Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/Bacon's Idols: A Commentary

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BACON'S IDOLS: A COMMENTARY.
By WILLIAM HENRY HUDSON,

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE LELAND STANFORD JUNIOR UNIVERSITY.

IN the first book of the Novum Organon the great leader of the new philosophy undertook to set forth the dangers and difficulties which stand always in the way of clear and fruitful thought. Conscious that he was breaking entirely with the schools of the past, and ambitious of laying the firm foundations on which all future inquirers would have to build, it was natural that Bacon should pause on the threshold of his vast enterprise to take stock of the mental weaknesses which had rendered futile the labors of earlier thinkers, and which, if not carefully guarded against, would jeopardize the efforts of times to come. That the understanding may direct itself effectively to the search for truth it is necessary, he insisted, that it should have a full apprehension of the lapses to which it is ever liable, the obstacles with which it will constantly have to contend. A vague sense of peril is not enough. As a first condition of healthy intellectual activity we must learn to know our frailties for what they really are, estimate their consequences, and probe the secrets of their power.

Bacon's statement of the sources of error and vain philosophizing is regarded by him as merely the pars destruens or negative portion of his work—as it were, "the clearing of the threshing floor." But his aphorisms are packed close with solid and substantial thought, and well deserve the attention of all who would seriously devote themselves to the intellectual life. "True philosophy," as he conceived it, "is that which is the faithful echo of the voice of the world, which is written in some sort under the direction of things, which adds nothing of itself, which is only the rebound, the reflection of reality." To reach for ourselves, as nearly as we may, a philosophy which shall meet the terms of this exigent definition is, or should be, one chief purpose of our study and our thought. We may very well ask, then, what help so great and suggestive a thinker may give us on our way.

With his characteristic fondness for fanciful phraseology. Bacon describes the causes which distort our mental vision as Idola—idols or phantoms of the mind.[1] Of such he distinguishes four classes, which he calls, respectively: Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus); Idols of the Cave (Idola Specus); Idols of the Market Place (Idola Fori); and Idols of the Theater (Idola Theatri). It is not to be claimed for Bacon's analysis that it is exhanstive or always scientifically exact. In many places, too, it opens up difficult philosophic questions, which for the present must be disregarded. But, as Professor Fowler has said, there is something about his diction, "his quaintness of expression, and his power of illustration which lays hold of the mind and lodges itself in the memory in a way which we can hardly find paralleled in any other writer, except it be Shakespeare."[2] Moreover, though he often deals with matters of merely technical and temporary interest, his leading thoughts are of permanent and universal applicability. Let us see, then, what suggestions we can gather from a brief consideration of his Idols, one by one.

Idols of the Tribe are so called because they "have their foundation in human nature itself"; in other words, they are the prepossessions and proclivities which belong to men as men, and as such are common to the whole race or tribe. "Let men please themselves as they will," says Bacon, "in admiring and almost adoring the human mind, this is certain: that as an uneven mirror distorts the rays of objects according to its own figure and section, so the mind, when it receives impressions of objects through the sense, can not be trusted to report them truly, but in forming its notions mixes up its own nature with the nature of things." In many lines of thought there is no more pregnant source of fallacy and confusion than the tendency, innate in all and seldom properly checked, to accept man as the measure of all things, and to translate the entire universe into terms of our own lives. Theology, though it is slowly outgrowing its cruder anthropomorphism, still talks about the "will" of God, an "intelligent" First Cause, the "moral governor," and "lawgiver"; and outside theology we have ample evidence of the persistency with which we humanize and personify Nature by endowing it with attributes belonging to ourselves. Darwin confessed that he found it difficult to avoid this tendency.[3] It is a pitfall into which men constantly stumble in their attempts to interpret the processes at work about them.

