Interpretation – Sir Francis Bacon’s Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature
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:
- the predicate must be true in every instance of its subject,
- it must be part of the essential nature of the subject, and
- 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.