Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Francis Bacon's dream

So much 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 entrance into the kingdom of heaven, whereinto none may enter except as a little child.
These remarks are from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, in which he criticises what he calls 'idols', what we might call preconceptions or idees fixes, which inhibit our understanding and our approach to the phenomena around us. Interestingly, Bacon was particularly concerned about the muddying effects of everyday language, anticipating such later seventeenth century thinkers as Spinoza and Descartes, who were won over by the achievements of mathematics, and sought to model philosophical thinking upon mathematical axioms.

In the version I have, an extract published in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Bacon describes the Idols of the Tribe [the tendency to generalize or abstract from too little evidence, and to create general forms from specific instances], the Idols of the Cave [the tendency to generalize too much from your own specialization], the Idols of the Marketplace [the above-mentioned tendency to mystify what should be clear, through the use of everyday language], and the Idols of the Theater [a preoccupation with philosophical systems, discredited or not, as a guide to truth]. Another problem that I encounter is the fear of divesting yourself of the trappings of supposed adulthood and sophistication, so to become child-like, as if wonder is a failing and knowingness is all. Our identity is wrapped up in a bank of knowledge, opinions and attitudes, and these are the greatest barriers to scientific exploration we have - which is all somehow rather ironic.

1 comment:

  1. yes, our identities, the ideas we gain throughout our life, can be like barnacles encrusting and weighing us down, so we lose the ability to think really clearly and and see things as if they are brand new.