One important result of our habit of thus forcing the universe to become "the bond-slave of human thought" is to be found, as Bacon notes, in our proneness to "suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world" than is actually to be discovered there. While we read design and purpose into the phenomena of Nature because we are conscious of design and purpose in our own activities, thus allowing ourselves to drift into the metaphysical doctrine of Final Causes, we also do our best to bring Nature's multitudinous operations into such definite formulas as will satisfy our love of plan and symmetry. We are not content till we can systematize and digest, whence our continual recourse to loose analogies and fanciful resemblances. We start from an imagined necessity of order, or from some conception of things attractive because of its apparent simplicity, and then reason out from this into the facts of Nature. Mill furnishes some telling examples. "As late as the Copernican controversy it was urged, as an argument in favor of the true theory of the solar system, that it placed the fire, the noblest element, in the center of the universe. This was a remnant of the notion that the order of the universe must be perfect, and that perfection consisted in conformity to rules of procedure, either real or conventional. Again, reverting to numbers, certain numbers were perfect, therefore these numbers must obtain in the great phenomena of Nature. Six was a perfect number—that is, equal to the sum of all its factors—an additional reason why there must be exactly six planets. The Pythagoreans, on the other hand, attributed perfection to the number ten, but agreed in thinking that the perfect numbers must be somehow realized in the heavens; and knowing only of nine heavenly bodies to make up the enumeration, they asserted 'that there was an antichthon, or counter-earth, on the other side of the sun, invisible to us.' Even Huygens was persuaded that when the number of heavenly bodies had reached twelve it could not admit of any further increase. Creative power could not go beyond that sacred number."[4] Do these concrete illustrations of perverse reasoning strike us as ludicrous? It is because they are taken from an order of ideas long since outgrown. The tendencies they exemplify have not been outgrown. We have only to keep a vigilant eye on our own mental conduct to be convinced that we are very apt to begin with some general notion of "the fitness of things," or what "ought to be," and to argue thence to conclusions not a whit less absurd essentially than those just referred to.

While these universal mental habits are conspicuous enough in the higher regions of thought and begin to play tricks with us the moment we undertake on our own accounts any serious speculation, there are other Idols of the Tribe whose influence is perhaps more commonly fatal. We all jump at conclusions, the mind feigning and supposing "all other things to be somehow, though it can not see how, similar to those few things by which it is surrounded"; we all allow ourselves to be unduly "moved by those things most which strike and enter the mind simultaneously and suddenly, and so fill the imagination." Hasty judgments are thus daily and hourly passed on men and things, and rash generalizations permitted to circulate untested. Even more disastrous, perhaps, in the long run, is the power of prepossessions. When once, says Bacon, the human understanding has "adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion, or as being agreeable to itself)" it straightway "draws all things else to support and agree with it." Illustrations may be found in every direction. Note, for instance, the vitality, even in the teeth of positive disproof, of many long-accepted and often-challenged ideas—belief in dreams, omens, prophecies, in providential visitations and interpositions, in the significance of coincidences, in popular saws about natural phenomena, in quacks and quackery, in old wives' tales, "vulgar and pseudo-scientific. The story of witchcraft is only another example of the same kind, though written large in the chronicles of the world in letters of fire and blood; the human understanding had "adopted" a belief in witches, and drew "all things else to support and agree with it." In all such cases of prepossession the mind obstinately dwells on every detail that favors its accepted conclusions, while disregarding or depreciating everything that tells against them; it is always, in Bacon's phrase, "more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives." Thus, we hear much of the one dream that is fulfilled, and of the ninety and nine that are unfulfilled—nothing. Bacon illustrates this perversity by the well-known anecdote of the ancient cynic, which may be left to convey its own moral: "And therefore it was a good answer that was made by one who, when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods—'Ay,' asked he again, 'but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?'"

Finally, among these Idols of the Tribe we must include the disturbance caused by the play of feeling upon the mind." The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections, whence proceed sciences which may be called 'sciences as one would.'" We all know, to our cost, how passion will warp judgment; how" difficult it is to see clearly when the emotions are thoroughly aroused; how tenaciously men cling to opinions they are familiar with, or would fain have to be true; how fiercely they contest ideas that are unfamiliar or repugnant. Had it been contrary to the interest of authority, observed shrewd old Hobbes, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, the fact would have been, if not disputed, yet suppressed.[5] Similarly, if the passions of men had been called into play over the most clearly demonstrable of abstract mathematical truths, we may be sure that furious controversy would have attended the issue, and some way found to overthrow the demonstration. That two and two make four would have been denied had any strong emotion been excited against the proposition. "Men," said Whateley, "are much more anxious to have truth on their side than to be on the side of truth." And the danger is greater because we are frequently not aware of the bias given by feeling. There are cases in plenty where men more or less consciously and deliberately espouse "sciences as one would," but there are many others in which the emotional interference is insidious and obscure. "Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the feelings color and infect the understanding."

