Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (1): Francis Bacon

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Benjamin Rush of 01/16/1811 (Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11:168 [1905]), who was another of the leading intellectuals of the early US, described a meeting during the Washington Administration among himself (the Secretary of State), Vice President John Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton:

Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton's political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: "the greatest man," said he, "that ever lived, was Julius Cæsar." Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men. [my emphasis]
In the pious and fake American history promoted by Christian fundamentalist homeschoolers, such a conversation couldn't have taken place, because of course all the Founders would have had to name Jesus Christ as the greatest man who ever lived.

But in the real world where real history takes place, this passage is interesting in several ways. For one thing, it enunciates the biggest difference in political outlook Jefferson had with Hamilton. He judged Hamilton's review to be a monarchist, anti-democracy view that democratic self-government was not possible because he assumed "the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men."

That was also the main basis of Jefferson's objection to the Bank of the United States that Hamilton championed, because he understood Hamilton to view it as a method of corruption to manipulate the Congress. And that is how it functioned in practice and continue to function in years in which President Andrew Jackson fought successfully to abolish it.

It's also fascinating that Jefferson named as his "trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced" the philosophers Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and John Locke (1632-1704). Of those three, only Locke is mainly known as a political theorist.

In a letter of 02/15/1789 to John Trumbull from his post in Paris as US Minister to France, Jefferson wrote of the three scientist-philosophers: "Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." (A Library of Congress image of the handwritten letter is linked; a less legible image from the LOC is here. An HTML version of the quote is also available from the LOC.)

Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban, Baron of Verulam (1561-1626)

Bacon had an interesting political career, including serving as Lord Chancellor under King James I, an office which in that time was mainly devoted to overseeing the judiciary, and seems to have been generally of a conservative, royalist turn of mind. Which didn't manage to get him out of a short stint as a prisoner in the Tower of London on charges of bribery at one point.

Jefferson's younger contemporary Hegel (1770-1831) wrote about Francis Bacon in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie; I'm quoting here from the Bolland edition of 1908; translations mine). Hegel's framework for European history was a tripartite one that he applied to philosophy, as well, designating three major periods: the Greco-Roman, the medieval and the modern period. He wrote that the third period "first emerged since the time of the Thirty Years War with Bacon, Jacob Bœhme and Descartes." (p. 89) Hegel seemed to think the outlook of the practical, scheming statesman, "an educated man of the world," weighed heavily on Bacon's philosophical thought:

So he had experienced the depravity of men who were at the rudder of the state. Next to the depravity of his character he was a man of intellect and clear sight, but did not have the ability to reflect according to general thoughts and concepts. A methodical scientific view is not available from him, but rather only the superficial reflection of a man of the world above all. (p. 821)
Jefferson presumably didn't take quite such a dim view of the depravity of Bacon's character. Hegel nevertheless rated Bacon's contributions to philosophy highly. Hegel's German Idealist tradition was a distinct one from the British empirical tradition of which Jefferson's "trinity" of Bacon, Newton and Locke was very much a part. But Hegel valued the empiricist tradition highly. He praises Bacon especially for his critique of the theological-idealist philosophical tradition of the Catholic scholastics and for his emphasis on the value of empirical observation and experimentation.

Hegel points out that Bacon's two best-known works are the Novum Organum and De augmentis scientiarum. The latter was a translation into Latin with some revision of The Advancement of Learning, considered the first major work of philosophy written originally in English. In both works, Bacon polemicized against the scholastic Aristotelian metaphysical methodology that had become common in his time. That method involved reasoning from Scriptural assumptions and established theological premises to frame all experience. Bacon called instead for beginning with sensual experience and drawing conclusions from that experience, an "explanation" or "reading out" of Nature. Bacon strived to draw "conclusion by induction and analogy," Hegel quotes him from Novum Organon. In the later work, Bacon postulates four basic causes (Ursachen): matter, form, effective cause, and final cause.

