Sunday, October 25, 2009

Francis Bacon: Abstract Necessities and the Four Idols

Francis Bacon observed that human beings have a tendency to draw the separate facts, particulars, and events of experience into abstract necessities, general laws, and "natural" mechanisms. According to Bacon in Aphorism 45 from Book I of the New Organum:

The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things in nature which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles, spirals and dragons being (except in name) utterly rejected.Hence too the element of fire with its orb is brought in, to make up the square with the other three which the sense perceives.Hence also the ratio of density of the so-called elements is arbitrarily fixed at ten to one.And so on of other dreams.And these fancies affect not dogmas only, but simple notions also. (50)

In Aphorisms 39 through 44 of The New Organon, Bacon defines four classes of "idols" which he says "beset men's minds."These four distinctions Bacon calls, first, Idols of the Tribe; second, Idols of the Cave; third, Idols of the Marketplace; fourth, Idols of the Theater.

The Idols of the Tribe, says Bacon, "have their foundation in human nature itself . . . [H]uman understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it." Our understanding is distorted by our own animal nature.

The Idols of the Cave "are the idols of the individual man . . . [M]en look for sciences in their own lesser worlds [--according to their personal nature, the books they read, their education, the friendship and authority of those whom they esteem and admire--] and not in the greater or common world." Our understanding is distorted by our upbringing, through the association of our families and close friends.

The Idols of the Market are "formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other."Because of this association, language is often distorted "according to the apprehension of the vulgar.And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding."Learned men are often in error in their definitions and explanations because "words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies." Our understanding is distorted by where we work and who we work with.

The Idols of the Theatre are "various dogmas of philosophies, and also the wrong laws of demonstration."These various dogmas are "entire systems . . . principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received."The demonstrations and proofs for these systems are like "so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion." 
Our understanding is distorted by the language and orientations of various schools, academies, the sciences and the professions.

Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum. New York: Liberal Arts Press. 1960. (47-50).

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