These Idols of the Tribe are of course inherent in our intellectual constitution, and are ineradicable. The simple consideration that all knowledge is relative—that by no effort and under no circumstances can we escape beyond the conditions and limitations of our own minds—suffices to show that intelligence must ever mix up its own nature with the nature of things, though this fact need not make us doubt the validity of knowledge as is sometimes hastily inferred. For the rest, clear recognition of these common obstacles to thought should put us in the way of anticipating and withstanding their more serious effects. In practice it must be our object to maintain watchfulness and a careful skepticism; to test evidence and check passion; to cultivate candor, flexibility, and alertness of mind; to avoid loose generalizations; and to be ever ready to accept, revise, reject. Above all must we steadily resist the seductions of what is called common sense, and overcome that mental inertness which too often leads us to drift unthinking along the current of popular opinion.[6]

But, in addition to errors arising from the common intellectual nature of men, there are others, the sources of which are to be found in the idiosyncrasies of the individual mind. These Bacon calls Idols of the Cave;[7] for every one, he says, "has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of Nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to his reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed, or in a mind indifferent and settled; and the like." This summary is comprehensive enough to indicate the character and point to some of the causes of individual aberrations of judgment; that it does no more than this is due to the simple fact that the personal bias is as varied as humanity itself, and that the deflecting impulses in any given case are to be referred to a complex of factors almost eluding analysis. To follow this part of the subject into detail would, therefore, manifestly be impossible. But certain of the larger and more widely influential of these disturbing forces may be roughly marked out by way of illustration.

In the first place, there is what we may call the professional bias. Exclusive devotion to separate lines of activity, study, or thought inevitably gives the mind a particular set or twist. Bacon complains that Aristotle, primarily a logician, made his natural philosophy the slave of his logic. Few specialists can escape the insulation consequent upon living too continuously in a confined area of problems and ideas. Their intellectual outlook is necessarily circumscribed, facts are seen by them out of proper perspective, and one-sidedness of training and discipline renders their judgment of things partial and incomplete. The lawyer carries his legal, the theologian his theological, the scientist his scientific bent of mind into every inquiry; with what grotesque results is only too frequently apparent. Accustomed to move in a single narrow groove, and wholly absorbed in the contemplation of certain isolated classes of phenomena, they unconsciously allow their particular interests to dominate their thought, and impose disastrous restrictions upon their view of whatever lies outside their own chosen field.

Secondly, we have the bias of nation, rank, party, sect. Here the mental disturbances are too numerous to permit and too obvious to require special exemplification. Intellectual provincialism of any kind is fatal to large and fertile thought, alike by limiting the range of our knowledge and sympathies and by inducing mental habits and implanting prejudices which prevent us from seeing things in wide relations and under a clear light. So long as our point of view is simply that of our country, our class, our party, or our church, so long, it is evident, our minds will lack the breadth and flexibility necessary for free inquiry, fruitful comparisons, sane and balanced judgments.[8]

Finally, among the Idols of the Cave "which have most effect in disturbing the clearness of the understanding," mention must be made of the temperamental bias. Every man, it has been said, is born Platonist or Aristotelian; it is certain that the great divisions in thought—religious, philosophical, political—answer roughly to fundamental differences in human nature, and that every one not checked or turned aside by extraneous influences will spontaneously gravitate in one or another direction. Bacon is only according a fact of the commonest experience when he says that "there are found some minds given to an extreme admiration of antiquity, others to an extreme love and appetite for novelty, but few so duly tempered that they can hold the mean, neither carping at what has been well laid down by the ancients nor despising what is well introduced by the moderns." Many instinctively brace themselves against authority and tradition; by others again, whatever is handed down to us by authority and tradition is for this reason alone treated with contempt. That the crowd believes a thing is enough to convince this man of its truth, and that of its falsehood.

""The vulgar thus through imitation err;
As oft the learned by being singular."

These and similar congenital differences in men's intellectual constitutions might be illustrated indefinitely if it were necessary. A further remark of Bacon's must, however, be quoted, for it goes deeper in mental analysis and touches a less obvious point. "There is one principal and, as it were, radical distinction between different minds in respect of philosophy and the sciences, which is this: that some minds are stronger and apter to mark the differences of things, others to mark their resemblances. The steady and acute mind can fix its contemplations and dwell and fasten on the subtlest distinctions; the lofty and discursive mind recognizes and puts together the finest and most general resemblances." Men belonging to the former class we should call logical and critical; those belonging to the latter, imaginative and constructive. Each class tends to the excesses of its own predominant powers, and in each case excess interferes with calm reasoning and sound judgment.

