THINKER’ ALMANAC – January 22

Subject:  Induction – Knowledge is Power

Event: Birthday of Francis Bacon, 1561

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. -Francis Bacon

Today is the birthday of English philosopher, statesman, and scientist, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), known for the famous pronouncement, “Knowledge is power.”  In science, Bacon challenged the established deductive method of thinking, which was based on the classical writings of Aristotle and Plato.  Unlike deduction, which is based on the syllogism, Bacon’s inductive method is based on empirical evidence.  In Bacon’s method, the five senses become the basis of how we make sense of our world, by observation, data gathering, analysis, and experimentation.

In 1620, Bacon published The New Instrument (Novum Organum Scientiarum), where he made his famous claim “knowledge is power.”  As historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book Sapiens, Bacon’s genius was his pioneering work in connecting science with technology.  Today we take this connection for granted, but in the 17th century, there was a divide between scientific theory and technology.  Bacon argued that the true test of knowledge wasn’t just whether or not it was true; instead, the true test was its utility.  Bacon envisioned a future where science and technology would be forged to empower humankind (1).

While Bacon is known today for the development of the scientific method, his devotion to that method might have also led to his own demise.  The story goes that one snowy day in 1626 Bacon was traveling with a friend in his carriage.  The two men began arguing about Bacon’s recent hypothesis that fresh meat could be preserved if frozen.  Seeing an opportunity to do some on-the-spot experimentation, Bacon stopped his carriage and purchased a chicken from a peasant woman. After having the woman gut the chicken, Bacon proceeded to pack snow into the chicken’s carcass. He then put the chicken in a bag, packed more snow around the outside of its body, and buried it.  Unfortunately, in the process of gathering his empirical evidence, Bacon caught a severe chill, which led to his death by pneumonia on April 9, 1626.

In addition to his important work in science, Bacon is also known today for his writing, principally the English essay. Influenced by Montaigne, the French writer who pioneered the essay, Bacon adopted and popularized the form in English as a method for exploring ideas in writing.

Bacon wrote on a wide range of topics, but preceded his essays’ titles with the preposition “of,” as in Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Love, Of Boldness, Of Ambition.  His essays are eminently quotable, for Bacon crafted his sentences carefully, making each one a profound package of pithiness — you might go so far as to call them “Bacon bits.”  As Bacon explained in his own words, aphorisms, those concise statements of general truth, were essential to his thinking:

Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What were Bacon’s contributions to both the world of science and of writing?

Challenge – Everything is Better with Bacon:  Just one of Bacon’s aphorisms is like an essay in itself.  For example, here’s what he said about rhetoric:  “The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.”  Research some of Bacon’s aphorisms.  Select one that you find interesting.  Quote it, and write an explanation of why it intrigues you.

1-Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.2-Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning. 1605.

2-Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning. 1605.