Francis Bacon: The Natural Philosopher

Francis Bacon: The Natural Philosopher

By: Stephanie Soibelman

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English Natural Philosopher who used inductive reasoning in attempts to improve the errors made by Aristotle, and is known for advancing the (scientific) method. As Bacon never actually made any experimental discoveries, nor did he have a laboratory to work in, why has he been given the utmost credit and is considered one of the most prominent Natural Philosophers?

The title of Bacon’s work, Novum Organum, or the New Organon (1620), is based on Aristotle’s work on logic.  Organon translates in English as the instrument of rational thinking, and proposed a new style of reasoning to supersede Aristotle’s work. Aristotelian philosophy was based on a set of rules that governed the consistency between conclusion and a foundation that was accepted as unquestioningly true; Bacon’s philosophy was the opposite. Leading up to and during Bacon’s time, philosophies existed that were rooted in pure faith and not so much in reason; these outdated philosophies were promoted by the church [Landry]. His style was to investigate the underpinnings of the very ground work in Aristotle’s scientific theory; his objective was to put nature to the test [Baigrie, 62].

The Inductive Approach

Bacon is most commonly known for advocating the inductive approach to science.  He argued that there had been limited progress over the ages due to the fact that scholastic philosophers altered their findings on nature to meet the requirements of scripture. Bacon delineated the principles of the inductive thinking method, while the term “method” goes back to the times of Aristotle, Bacon constituted a breakthrough in the approach to science.  He denounced the scholastic thinkers for their attachment to Aristotelian doctrines, which he felt prevented independent thinking and the acquisition of new ideas regarding nature. He argued that to improve the quality of human life, the advancement of science should not depend on ancient texts, and that old authorities should be considered redundant and unnecessary. He believed that knowledge should be pursued in a new and organized way.  His idea of an inductive approach included the careful observation of nature with a systematic accumulation of data to draw upon. New laws were soon created based on the knowledge of particular findings through testing and experimentation. Any natural philosopher who subscribed to this method did not base their findings on out-dated myths, but would instead base their results on observable facts [Perry, 549]. It was this kind of materialist theory that brought about the great discoveries by Copernicus and Galileo. Bacon could see that the only knowledge of importance to humanity was empirically rooted in the natural world; and that a clear system of scientific inquiry would assure mastery over the material world [Landry].

Bacon was among the first to appreciate the value of the new science for human life. He stated that knowledge should help utilize nature for human advantage and should improve the quality of life by advancing commerce, industry and agriculture. He believed that knowledge is power and he urged the government to create scientific institutions to praise the progress in technology and the mechanical arts.

In his book The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon proposed a scientific method using inductive empirical experimentation. He believed that experiments should be carefully recorded so that results were reliable and could be repeated. He advocated the world of science over the secret and mysterious world of magic. He stressed the practical impact that scientific discovery encompassed and even wrote a utopian work in which science was the savior for the future of humanity. Although Bacon was not a scientific investigator himself, he used political influence to support the scientific projects with the use of inductive reasoning, in England [Kishlansky, Geart, and O’Brien, 549].

His philosophy was contrasted by the position taken by the Roman Catholic Church at the time. The Church had taken the offensive in preserving the core of its heritage, and this new science appeared to be another act of heresy. Ever since Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published his views on a sun-centered universe, a new skepticism emerged among European intellectuals. Every year new theories competed with old ones and several contradictory explanations regarding the most common phenomena were advanced and debated. The trial of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) slowed the momentum of scientific investigation in Catholic European countries and caused conflict between authority and knowledge. The skeptics concluded that nothing was known and nothing was knowable. This outrageous new outlook inevitably led to the most shocking of all possible ideas, “atheism.” However, few of the leading scientists ever saw a contradiction between their studies and their faith. By the middle of the century, assaults on the Church were increasing and some blamed the new science of inductive reason for these philosophical attacks [Kishlansky, Geart, and O’Brien, 549].

Elizabethan England

Elizabethan England was anything but a free society. Like Continental Europe at the time, the authority of the Monarchies and the Church were undisputed. Sovereigns held the power of life or death over their subjects, and authorities encouraged informers to hand over heretics and political radicals. The heretics would then be imprisoned, tortured, or even put to death. England was split over religion, but the Catholic Church no longer had a hold on England as it did on other European countries [Taylor]. This caused a slow rise for Bacon in his political career under the Elizabethan Parliament and later under James I. He represented many constituencies, and is the only person in history who has been a member of the House of Lords and the House of Commons at the same time [Taylor]. In Parliament he served on at least 29 committees, and was considered one of the most eloquent speakers to have ever stood before the House of Commons.