To correct the personal equation it is imperative that we should study ourselves conscientiously, consider dispassionately the natural tendencies of our birth, early surroundings, education, associations, and interests, and do our utmost to conquer, or at least to make allowance for, every individual peculiarity, temperamental or acquired, likely to turn the mind aside from the straight line of thought. Such self-discipline every one must strenuously undertake on his own account if he would wish to see things as they really are. Stated in more general terms, our aim must be to rise above all kinds of provincialism and personal prejudice, and to overcome our natural proneness to rest content in our own particular point of view. Bacon quotes with approval the words of Heraclitus: "Men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world." We must strive to escape from our own lesser world, and to make ourselves citizens of the greater, common world. For this we need the widest and most generous culture—the culture that is to be found in books, in travel, in intercourse with men of all classes and every shade of opinion. Left to ourselves we only too sedulously cultivate our own insularity; we mingle simply with the people who agree with us, belong to our own caste, and share our own prejudices; we read only the papers of our own party, the literature of our own sect; we allow our own special interests in life to absorb our energies, color all our thoughts, and narrow our horizon. In this way the Phantoms of the Cave secure daily and yearly more despotic sway over our minds. Self-detachment, disinterestedness, the power of provisional sympathy with alien modes of thought and feeling, must be our ideal. "Let every student of Nature," says Bacon, "take this as a rule, that whatever his mind seizes and dwells on with particular satisfaction is to be held in suspicion, and that so much the more care is to be taken in dealing with such questions to keep the understanding even and clear." A hard saying, truly, yet one that must be laid well to heart.

While the Idols of the Tribe, then, are common human frailties in thought, and the Idols of the Cave the perturbations resulting from individual idiosyncrasies, there are other Idols "formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other," which Bacon calls "Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there." By reason of its manifold and necessary imperfections—its looseness, variability, ambiguity, and inadequacy—the language we are forced to employ for the embodiment and interchange of ideas plays ceaseless havoc with our thought, not only introducing confusion and misconception into discussion, but often, "like the arrows from a Tartar bow," reacting seriously upon our minds. A large part of the vocabulary to which we must perforce have recourse, even when dealing with the most abstruse and delicate subjects, is made up of words taken over from vulgar usage, and pressed into higher service; they carry with them long trains of vague connotations and suggestions; the superstitions of the past are often imbedded in them; no one can ever be absolutely certain of their intellectual values. While, therefore, they may do well enough for the rough needs of daily life, they prove sadly defective when required for careful and exact reasoning. And even with that small and comparatively insignificant portion of our language which is not inherited from popular use, but fabricated by philosophers themselves, the case is not much better. Every word, no matter how cautiously employed, inevitably takes something of the tone and color of the particular mind through which it passes, and when put into circulation fluctuates in significance, meaning now a little more and now a little less.[9] "What wonder, then, that "the high and formal discussions of learned men" have so often begun and ended in pure logomachy, and that in discussions which are neither high nor formal and in which the disputants talk hotly and carelessly the random bandying of words is so apt to terminate in nothing beyond the darkening of counsel and the confusion of thought?

Bacon notes two ways particularly in which words impose on the understanding—they are employed sometimes "for fantastic suppositious. . . to which nothing in reality corresponds," and sometimes for actual entities, which, however, they do not sharply, correctly, and completely describe. The eighteenth century speculated at length on a state of Nature and the social contract, unaware that it was deluding itself with unrealities, and we have not yet done with such abstractions as the Rights of Man, Nature (personified), Laws of Nature (conceived as analogous to human laws), and the Vital Principle. The more common and serious danger of language, however, lies in the employment of words not clearly or firmly grasped by the speaker or writer—words which, in all probability, he has often heard and used, and which he therefore imagines to represent ideas to him, but which, closely analyzed, will be found to cover paucity of knowledge or ambiguity of thought. Cause, effect, matter, mind, force, essence, creation, occur at once as examples. Few among those who so glibly rattle them off the tongue have ever taken the trouble to inquire what they actually mean to them, or whether, indeed, they can translate them into thought at all.

