- Novum Organum by Francis Bacon


The Council of Trent (held intermittently between 1545 and 1563) was the slow response of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The resulting Catholic Church was more spiritual and cultured. A new passion for renewal came by the hands of the Jesuits and the mysticism of Teresa de Avila. The Inquisition in Spain and Rome and The Edict of Nantes in France (1585) were organized to impose orthodoxy on Protestant heresy. Science also sought to reform inherited theories strongly embedded in ecclesiastical philosophies and theologies yet scientific researchers continued the tradition of writing their works in Latin. 

Scientific reform was led by Francis Bacon who was writing when the Americas were discovered. Humanity was freeing itself from the ancient vision that everything had been discovered or had been revealed by Aristotle or the Bible. Bacon's goal was to reform research methodology. The proposed method was the meticulous observation of facts in the study and interpretation of natural phenomena. He explains the new style of investigation in Instauratio Magna (1620) with a cover inspired by the motto of Carlos I where a caravel is seen going beyond (Plus Ultra) the mythical pillars of Hercules in the Straits of Gibraltar. The symbolism reminds us that Bacon also wants to overcome the confines of the old world in a new scientific endevour. It was written in Latin and influenced by the Aristotelian inductive method. Bacon established the scientific method in an empirical and pragmatic philosophy.

The Novum Organum was the second part of Sir Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna, published in England in 1620. Composed of two books and written in Latin the text, meaning "New Instrument of Science", argues that reasoning should be used in a scientific method based on reduction and induction which involves verifying small facts before generalising. It is written in the format of hundreds of aphorisms which defend his main argument. It also demonstrates how inductive reasoning works. Bacon's innovative concept was necessary at a time when advancing technology was providing information to rewrite previous observations and an openminded approach was paramount. The book's title is based on Aristotle's treatises Organon (thinking tool) which used a deductive approach to finding truths about Nature. Bacon was determined to show how an inductive method is superior for scientific research.


Book 1 centres on removing 'Idols' which Bacon affirms are pre-held assumptions about truths on the world. These preconceived ideas normally derive from famous writers such as Plato or Aristotle. The author warns against the following particular preconceptions :

- the tribe (groupthink) : this is the result of errors in sensory perception and is general to all people. 

- the cave (personal bias), this comes from individual prejudices which distort perception.

- the market (rhetoric), derives from relationships which work through language. These can be ambiguous and cloud comprehension of Nature.

- the theatre (knowledge from authorities). This thought process arises from various philosophies. He cites Aristotle in particular since sophism focused on clever arguments not natural events. 

Bacon's aim is to balance sensory information and flawed mental processing overrun by syllogisms. This is deductive reasoning in which general affirmations are applied to a certain idea in order to prove it true. Bacon argues that general concepts are just that, too subjective in peoples' minds to allow analysis.

In Book 2 Bacon presents his new method of 'true induction' when studying Nature. The process is to verify small facts through experiment then test future hypotheses. Inductive reasoning deals with concrete phenomena; deductive reasoning relies on words which normally have various meanings.

Bacon demonstrates through the example of heat. He sets out by recording in a table all the examples of heat in Nature. Then he makes a graph of the instances in which heat does not occur.  Finally he draws up a table of degrees of heat. Through comparing his data he found the results are the most relevant cases of heat presence. This demonstration forms a guide for future scientific work.

The author is critical of contemporaries who use thought rather than physical experiments. He insists on real world observations and offers insights he found in his personal experiments with a microscope (which could never be used in a thought experiment). He emphasises that data from physics, chemistry and biology cannot be gleaned from rhetoric, only direct experimentation can advance science.

The final part is a draft of the type of natural history that Bacon argues is necessary before any interpretation of nature is possible. He affirms that the method of the Organon is not useful until a vast amount of information about the natural world has been collected.



The dominant form of thought after Aristotle relied on syllogisms which are logical arguments applying deductive reasoning to two propositions assumed to be true. (All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.) Bacon's argument is that induction improves on syllogism because it starts with specifics not words which are equivocal. His method avoids immediately producing generalisations which often lead to confirming preconceptions. It is based on practical experiments which are very different to previous investigative methods that relied on words and mental processes. 

"Our method, though difficult in its operation, is easily explained. It consists in determining the degrees of certainty, whilst we, as it were, restore the senses to their former rank, but generally reject that operation of the mind which follows close upon the senses, and open and establish a new and certain course for the mind from the first actual perceptions of the senses themselves. This no doubt was the view taken by those who have assigned so much to logic; showing clearly thereby that they sought some support for the mind, and suspected its natural and spontaneous mode of action. But this is now employed too late as a remedy, when all is clearly lost, and after the mind, by the daily habit and intercourse of life, has become prepossessed with corrupted doctrines, and filled with the vainest idols. The art of logic therefore being... too late a precaution, and in no way remedying the matter, has tended more to confirm errors, than to disclose truth."