Bacon was well respected, largely for his virtue, but also had many jealous enemies. Under King James I rule, Bacon rose to Solicitor-General in 1606 and achieved the post of Attorney-General in 1613. Bacon was educated at Cambridge and was a Member of Parliament for 34 years and became Lord Chancellor in 1618, until his fall and disgrace from public office in 1621 for bribery. He was framed by his Parliamentary colleague and nemesis from Elizabethan times, Edward Coke (1552-1634), and was impeached and lost his title for taking bribes in office. This led him to being convicted and banished from London and the law courts [Taylor]. However, during his reign in office, he encouraged the organization of science itself, the communication between centers of learning to share research and resources, and of royal patronage for the sciences. A direct result was the formation of The Royal Society in Britain, formed with the financial support of the Crown. Regrettably, this occurred after Bacon’s time in office.

Bacon and Astrology

Bacon had mixed views when it came to the practice of astrology. He felt that astrology was very full of superstition, and argued that there was very little sound evidence to be discovered in it. However, he wanted to see astrology ‘purified’ rather than rejected altogether [Tester, 220]. He believed that astrology needed to be based on reason and physical speculation, and rejected the use of horoscopes, nativities, elections, and query. He argued that these factors were the very “delight” of astrology, and in his judgment, were based on nothing pure or solid. Bacon insisted that the heavenly bodies affected the more sensitive bodies, such as humors, air, spirits, an actually affected solid bodies and large numbers of people. However, he also felt that the influence on an “individual” was so small that it would be insignificant [Tester, 221]. He held that astrological predictions of the climate and what each season would bring forth, could be accurate and have some value.  In contrast, forecasts for particular days held no value.   He stated that the celestial bodies must encompass certain other influences besides heat and light, and these influences must act by the rules of physics and needed further study [Tester, 221].

Bacon’s view was that if astrology was purified, then it would be accepted as a “Sane Astrology.” Thus the very nature of the stars and planets and hence their differences, needed to be updated in accord with logical sense, and not be contradicted or be inconsistent with what was scientifically proven. Such a “Sane Astrology” would be used for the prediction of comets, meteors, coming droughts, heats, frosts, earthquakes, fiery eruptions, winds, great rains, the seasons of the year, plagues, epidemic diseases, plenty, famine, wars, transmigration of people, or great innovations of things both natural and civil [Tester, 222]. Astrology could be used for agricultural or horticultural actions, factors including planting according to the phase of the Moon would be particularly important. Bacon stressed that the practical way in which one arrives at this sane astrology could be used for experiments in the future, by checking on past experiences, and thereby shifting traditions with the implementation of physical reasons.  He rejected the use of all semi-magical uses of astrology connected with seals, talismans, amulets, etc. In Novum Organum, Bacon was very dismissive and said that all superstition is much the same whether it was in regards to astrology, dreams, omens, or any of the like. All of which he felt, deluded the believers to observe events which seemed to be fulfilled. Bacon believed that superstition additionally included theology, religion, and philosophies such as Platonism [Tester, 222]. He thought that astrology should only be applied to the world of nature and human history in its collective sense, but not to the life and fortune of any individual [Whitfield, 169]. In other words, Bacon advocated the use of mundane astrology, and nothing more.

Bacon also urged reformers to abandon the safety of classical scholarship because he felt that the intellectual globe should expand outside the discoveries of the ancients.  He promised that experiments would transform discoveries into knowledge and create a utopian New World [Fara, 157]. His assertion eventually influenced scientific research across all of Europe.  As Lord Chancellor, Bacon coined the ideal slogan “Knowledge is Power” to help convert the doubters. Though many of the Natural Philosophers preferred to investigate from the certainty of one’s mind, Bacon urged the use of the inductive approach.  He insisted that explanation from observations untainted by theoretical preconceptions was the only true way to get untainted results. He envisioned a future utopian island community dedicated to investigating new ways of harnessing nature’s powers for the benefit of society.  Of course he was vague about how all that would come about, but did insist that information colleted by teams of researchers who were organized into separate projects, could accumulate facts that their leaders would digest into scientific knowledge. He envisioned such topics as metallurgy, agriculture, and even refrigeration would be tested and investigated [Fara, 158].

