Interpretation – Sir Francis Bacon’s Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature

April 17, 2007 at 8:16 pm 6 comments

Bacon gives the following definition of interpretation “that reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodological process, I call interpretation of nature” (IV, 51). Such an inductive definition clearly asks the student to define the words just and methodology. Michel Malherbe comments on this definition, “true knowledge will go from a lower certainty to a higher liberty and from a lower liberty to a higher certainty, and so on. This rule is the basic principle of Bacon’s theory of science“.

It seems reasonable to me to assume from the definition above that Bacon’s epistemology rests upon the inductive method. This view is, moreover, supported by Malherbe’s comment. The western schools of philosophy claim that the human mind is so disposed that knowledge can be acquired only through the senses, and hence demonstration is the only method of science.

To characterize the nature of the premises required for true demonstrations, Aristotle had set down three criteria:

  1. the predicate must be true in every instance of its subject,
  2. it must be part of the essential nature of the subject, and
  3. it must be universal.

Aristotle was defining first propositions as being essential propositions; the beginnings of deductive logic in the western school of philosophy. The sixteenth century saw a few ramifications made by Ramus. Aristotle’s conditions had only formalized the initial conditions for a conclusive syllogism, but with Ramus’ extensions, they became the initial conditions for art: within any methodical system organized for the exhibition of knowledge, a statement must join things which are necessarily related. These rules of syllogistic art in Aristotle and Ramus became rules for inductive reasoning in Bacon. We should also take these rules to mean something quite different.

Bacon himself puts it down as “There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immoveable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.” (IV, 50)

That is how he insists that his method has nothing to do with the old school, nor does it try to improve it. He calls the earlier method anticipations of nature and goes on to define interpretation of nature. (IV, 51)

Essentially, Bacon questions deductive reasoning by asking, how does the mind acquire knowledge of the primary truths. As it is allowed by Aristotle himself, all knowledge starts with experience. But which experience is always contingent? He questions the journey of the mind from knowledge of phenomenon to knowledge of the very nature of things. In other words, any attempt to define a structure of valid theories must go through an honest inquiry of the basic axioms.

It is easy to understand Bacon’s critique of the Aristotelian school. Such a logic induces a double start – the empirical method and the rational method. Due to this confusion, it is highly probable that the mind jumps from empirical patterns to axioms. This ‘slip’ from empirical data to axiom-based rationale is the nature (and perhaps the greatness) of the human mind – it seeks certainty. This haste gives mental activity its anticipative form. Such anticipations draw general principles from immediate experiences and proceeds to formal deduction of consequences.

We humans rely on our senses to acquire knowledge. Bacon argues that we cannot get any information except with our senses. His views on the qualities of human mind are amusing nonetheless.

But by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and deceptions of the senses” (IV, 58).

For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe” (IV, 54).

Visit the luminarium for the complete works of Sir Francis Bacon.


Michel Malherbe is professor emeritus at l’université de Nantes

Entry filed under: philosophy.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mutant  |  May 8, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Hi, I have heard of this problematic example before. Suppose I am a Turkey and fed everyday religiously by my master. Everyday I peek out of the cage, and there is grain on the ground for me. Come Thanksgiving, I peek out, and there goes the head.

    Fritjof Capra writes somewhere that Bacon viewed nature as a mysterious, wild woman, something to exploit and plunder. Capra piles Bacon’s along with the Cartesian-Newtonian clockwork view of the universe, that still dominates the mind of biomedical researchers, although the physicists have adopted a more holistic view of reality in this century. [But this is mostly from Capra’s, I have not read competing views on this.]

  • 2. arachnid  |  May 8, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    I know next to nothing about the Cartesian-Newtonian view, and, to add to my shame, I know absolutely nothing about Capra’s views on this. It will be really nice if you can elucidate these.

  • 3. mutant  |  May 9, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Firstly, I did not put the first paragraph in context. It was about the difficulty in using “induction” for knowledge about the real world. If a Turkey has been happily enjoying the grains given to it for many days/months, it does not mean that the situation is going to be like that forever.

    I would write a bit about Capra’s position soon.

  • 4. arachnid  |  May 10, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Aha …. okay, now the turkey example makes more sense to me. But, well, to put it grossly, are we not all turkeys? Even the most advances scientific theories are accepted only when they comply with the known observations.

    Looking forward to your post on Capra.

  • 5. mutant  |  May 10, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    > Are we not all Turkeys?

    Yes, verily so. There is this sense of knowledge being an evolving front (independent of the abilities of human beings). I mean, a bacterium uses its sensors to know about the chemical environment, rodents are very dependent on smell, human beings are tied up with vision in a big way. Because knowledge derived from senses is ultimately usable through “induction”, the question remains if there is another way of identifying with the universe, err.. a non-local way?

    I was looking for the right book and found it. Here is a quote from Capra in “The Turning Point (excuse the length):

    While Galileo devised ingenious experiments in Italy, Francis Bacon set forth the empirical method explicitly in England. Bacon was the first to formulate a clear theory of the inductive procedure – to make experiments and to draw general conclusions from them, to be tested in further experiments – and he became extremely influential by vigorously advocating the new method. He boldly attacked traditional schools of thought and developed a veritable passion for scientific experimentation.

    The “Baconian spirit” profoundly changed the nature and purpose of the scientific quest. From the time of the ancients the goals of science had been wisdom, understanding the natural order and living in harmony with it. ****** Since Bacon, the goal of science has been knowledge that can be used to dominate and control nature, and today both science and technology are use predominantly for purposes that are profoundly antiecological.

    The terms in which Bacon advocated his new empirical method of investigation were not only passionate but often outright vicious. Nature, in his view, had to be “hounded in her wanderings”, “bound into service”, and made a “slave”. She was to be “put in constraint”, and the aim of the scientist was to “torture nature’s secrets from her”. Much of this violent imagery seems to have been inspired by the witch trials that were held frequently in Bacon’s time.******

    The ancient concept of the earth as a nurturing mother was radically transformed in Bacon’s writings, and it disappeared completely as the Scientific Revolution proceeded to replace the organic view of nature with the metaphor of the world as the machine. This shift, which was to become of overwhelming importance for the further development of Western civilization, was initiated and completed by two towering figures of the seventeenth century, Descartes and Newton.
    pp. 55-56

    Before Newton there had been two opposing trends in seventeenth-century science; the empirical, inductive method represented by Bacon and the rational, deductive method represented by Descartes. Newton, in his Principia, introduced the proper mixture of both methods, ******
    p. 64
    Capra goes on to explain that the Newtonian framework of the world as a machine or a clockwork has been undermined in Physics, especially in small-scale matters, but remains in very influential in the minds of biological, psychological and other researchers.

  • 6. music  |  January 7, 2008 at 10:07 am

    very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader


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