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Shaking the scholarly world: Francis Bacon and 400 Years of the ‘Novum Organon’

Bacon

Tucked away among the treasures of Senate House Library is this ‘foundation of human progress and empowerment’, writes Dr Karen Attar.

In October 1620 Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans and Baron Verulam, introduced the system of inductive logic with the publication of his trailblazing Novum Organon – ‘new logic’, as Bacon truly summarised the book to James I. His prefatory words are heady: ‘swayed by the eternal love of truth… we are laying the foundations… of human progress and empowerment’.

Introducing an edition of the work published by Cambridge University Press in 2000, Lisa Jardine speculated that upon its appearance Novum Organon must have seemed like ‘the culminating achievement of one of the brightest stars in England’s political firmament’. Robert Hooke, Condorcet, the French encyclopaedists, Voltaire, William Whewell were among those strongly influenced by it.

The curators of the national exhibition Printing and the Mind of Man (1963), which set out to celebrate achievements of print and human thought and which canonised intellectual landmarks, displayed it as Bacon’s ‘greatest work’. Jardine summed up for the 21st century that Novum Organon ‘remains a work of extraordinary intellectual daring – a challenge to the entire edifice of contemporary philosophy and learning’.

Novum Organon is the beginning of Bacon’s ambitious and incomplete project Instauratio Magna (‘Renewal of Learning’). In it, Bacon focuses on natural and physical sciences, with heat as his main example. But looking back to ‘scientia’ as knowledge, the importance of his application for the humanities is equally clear. In his words, Bacon set out to ‘enlarge the bounds of Reason and to endow man’s estate with new value’. Bacon questions, re-assesses and pushes the boundaries of knowledge, as we do everywhere in universities today.

Bacon took his title from Aristotle’s Organon. Aristotle and other early scientists had used syllogisms, beginning with a foregone conclusion and demonstrating the truth of the premises on which the conclusion was based. Bacon, on the other hand, took nothing for granted. Instead, he investigated, rather than accepting, the fundamental premises and stressed the importance of observations and experiments to discover the unknown. He or his equivalent of research assistants conducted many of the experiments, mainly in chemistry and mechanics, and he specified conscientiously when he was reporting on the basis of his own work and when he was relying on reports from others.

Technical instruments were clearly necessary to conduct the experiments, and Bacon kept abreast of early modern scientific discoveries throughout Europe. One of Gabriel Harvey’s patients, he described the microscope, and he knew of William Gilbert’s work on magnetism. Friends travelling in Europe kept him abreast of Kepler’s camera obscura and Galileo’s support for Copernican astronomy.

Bacon divides the Novum Organon into two books. In the first, he repudiates idols that impede reason. Obstacles include reverence for antiquity, superstition, lack of ambition and of hope, and the shared use of imprecise language. Of educational establishments he writes damningly:

 everything is found to be inimical to the progress of the sciences. For the readings and exercises are so designed that it would hardly occur to anyone to think or consider anything out of the ordinary. And if perhaps someone should have the courage to use his liberty of judgement… he will get no useful help from his colleagues. And… he will find that in pursuing his career his industry and largeness of view will be no small obstacle to him.

In the second book Bacon presents his method of gathering evidence (the presence, absence, and variation of a nature), and demonstrating the extension and refinement of initial findings: one develops a hypothesis, tests it with examples, and refines it. The approach is liberating, as the failure of such an experiment as the attempt to turn base metal into gold can be shown to result not from mistakes in the experimenter’s practice but by the hopelessness of the task.

The copy shown here is of the first edition. It is from the library of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (1837–1914) who regarded Bacon of one of England’s six greatest men, and who collected his works accordingly. It thus comes of no surprise that alongside the first edition, published as a folio in London, he had Dutch duodecimo imprints of the work from later in the 17th century, 18th-century translations into English, German and Italian, and  18th-century German and Italian imprints of the initial Latin version.

Most distinctive in his library are an edition of 1852 with the translation of a Sanskrit commentary, a German pamphlet by Eugen Reichel questioning the authorship of the Novum Organon (1886), and a Czech translation from 1922, added to the Durning-Lawrence library after his death. Because Durning-Lawrence was an avid and prominent Baconian, whose goal in amassing a library was to prove Baconian authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the Baconian theory can easily overshadow the excellence of the unquestionably pure Baconian element of his collection and of the genius of Sir Francis Bacon as an historian, philosopher and scientist. Consideration of the Novum Organon in this, an anniversary year, may help to restore the balance.

In his preface, Bacon wrote of his endeavours: ‘we want all and everyone to … reflect on the true ends of knowledge: not to… look down on others, or for profit or for fame or for power or any such inferior ends, but for the uses and benefits of life, and to improve and conduct it in charity’. May we do the same.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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