Bacon’s lack of consideration towards the craftsmen, artisans, mechanics, and engineers was pitiable [Perry, 549]. In fact, the craftsmen and artisans made a huge impact on the improvement of human life. They advanced knowledge and technology and contributed to the betterment of human life, far more then Bacon ever did. Even though the craftsmen occupied a lower status in society, they were able to construct products for the natural philosophers to use. The craftsmen mastered their art and became experts at assisting the philosophers to produce important, systematic experimentations [Gregory, 136]. These new scientific philosophers worked with the craftsmen to further develop existing instruments, and make them even more accurate. Measuring instruments were essential for everyday use: the weighing of food, surveying of land, navigating by using the stars, telling time and even preparing herbal remedies, which were upgraded for experimental use.  The Optician, who had traditionally worked with reading glasses and nautical telescopes soon became in demand in the seventeenth century when they expanded to use microscopes and telescopes as well.  These optical instruments revealed details of the natural world that had never been seen before and lead the early experimenters to turn to the craftsmen for guidance, not to Francis Bacon [Fara, 159].


Experimental Science

The physician, William Gilbert (1544-1603) who was Queen Elizabeth I physician, is one individual who is credited as being one of Bacon’s contemporaries. He was very inspired to investigate magnetism and therefore improved British navigation by inventing more effective compasses. Other early scientists who came up with an array of findings began to write and publish in plain English instead of Latin so that others could easily read the information. Soon books and instruments began to travel from one place to another, and the world seemed to become smaller because of it. In theory, other experimenters were able to replicate the same results.  By being able to demonstrate an investigational ‘theory’, experimenters were able to show and verify an existing theory [Fara, 162]. Bacon called such crucial experiments ‘Instances of the Fingerposts’ that would point to the direction of truth. In simpler terms, he meant,” Seeing is Believing.” These new scientists argued that since experiments revealed facts, that they should be able to be replicated and repeated by anyone [Fara, 163].

The appearance of new technical instruments such as the telescope, the barometer and the thermometer made for a wide variety of experiments, and ignited the growth of this new experimental technology. Bacon marks the first systematic attempt to give formal shape to this experimental science. His philosophy of science with his commitment to the role of observation and experiment as prerequisites for the construction of the scientific theory became highly influential. His work left an imprint on all subsequent philosophical discussions of the scientific method. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the new science was firmly established throughout Europe. Royal and noble patrons supported the enterprise by paying some of the costs for equipment and experimentation.  Both England and France established royal societies where learned scientists could meet together and discuss their discoveries [B Kishlansky, Geart, and O’Brien, 549]. He can even be praised for making an imprint on what was soon to be the United States of America [Taylor]. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was profoundly influenced by Bacon’s writings.  In writing the Declaration of Independence Jefferson believed that he was fulfilling Bacon’s dreams by creating a “New Atlantis.” Bacon was one of the leading supporters of scientific research in England and modern science owes a great dept to Bacon, for he created a process that affected the methods used today in science labs all over the world.


Baigrie, Brian S. Scientific Revolutions, Primary Texts in the History of Science. New Jersey:Pearson Education, Inc., 2004. 62. Print.

Fara, Patricia. Science, A Four Thousand Year History. 1st ed,. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 157-163. Print.

Gregory, Frederick. Natural Science in Western History. 1st ed. Volume 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin CO, 2008. 136. Print.

Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geart, and Patricia O’Brien. Civilization in the West. 5th ed. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2003. 549. Print.

Landry, Peter. “Francis Bacon: The Secretary of Nature.” Biographies. Blupete, 2010. Web. 19 Jun 2010. <>.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization, A Brief History. 4th ed. Volume 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin CO, 2001. 220-222. Print.

Taylor, Michael. “Francis Bacon Secret Societies.” The Secret Bard. The Designer’s Bureau, 2004. Web. 19 Jun 2010. <>.

Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. New York: The Boydell Press, 1999. 220-222. Print.

Whitfield, Peter. Astrology, A History. 1st ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2008. 169. Print.

Stephanie Soibelman, Kepler BA Candidate
Course: 376-G Literature of the Natural Philosophers
Faculty: Carol Tebbs
23 June 2010