Hegel argues that while Bacon assumed to derive "immanent, true perception" out of empirical observation and experimentation, without relying on pre-established assumptions or concepts, in fact Bacon was relying on assumptions and concepts in the classifications of knowledge he made in De augmentis scientiarum. (Hegel p. 818)

But Hegel's criticism of Bacon focuses more on what he sees as Bacon's insufficient empiricism than on his lack of an idealist perspective. In Hegel's view of philosophy as the Idea progressively manifesting itself in the history of thought, Bacon's refutation of scholastic Aristotelianism and his focus on investigating the material world were critically important advances in thought. It's notable that Hegel makes his point about Bacon's claims for deductive understanding of empirical observations by citing physical phenomenon that nevertheless are not understandable in a purely deductive sense such as that posited by Bacon:

Man does not remain with isolated facts and cannot. He seeks the general; but this is "thoughts," if not also "concepts." The most distinguished form of thought is that of "force"; so one speaks of a force of electricity, of magnetism, of weight. But "force" is a general thing, not directly empirically observable [nicht Wahrnehmbares]; therefore, the empiricist is completely uncritical, unconscious in devoting himself to such analyses [as those of Bacon's deductive approach]. (p. 819)
Hegel saw Bacon as having made a major advance in the research of natural phenomenon by focusing on the search for "effective causes" instead of teleological ones. Hegel also praised Bacon for his arguments against astrology, magic and other forms of superstition.

Given his passion for classification, it's fitting that Bacon should be especially remembered for lists of categories, such as his four types of "idols," his metaphor for major errors in thinking that prevent accurate perception of material realities: Idols of the tribe (careless but common assumptions), idols of the cave (individual preferences), idols of the marketplace (limitations of language) and idols of the theater (philosophical systems). He also classified three major faculties of knowledge: memory, imagination and reason. Though what troubled Hegel about the later was it was so heavily restricted to inductive reasoning without, in Hegel's view, adequate reflection on the underlying theoretical assumptions of his approach.

Bacon also is known for stressing the importance of the idea of falsification in physical experiments, a key part of the present-day scientific method which assumes that hypothesis need to be carefully formulated in a way that the possibility of their falsehood can be directly tested - although Bacon himself has been criticized for not sufficiently appreciating the importance of hypotheses. Jürgen Klein in very useful, long 2012 article about Bacon in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bacon's Utopian fable The New Atlantis described his model for an institution devoted to scientific research for the benefit of humankind and is considered influential in the formation of the British Royal Society, founded in 1660.

In his Francis Bacon in entry for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, David Simpson observes of The New Atlantis:

The work ... stands in the great tradition of the utopian-philosophical novel that stretches from Plato and More to Huxley and Skinner.

The thin plot or fable is little more than a fictional shell to contain the real meat of Bacon’s story: the elaborate description of Salomon’s House (also known as the College of the Six Days Works), a centrally organized research facility where specially trained teams of investigators collect data, conduct experiments, and (most importantly from Bacon’s point of view) apply the knowledge they gain to produce "things of use and practice for man's life." These new arts and inventions they eventually share with the outside world.

In terms of its sci-fi adventure elements, the New Atlantis is about as exciting as a government or university re-organization plan. But in terms of its historical impact, the novel has proven to be nothing less than revolutionary, having served not only as an effective inspiration and model for the British Royal Society, but also as an early blueprint and prophecy of the modern research center and international scientific community.

Barbara Friedberg in the popular journal Skeptical Inquirer, Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism Nov/Dec 2000, calls attention to Bacon's emphasis on debunking superstition and the need for methodological corrections against psychological prejudice in evaluating scientific findings:

Bacon's paradoxical message- the mind is faulty, the mind can achieve wonders - is usually misunderstood, ignored, or quoted misleadingly.' Yet it is at the heart of the mission of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER. For Bacon grasped that the scientific method must be intimately linked with a critique of pseudoscience, and that such a critique was not to be just a start-up routine for modern science, bur would be of continuing, even increasing, importance. The more that inquiry prospered. the more its intellectual, semantic, and institutional offshoots would be vulnerable to the Idols of the mind.

She writes that in Bacon's time:

Empiricism was, not lacking, but it did not underlie broad scientific theories. These tended to soar aloft, in obedience to what Bacon called "Idols of the mind" because they diverged men from examining divinely created narure. What was needed was "a closer and purer league between ... the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made) ..."

Francis Bacon, Achievement of Learning/Novum Organum/New Atlantis (Encyclopeadia Britannica edition; 1952)

Barbara Friedberg, "Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism" Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2000

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Jürgen Klein, "Francis Bacon" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hans Küng, Das Judentum (1991)

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

Anthony M. Quinton, Baron Quinton, "Bacon, Francis, Viscount Saint Alban (or Albans), Baron of Verulam" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2013 Online version: Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban

David Simpson, "Francis Bacon (1561-1626)" (2005) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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