Among the Idols of the Market Place we must also class the evils arising from the tendency of words to acquire, through usage and association, a reach and emotional value not inherent in their original meanings. This is what Oliver Wendell Holmes happily described as the process of polarization. "When a given symbol which represents a thought," said the Professor at the Breakfast Table, "has lain for a certain length of time in the mind it undergoes a change like that which rest in a certain position gives to iron. It becomes magnetic in its relations—it is traversed by strange forces which did not belong to it. The word, and consequently the idea it represents, is polarized." The larger part of our religious and no small portion of our political vocabulary consist of such polarized words—words which, on account of their acquired magnetism, unduly attract and influence the mind. We can never hope to think calmly and clearly while the very symbols of our thoughts thus possess a kind of thaumaturgic power over us, which in turn readily transfers itself to our ideas.

If, then, "words plainly force and overrule the understanding and throw all into confusion and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies," it behooves us to watch closely the interrelations of language and thought. To put it in the vernacular, we must at all times make sure that we know what we are talking about and say what we mean. To this end the study of language itself is useful, but the habits of precise thought and expression will never be acquired by linguistic exercise alone. To use no word without a distinct idea of what it means to us as we speak or write it; to check, when necessary, the process of thought by constant redefinition of terms; to depolarize all language that has become, or threatens to become, magnetic, thus translating familiar ideas into "new, clean, unmagnetic" phraseology, these may be set down as first among the rules to which we should tolerate no exception.

We now come to the last group of Idols—those "which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration." These Bacon calls Idols of the Theater, "because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion." And perhaps this conceit carries further than Bacon himself intended, for it not only suggests the unsubstantial character of philosophic speculations, but also reminds us how, in the world's history, these airy fabrics have succeeded each other as on a stage, some to be hissed and some applauded, but all sooner or later to drop out of popular favor and be forgotten.

Dealing with these Idols of the Theater, or of Systems (of which there are many, "and perhaps will be yet many more"), Bacon takes the opportunity of criticising, briefly but incisively, the methods and results of ancient and mediæval philosophers. His classification of false systems is threefold: The sophistical, in which words and the finespun subtilties of logic are substituted for "the inner truth of things"; the empirical, in which elaborate dogmas are built up out of a few hasty observations and ill-conducted experiments; and the superstitious, in which philosophy is corrupted by myth and tradition. Under the first head, Bacon again instances Aristotle, whom he accuses of "fashioning the world out of categories"; under the second he glances especially at the alchemists; and under the third he refers to Pythagoras and Plato. To follow Bacon into these historic issues does not belong to our present purpose. Suffice it to notice the continued vitality of these three classes of speculative error. Bacon's judgment of Aristotle—that "he did not consult experience as he should have done, in order to the framing of his decisions and axioms; but, having first determined the question according to his will, he then resorts to experience, and, bending her into conformity with his placets, leads her about like a captive in a procession"—is at least equally applicable to thinkers like Hegel and his followers. Empiricism has by no means been eliminated from the scientific or would-be scientific world. And as for the philosophy which is corrupted by myth and tradition, the countless attempts that are still made to "reconcile" the facts of science with the data and prepossessions of theology are enough to prove that, mutato nomine, the methods of Pythagoras and Plato and of those who in Bacon's day sought "to found a system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, on the book of Job, and other parts of the sacred writings," are as yet far from obsolete.

It is hardly necessary to call attention to the fact that there is a close similarity between systematic empiricism and some of the dangers brought out in connection with the Idols of the Tribe, for in each case stress must be laid on the tendency to generalize hastily, depend on scattered and inadequate data, and seek for light in the "narrowness and darkness" of insufficient knowledge. This matter is important only as showing how a common weakness may be caught up and dignified in a philosophic system and rendered more dangerous by the adventitious weight and influence which it gains thereby. Another point, not distinctly dealt with by Bacon, calls, however, for special remark. While the various Idols of the Theater, or of Systems, exercise their own peculiar and characteristic influences for evil, they all tend to the debasement of thought by reason of the authority which they gradually acquire. Associated with great names, promulgated by schools, officially expounded by disciples and commentators, they finally settle into a creed which is regarded as having oracular and dogmatic supremacy. The formula "Thus saith the Master" closes discussion. Not the fact itself, but what this or that teacher has said about the fact, comes at last to be the all-important question. In the condition of mind thus engendered there is no chance for intellectual freedom, self-reliance, growth. Lewes related an anecdote of a mediæval student "who, having detected spots in the sun, communicated his discovery to a worthy priest. 'My son,' replied the priest, 'have read Aristotle many times, and I assure you that there is nothing of the kind mentioned by him. Go rest in peace, and be certain that the spots which you have seen are in your eyes, and not in the sun.'"[10] Such an incident forms an admirable commentary on the saying of the witty Fontenelle that Aristotle had never made a true philosopher, but he had spoiled a great many. The position assumed is simple enough: Aristotle must be right, therefore whatever does not agree with the doctrines of the Stagirite must be wrong. Are your facts against him, then revise your facts. Come what may of it, you must quadrate knowledge with accepted system. Here is the theological method in a nutshell. And the theological method has only too often been the method also of the established philosophic schools.

