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Hail, Prophet of "Empiricism": Rethinking Sir Francis Bacon

September 30, 2010

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[Excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]

Sir Francis Bacon

The status and reputation of Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is one of the great puzzles in the history of social thought. On the one hand, Bacon was universally hailed as the greatest man of his age. Over a century later, in the great manifesto of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, Bacon was hailed extravagantly as "the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers." Yet what had he actually accomplished to warrant all the accolades?

This prolific statesman and writer, with great fanfare and self-advertisement, in a series of books from the 1600s to the 1620s, set forth a series of injunctions about the proper method of scientific inquiry into the world, including social as well as natural sciences. Essentially, Bacon wrote numerous exhortations to everyone else to engage in detailed factual investigation into all life, all the world, all human history. Francis Bacon was the prophet of primitive and naive empiricism, the guru of fact grubbing. Look at "the facts," all "the facts," long enough, he opined, and knowledge, including theoretical knowledge, will rise phoenix-like, self-supporting and self-sustained, out of the mountainous heap of data.

Although he talked impressively about surveying in detail all the facts of human knowledge, Bacon himself never came close to fulfilling this monstrous task. Essentially, he was the metaempiricist, the head coach and cheerleader of fact grubbing, exhorting other people to gather all the facts and castigating any alternative method of knowledge. He claimed to have invented a new logic, the only correct form of material knowledge — "induction" — by which enormous masses of details could somehow form themselves into general truths.

This sort of "accomplishment" is dubious at best. Not only was it a prolegomenon to knowledge rather than knowledge itself; it was completely wrong about how science has ever done its work. No scientific truths are ever discovered by inchoate fact digging. The scientist must first have framed hypotheses; in short, the scientist, before gathering and collating facts, must have a pretty good idea of what to look for and why. Once in a while, social scientists get misled by Baconian notions into thinking that their knowledge is "purely factual," without presuppositions and therefore "scientific," when what this really means is that their presuppositions and assumptions remain hidden from view.

The mystery, then, is why Sir Francis Bacon's dubious achievement garnered so much praise. One reason is that he succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist — he was the right man for his notions at the right time. For Bacon came after two centuries of sniping at scholasticism, which was now ripe for an open and all-out assault.

Echoing many other thinkers of past generations but putting it squarely and bluntly, Bacon divided all knowledge into two parts, divine and natural. Man's knowledge of supernatural and spiritual matters came from divine revelation, and that was that. On the other hand, knowledge of material affairs, man and the world around him, was wholly empirical, inductive, arrived at through the senses. In neither case was there any room for human reason, that great conduit of knowledge lauded by classical philosophy from the Greeks to the scholastics. Knowledge of spiritual and divine matters was purely fideistic, the product of faith in divine revelation. Earthly knowledge was purely sensate and empirical; there was no room for reason there either.

In ethical and political philosophy, then, Bacon found no room for the classical doctrine that human reason supplies knowledge of ethics through investigation of natural law. Instead, ethical knowledge is purely relative, the tentative accumulation of mounds of unsifted historical data. And if there is no rational knowledge of ethics or natural law, then there are no natural-rights limits to be placed on the power and actions of the state.

Curiously enough, Bacon had the best of both worlds by proclaiming that endless arrays of facts were not just the only conduit to knowledge, but that they would enable man to arrive at an ethics that would improve his life. The ultimate purpose of engaging in all the fact grubbing was utilitarian. Yet how he expected valid ethical laws to emerge out of all this busy empiricism was left unexplained.

"Essentially, Bacon wrote numerous exhortations to everyone else to engage in detailed factual investigation."

Recent research, however, has cleared up some of the lacunae in Bacon's methodological position. For it turns out that much of Bacon's vaunted "empiricism" was not just ordinary science, but the allegedly empirical mystical mumbo-jumbo that various Renaissance thinkers had cobbled out of the "Ancient Wisdom." Renaissance mysticism was a pseudoscience that combined the occult and magic traditions of the hermetic literature with that of a Christianized version of the Jewish Kabbalah.

A year after Bacon died, his proposed despotic utopia, the New Atlantis (1627), was published. In the Renaissance mystic tradition, Bacon proposed a utopia ruled by enlightened despots, in which all men are happy and content. Happiness was achieved because Adam's sin was not, as in the standard Christian tradition, trying to know too much and to become in some sense divine. On the contrary, the mystical, hermetic view held that Adam's sin was turning his back on the Ancient Wisdom that could have been revealed to him.

By contrast, man would now be made happy because wise rulers, possessed of this divine knowledge, would guide man to perfection and happiness by fulfilling his true God-like nature. In Bacon's utopian novel, the symbols he used heavily — such as the "rose" or "rosy" cross — reveal Bacon's closeness to the newly founded and mysterious Rosicrucian Order, which added to the rest of the Ancient Wisdom the pseudoscience of alchemy, in which man becomes as God in helping to create the universe.[1]

The arrogant Baconian claim to be the prophet of the only true scientific method takes on a high irony when we realize that Francis Bacon's vision of science was close to that of the magic-oriented occultists of the Rosicrucian Order. And since Renaissance occult "knowledge" was definitely part of the new spirit of the age, and later even of the allegedly "rational" Enlightenment as well, Francis Bacon may be considered far closer to the zeitgeist of his day than current Baconians would care to acknowledge.

