamped around in nature’s outer courts; let us get across those and try to find a way into the inner rooms. For ease of communication and to make my approach more familiar by giving it a name, I have chosen to call one of these approaches ‘the mind’s anticipation ·of nature·’, the other ‘the interpretation of nature’.

[Throughout this work, ‘anticipation’ means something like ‘second-guessing, getting ahead of the data, jumping the gun’. Bacon means it to sound rash and risky; no one current English word does the job.]

I have one request to make, ·namely that my courtesies towards you, the reader, shall be matched by your courtesies to me·. I have put much thought and care into ensuring that the things I say will be not only true but smoothly and comfortably accepted by •your mind, however clogged •it is by previous opinions. It is only fair—especially in such a great restoration of learning and knowledge—for me to ask a favour in return, namely this: If you are led •by the evidence of your senses, or •by the jostling crowd of ‘authorities’, or •by arguments in strict logical form (which these days are respected as though they were the law of the land), to want to pass judgment on these speculations of mine, don’t think you can do this casually, while you are mainly busy with something else. Examine the matter thoroughly; go a little distance yourself along the road that I describe and lay out; make yourself familiar with the subtlety of things that our experience indicates; give your deeply-rooted bad mental habits a reasonable amount of time to correct themselves; and then, when you have started to be in control of yourself, use your own judgment—if you want to.

[Bacon doesn’t ever in this work address the reader at length. This version sometimes replaces ‘If anybody. . . ’ by ‘If you. . . ’, ‘Men should. . . ’ by ‘You should. . . ’ and so on, to make the thought easier to follow.]

New Comment
5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

At the start of the Sequences, you are told that rationality is a martial art, used to amplify the power of the unaided mind in the same way that a martial art doesn't necessarily make you stronger but just lets you use your body properly.

Bacon, on the other hand, throws the prospect of using the unaided mind right out; Baconian rationality is a machine, like a pulley or a lever, where you apply your mind however feebly to one end and by its construction the other end moves a great distance or applies a great force (either would do for the metaphor).

If I have my history right, Bacon's machine is Science. Its function is to accumulate a huge mountain of evidence, so big that even a human could be persuaded by it, and instruction in the use of science is instruction in being persuaded by that mountain of evidence. Philosophers of old simply ignored the mountain of evidence (failed to use the machine) and maybe relied on syllogisms and definitions and hence failed to move the stone column.

And later, with the aid of Bacon's machine, it turns out that one discovers that you don't really need this huge mountain of evidence or the systematic stuff and that an ideal reasoner could simply perform a Bayesian update on each bit that comes in and get to the truth way faster, while avoiding all the slowness or all the mistakes that come if you insist on setting up the machine every single time. At your own risk, of course - get your stance slightly wrong lifting a stone column, and you throw your back out.

I see what you're getting at, viz the inconsistency around 'aided'. However, as it seems that an 'unaided' mind will behave anything like ideally I don't think I'd agree that the inconsistency exists in fact. Isn't the 'aid' here a software package built up by a culture in light of the systematising ideas, and which gets sold on the basis of the mountain of evidence it explains?

I'm actually finding those interior dot points really helpful!

retain ·the evidence of· the senses subject to certain constraints

If you are led •by the evidence of your senses

What does Francis mean by "the evidence of senses" here?

The passage that says it's madness to do intellectual work without tools, I am not sure if I understand what those tools are. I guess they are something like principles of empiricism and rationality. If Francis looked at the state of science in different time points between the time he wrote the book and now, would he say that scientists mostly used the tools? Because it seems science is in an ok shape now.

I think the book's title "The new organon" is bailey, and the passage about not wanting rivalry with ancient philosophers is motte.

I think you're interpreting him correctly. Senses means what it normally means, and he probably means something like you shouldn't trust them naively, thinking things like "heat is light because fire is bright and the sun is bright", instead you need a methodology (tool) to interpret your sense experience, aggregate your experiences, seek out one's missing experiences. He might also mean literal tools too. He later describes how to make a primitive thermometer.

I think he would think the science between him and now was a lot better and people are doing the thing he wanted. (Many people a lot of the time though not all of the people all of the time.) He probably would have opinions about p-values and publication bias, etc., but he'd still think things overall have been much better in the last 400 years.

Yeah, definitely some kind of motte and bailey thing going on.