In our own relations with these Idols of the Theater the first and last thing to remember is that all systems are necessarily partial and provisional. "They have their day and cease to be," and at the best they only mark a gradual progress toward the truth. There can be no finality, no closing word authoritatively uttered. Our attitude toward the systems of the past and the present, toward long-accepted traditions, and dogmatically enunciated conclusions, must be an attitude of firm and steady—of respectful, it may be, but still firm and steady—independence. We must resist the tendency to passive acquiescence, and endeavor to combine with generous hospitality to all ideas the habit of not accepting anything merely because it is stated ex cathedra, or is backed by an influential name, or can "plead a course of long observance for its use." Perhaps to wean ourselves from this particular form of idolatry there is nothing so helpful as a wide and constant study of the history of thought. The pathway of intellectual development is strewn with outgrown dogmas and exploded systems. How fatuous, then, to accept, whole and untested, the doctrine of any master, new or old, believing that his word will give us complete and undiluted truth!

 

So much, then, we may say with Bacon "concerning the several classes of Idols and their equipage, all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the kingdom of heaven, whereinto none may enter except as a little child." It may perhaps be urged that the result of such a survey as we have taken, of the obstacles to clear thought is to leave the mind dazed and discouraged, partly because the suggestions made for the conquest of these obstacles, though easily formulated in theory are difficult and sometimes impossible in practice, and partly because the general if not expressed tendency of our analysis is (it may be said) in the direction of that Pyrrhonic skepticism which "doomed men to perpetual darkness." To the former objection I have only to reply that it is one to which all discussions of the principles and problems of conduct are necessarily open. "If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces."[11] None the less, to state as lucidly as we can what were good to do under certain circumstances is properly regarded as part of the business of ethics. The other point is touched upon by Bacon himself in words which it would be impertinent to seek to better: "It will also be thought that by forbidding men to pronounce and set down principles as established until they have duly arrived through the intermediate steps at the highest generalities, I maintain a sort of suspension of the judgment, and bring it to what the Greeks call acatalepsia—a denial of the capacity of the mind to comprehend truth. But in reality that which I meditate and propound is not acatalepsia, but eucatalepsia; not denial of the capacity to understand, but provision for understanding truly; for I do not take away authority from the senses, but supply them with helps; I do not slight the understanding, but govern it. And better surely it is that we should know all that we need to know, and yet think our knowledge imperfect, than that we should think our knowledge perfect, and yet not know anything we need to know."

 

  1. Idola (Greek εἴδώλα), though commonly rendered idols, would here undoubtedly be more correctly translated phantoms or specters. With this explanation, however, I shall usually employ the more familiar word.
  2. Novum Organon, edited by Thomas Fowler, introduction, p. 132.
  3. Animals and Plants under Domestication, vol. i, p. 6.
  4. Logic, ninth edition, Book V, chapter v, § 6.
  5. Leviathan, Part I, chapter xi.
  6. It is well to remember that if common sense had said the last word about the matter, the Ptolemaic theory of the universe would still stand unshaken.
  7. The metaphor is taken from the opening of the seventh book of Plato's Republic.
  8. Cf. Spencer's Introduction to the Study of Sociology, chapters viii-xii.
  9. The need of a language of rigid mathematical precision for the purposes of philosophic thought and discussion has long been the subject of remark. Hence Bishop Wilkins's Essay toward a real character and a philosophic language (1668), and the earlier Ars Signorum of George Dalgarno—boldly presented by its inventor as a "remedy for the confusion of tongues, as far as this evil is reparable by art." We may give these ingenious authors full credit for the excellent intentions with which they set out on impossible undertakings. A philosophic language may perhaps be attained in the millennium, but then probably it will be no longer needed. Meanwhile readers interested in the history of the mad scheme called Volapük may find some curious matter in these rare works.
  10. History of Philosophy, vol. ii, pp. 95, 96.
  11. This quotation is not from Bacon.