Francis Bacon was also in tune with the zeitgeist in another way. The simple-minded proclamation of the absolute power and glory of the English king was no longer as tenable as it had appeared to the Anglican theorists of the 16th century or even to Bacon's absolutist contemporaries of the early 17th century. The naive argument by "correspondence" — the analogies to the lordship of God, the head on a single man's body, and to the king as head of the great body politic — was no longer being accepted as self-evident truth.

The new discoveries, and the expansion of the economy and of the nations of Europe into new worlds, made the older view that any change wrought by human beings merely corrupted God's static order of nature increasingly untenable. The idea that every man and group was born into a divinely ordained fixed order and station in life was rebutted by the increasing mobility and social and economic progress of the Western world. And so the old admixture of the material and the divine into one heady brew of unquestioned absolutism could no longer command respect. A new fallback position for the state and the monarch was necessary, one more in tune with the new fashion of "science" and scientific advance.

"Social scientists get misled by Baconian notions into thinking that their knowledge is without presuppositions and therefore 'scientific,' when what this really means is that their presuppositions and assumptions remain hidden from view."

And so the "scientific realism" of Sir Francis Bacon was perfectly suited to the new task. The idea that the king was quasidivine or received an absolute divine imprimatur would no longer do. Sir Francis Bacon in the service of the state was far more the "realistic political scientist" heralded by Machiavelli.

Indeed, Bacon consciously modeled himself on Machiavelli's teachings. Like the neopagan Machiavelli, Bacon called upon his prince to do great deeds, to achieve glory. He particularly called upon the king to achieve empire, to expand and to conquer territories overseas. Domestically, Bacon was what might be called a moderate absolutist. The king's prerogative was still dominant, but this should be within the ancient historical constitution, and should follow the law, and there should be at least discussions and debates in the courts and in Parliament about royal decrees.

Bacon went beyond most other apologists of empire by declaring it a high moral duty of the king to expand, as well as preserve, the "bonds of empire." The duty to conquer went even beyond Machiavelli, who worried about undue speed in achieving conquest. To stand ready to serve the high duty of expanding empire, the British nation had to be trained in the study of arms and particularly in naval prowess, and had to display the virtue of fortitude, to be "stout and warlike."

This brings us to the last and not the least of the reasons for Bacon's enormous influence beyond the merits of his achievements. For Sir Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount of St. Albans, was one of the leading politicians and members of the power élite in Great Britain. He was, first, the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509–1579), a close friend and brother-in-law of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, a leading aide to Queen Elizabeth. As a result, Nicholas Bacon became Privy Councilor, Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Francis Bacon was, therefore, born with a silver spoon. As a young attorney, Bacon became an MP and, in 1591, a confidential adviser to the earl of Essex, favorite of the queen. As Essex began to lose favor with the queen, the ever-alert Bacon sensed the shift in the wind and turned against his old patron, taking the lead in the condemnation that led to Essex's execution. To explain this sordid affair, Bacon was assigned by the queen to write what became the official public denunciation of Essex. Later, to quiet a festering canker of criticism, Bacon was moved to write an Apology for his own treacherous role in the Essex affair.

Despite Bacon's apologia, the queen, for obvious reasons, continued not to trust him very much, and political preferment eluded the highly-placed courtier. Under the new king, James I, however, Bacon came into his own, his career propelled by his cousin Thomas Cecil, the second Lord Burghley. In 1608, Bacon became the king's solicitor, and then attorney general. Finally, in 1617, he followed in his father's footsteps as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and the following year became Lord Chancellor.

After three years in the nation's highest political post, however, Sir Francis Bacon was laid low. Charges of systematic bribery and corruption against him were proved, and he then confessed his guilt, retiring to private life and to pursuing his publishing career. Characteristically, while Bacon admitted to taking bribes, he claimed that they never affected his judgment, and that his "intentions" had remained forever "pure." Judging him by his own empirical method, however, one may be permitted to be skeptical of such "metaphysical" claims.

 Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
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In the narrowly economic sphere, Bacon's output was sparse and his opinions unremarkable, except for their scarcely being in the forefront of modern or scientific advance. On the balance of trade, he took the standard broadly mercantilist line. Thus, in his "Advice to Sir George Villiers," written in 1616 but only first published in 1661, Bacon hailed the export "trade of merchandise which the English drive in foreign parts." The crucial point of the trade is "that the exportation exceed in value the importation; for then the balance of trade must of necessity by returned in coin or bullion."

On the ancient question of usury, Bacon took a surprisingly reactionary and moralistic stand, calling for its prohibition on moral and religious grounds. More interestingly, he also declared that allowing high interest rates restricted beneficial agricultural improvements on behalf of riskier (and presumably less worthy) projects — an indication that some of the clamor to repress usury came from blue-chip investors who balked at the competition of more speculative borrowers willing to pay higher interest. In a similar vein, Bacon also attacked the charging of interest because it drew men from their appointed callings and brought them income they did not really "earn."


[1] For a fascinating discussion of Bacon's important role in immanentizing the sacral in the form of the pseudo-science of the Ancient Wisdom, see Stephen A. McKnight, Sacralizing the Secular: the Renaissance Origins of Modernity (Baton Rouge, LA: L.S.U. Press, 1989), pp. 92 — 7. Also see Frances Yates, "Francis Bacon, 'Under the Shadow of Jehova's Wings.'" in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972). Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968).

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