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Scientific methods, not method: going back to the sources for Francis Bacon

The natural philosopher Francis Bacon is well-known (among historians of science…) for his Novum Organon that rejected much of Aristotle’s theoretical method (the Organon) and sought to establish methods of investigation that intimately bound empiricism and abstract reasoning. In the blitz history of science given in science classes, he’s one of the people cited as a founder of modern science, clearing the intellectual detritus of reliance on ancient authorities and handed-down notions.

In the passage I’ve translated below, from the preface to the work, we see a more complex Bacon (as is usually the case—let’s return to the sources when we can!) He is hardly triumphalist about the powers of his method, or of human reason, and he has more respect for what the ancients and his predecessors in philosophy achieved than I, at least, expected given what I’d been told. (I suppose Bacon would have approved of me going back to the sources and breaking through the confusions and errors brought on me by received wisdom, even given with the best of intentions.)

I give this translation in the spirit of sharing works-in-progress; there are many things about it that I’m unsatisfied with, among them my somewhat archaizing style and use of “men” because “humans” still feels awkward to this genderqueer-yet-methodologically-conservative classicist.

Original Latin text here (the two paragraphs starting from “Qua re, ut quae dicta sunt complectamur…”).


“It seems neither trust in others’ authority nor our own individual efforts have favored us humans in illuminating the sciences so far—especially since neither demonstrations nor experiments done up to now have been much help. Human reason, contemplating it, finds the edifice of this universe, its structure akin to a labyrinth, where so many impasses in the ways, such deceptive analogies between signs and things, such crooked, knotted coils and tangles reveal themselves everywhere. We must constantly journey through the forests of experience and particular things by the wavering light of the senses, now shining forth, now concealing itself. Even worse—those who offer themselves as trail guides also get turned around and increase the number both of errors and those erring.

In such difficult matters there is little hope of progress for us humans by our own powers or happy good fortune. Nor can excellence of mind or endless rolls of the dice overcome the difficulties. We must step forward along the threads reason lays down: every line of inquiry, starting from the first impressions of the senses, must be supported by reason. But nor should we deal with these matters as if they hadn’t been treated for many centuries, by many hard labors. We are not ashamed of what has been found; we do not repudiate it wholly. And the ancients certainly showed themselves to be admirable men, to the extent that they treated these matters by their own powers of mind and abstract meditation.

Conquered by an eternal love of the truth, we give ourselves over to unsteady and demanding paths and vast deserts; and leaning on and held up by divine aid, we keep our minds steadfast, against the buffeting of opinion, practically arrayed in battle against us, and our own internal hesitations and anxieties, and no less against the fogs and clouds and phantoms of the things themselves. Thus we can gift our contemporaries and those who come after us with more trustworthy and sure signposts. And if we have made any progress at all in this, the way was laid open to us by nothing other than true humbling of the human spirit.

For all those who applied themselves to the invention of arts before us, having taken a cursory look at the things themselves and case studies and the evidence of their senses, invoked their own spirits as if shown to them through oracles, as if discovery came from nothing other than a bit of cogitation. We, though, perpetually sitting with the same phenomena and exhibiting restraint, do not let our intellects roam farther from the things themselves than is necessary to form impressions and images of the concrete things in our minds—and so nothing much is left to our mental powers and excellence. And we have shown the same humility when we teach as we use when we make researches. 

We do not attempt to impose or force a magisterial quality on our discoveries, neither by flashy refutations, nor invoking the ancients, nor by force of authority or any cover of obscurity. This would hardly be difficult for anyone who tried to illuminate his discoveries for his own sake and not others’ benefit. I do truly believe that we have not used any force or set any treacheries for men through our judgments, nor are we planning such now. We are, rather, leading them to the phenomena themselves and the connections between them, so that they may see for themselves what our arguments have in them, what they explain, what they add and contribute to common knowledge. And if we held false beliefs in some matter or fell asleep on the job and payed poor attention, or got lost on the path and screwed up our inquiry, we have endeavored to show these, our errors, too, unadorned and openly, so that our mistakes can be noted and separated out before they infect our scientific enterprise more deeply, and so that our efforts may be continued with fewer impediments and the way forward easier. In these ways, we trust we have formed a true and legitimate marriage between empirical investigation and abstract reasoning, whose wayward and unfortunate split and rejection of each other shook up everything in our human family.”

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