The Attack on Aristotle

Since Scholasticism in the Middle Ages Aristotle's thinking dominated thought processes in Western Europe. Bacon criticised Aristotelian theories for their needless complication through dialectics. The author argued that this methodology was only useful for an apologetic approach which defended a philosophical position, not an attempt to discover the truth. Aristotle's work was held up as an example of the theatre idol which blocks research through reason. In this Bacon follows Paracelsus, Ramus, Telesio and Galileo.

"The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

These excesses are of two kinds. The first is seen in those who decide hastily, and render the sciences positive and dictatorial. The other in those who have introduced skepticism, and vague, unbounded inquiry. The former subdues, the latter enervates, the understanding. The Aristotelian philosophy, after destroying other systems (as the Ottomans do their brethren) by its disputations, confutations, decided upon everything, and Aristotle himself then raises up questions at will, in order to settle them; so that everything should be certain and decided, a method now in use among his successors.

The school of Plato introduced scepticism, first, as it were, in joke and irony, from their dislike of Protagoras, Hippias, and others, who were ashamed of appearing not to doubt upon any subject. But the new academy dogmatized their scepticism, and held it as their tenet. Although this method is more honest than arbitrary decision, (for its followers allege that they by no means confound all inquiry, like Pyrrho and his disciples, but hold doctrines which they can follow as probable, though they cannot maintain them to be true,) yet, when the human mind has once despaired of discovering truth, everything begins to languish. Hence men turn aside into pleasant controversies and discussions, and into a sort of wandering over subjects, rather than sustain any rigorous investigation. But, as we observed at first, we are not to deny the authority of the human senses and understanding, although weak; but rather to furnish them with assistance." (Aphorism 67)

Humans and Nature

The relationship of humanity to Nature is not one of dominance but of service and understanding. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” We can only change Nature by separating or connecting natural bodies. He adds that we have wasted time in “specious meditations, speculations, and glosses,” which may well make knowledge more systematic but is not well designed to advance science. Syllogisms only lend stability to tradition and its errors but do not deal with things learnt by inductive methods.

Bacon describes the three methods of investigation through the analogies of the ant, spider and bee. The ant experiments but only collects and uses. The spider does not experiment but spins cobwebs from itself. The bee adopts a middle course gathering from flowers and digesting the nectar on its own. Bacon's natural philosophy is like the bee which changes and digests the knowledge collected in experiments then stores them in memory.

The author offers further insights into his method through the distinction between Anticipations and Interpretations of Nature. Anticipations are generalisations that produce general agreement since they appeal to the imagination. On the other hand Interpretations come from a variety of data. They don't make for consent because they normally contradict traditional ideas. Anticipations are easily accepted; Interpretations are conceived to understand things.

The Progress of Science

Bacon sustains that traditional natural philosophy was based on dispute and dialectics. The defenders were scholars who were arguing for their own schools of thought. Their horizons were limited to myths and a little geography. Aristotelian philosophy has survived for so long, according to Bacon, because of blind acceptance of authority. He states that the sciences have not advanced because their goal and methodology have not been clarified. 

"The true method of experience first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it deducing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments; even as it was not without order and method that the divine word operated on the created mass.”

However Bacon believes there are grounds for hope. What is needed is that people should realise that they need a new scientific method, a new approach to experience. Data must be tabled then generalised to axioms then devolved to new specifics. Speculation should be weighted down, not given wings. 

Corrections of Misconceptions

In the second part of Book 1 Bacon corrects the misconceptions of his method. He allows that it may have minor errors of detail. He defends himself against the accusation of presumption for claiming to renew science so fundamentally by saying that with improved tools better things can be achieved. He emphasizes that he is not denying the capacities of his predecessors but using a compass to draw a more perfect circle than them since they had no compass. 

Applying the Inductive Process

Once tables of data have been collected the inductive process is applied. The methodology to be followed is affirmation, negation and variation. This will produce the first vintage, a hypothesis, which will help in selecting the next set of data. These are gathered by observation or provoked by experimentation.

"In forming axioms, we must invent a different form of induction from that hitherto in use; not only for the proof and discovery of principles, (as they are called,) but also of minor intermediate, and in short every kind of axioms. The induction which proceeds by simple enumeration is puerile, leads to uncertain conclusions, and is exposed to danger from one contradictory instance, deciding generally from too small a number of facts, and those only the most obvious. But a really useful induction for the discovery and demonstration of the arts and sciences should separate nature by proper rejections and exclusions, and then conclude for the affirmative, after collecting a sufficient number of negatives. Now, this has not been done, or even attempted, except perhaps by Plato, who certainly uses this form of induction in some measure, to sift definitions and ideas. But much of what has never yet entered the thoughts of man, must necessarily be employed in order to exhibit a good and legitimate mode of induction, or demonstration; so as even to render it essential for us to bestow more pains upon it than have hitherto been bestowed on syllogisms. The assistance of induction is to serve us not only in the discovery of axioms, but also in defining our notions. Much indeed is to be hoped from such an induction as has been described." (Aphorism 105)

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