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What do we know? Aristotle and Bacon on the Nature of Knowing

Lecturer: Matthew Sharpe

Originally Taught: Winter School 2013

Lecturer: Dr Matthew Sharpe
11am-1pm, July 1 - 5
Room 0104

Aristotle and Francis Bacon are arguably the two most influential thinkers in Western ideas, certainly concerning the field modern philosophy has labelled 'epistemology'. Aristotle, dubbed 'the master of those who know' by Dante, was the founder of the peripatetic school as well as the West's first biologist and many other things beside. His writings underlay the Islamic and Christian enlightenments of the ninth through thirteenth centuries, and continue to influence contemporary thinkers. Francis Bacon, largely overlooked today, was celebrated in the enlightenment--and in his own time--as the greatest philosopher of the seventeenth century, and the progenitor of the modern scientific project. This course will spend two days examining the 'organon' of Aristotle, being his writings on the questions of what we can know, how and on what basis. We will then spend two classes looking at Bacon, whose 'Novum Organon' of 1620 was explicitly set out as a book to overthrow Aristotle's authority concerning these questions. But we will look also at his great masterpiece 'The Advancement of Learning' of 1605, together with sundry works all devoted to what Bacon called his 'great instauration,' of a newly, systematically observant and collectively conducted program to regenerate all human knowledge. Day 5 will be a bit playful. We will look at the enigma of Francis Bacon, a man who has been accused of everything from founding modernity to destroying Western civilization, writing the 'Shakespeare' dramas, forging the freemasons, faking his own death, and sponsoring nearly everything published in the British isles between 1570 and 1640. To do this, we'll look at Bacon's remarkable essays, including his little work on ancient mythology, but headed by the apparently incomplete 'New Atlantis'--a utopian text veritably populated by hints, riddles, and innuendos.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: Aristotle and knowledge, the Old Organon introduced

First hour

  • Introduction: 'all men desire to know'; the different kinds of inquiry, divided by object, aim, and levels of precision attainable
  • The division of the intellectual virtues (noting this unusual term) in Nicomachean Ethics VI
  • How do we know, when we know? Knowledge versus belief; the nature of 'science' or episteme—knowing the what and why, and that you know them: centrally in the Posterior Analytics, de Anima

2nd hour

  • What do we know, when we know? Substances and attributes: centrally in the Categories
  • Knowing why? What is an explanation, the four 'causes' in the Physics
  • Queries for the Aristotelian conception of episteme, anticipating Bacon: Is a science of natural, changeable things possible? What is the status of observation? How do we arrive at first principles?

Lecture 2: Aristotle on 'Induction' (epagoge) and 'intuition' (nous), 'thinking beyond our means'

First hour

  • Attaining to sophia in Aristotle, in the Metaphysics and Ethics
  • 'Contemplation', the highest good for men
  • The problem of first principles: where do they come from, and how can we know them? Epagoge and nous in Posterior Analytics II.19, & in the Nicomachean Ethics

2nd hour

  • Theory versus practice: is Aristotle's natural philosophy episteme as he describes it? The Barnes thesis: showroom v. workshop—what it solves,
  • and what it doesn't
  • The Irwin thesis: can dialectic stand in for a theory of discovery, and get us to first principles? Reasons for, decisive reasons against
  • The status of practical reason: is a political or ethical 'science' possible? Are Aristotle's 'practical writings' episteme, or examplifications of a non-scientific kind of thinking?

Lecture 3: Francis Bacon, from the criticism of Aristotle to the Advancement of Learning

1. Introduction to Bacon the man, and the Great Plan

2. The early works: Bacon’s experimentations with different literary forms, personae, and the criticism of prior philosophers esp. in Masculine Birth of Time (1603 or 1604)

3. An introduction to Advancement of Learning (1605): the stately perambulation of all knowledges, Bacon’s non-Aristotelian division of the sciences in Book II, including their shortcomings, future directions for research (and for funding)

4. Bacon’s ten criticisms of Aristotle’s theoretical philosophy introduced, then four specified

  • Criticism of Aristotle’s over-reliance on dialectic
    - Confusion of invention or discovery of arguments in rhetorical context with invention of arts & discovery of first principles in the natural sciences
    - Deficient account of induction (epagoge), the derivation of first principles , and of “learned experience” or observation
    - Excessive focus on deduction (and dialectic)

5. Book I: the defence of the ways of knowledge before religious criticisms, political dismissals, and moral concerns, including the three diseases and eleven peccant humors affecting present knowledge, demanding philosophical therapy.

Francis Bacon’s 1605 ARC Discovery Grant Pitch. Project title: “The Advancement of Learning”
View F. Bacon's 1605 Grant Application here.

Lecture 4: Bacon, the Novum Organum, and the genesis of modern natural science

Revision: Bacon’s ten criticisms of Aristotle’s theoretical philosophy reviewed

2. The Novum Organum introduced (book I, 1-37)

3. The idols of the mind (the peccant humors and diseases recast), and their ontological presupposition (to the marriage of mind and world there are impediments the ancients did not imagine) (NO I.38-70)

4. NO I.71-90: The deficiencies of the ancients and present modes of knowing, discerned by signs, analysed for causes, in which context,

  • the revaluation of mechanical arts (also NO I.119-123),
  • Bacon’s criticism of final causes, and his reconception of formal causes (knowing what something is implies knowing how one can affect it)
  • Bacon’s revaluation of the importance of experiments yielding fruits (works), as well as light (causes)
  • Bacon’s revaluation of operative ends for knowledge, and their relation to contemplative ends (NO

5. NO I.91-94, 109-129: reasons for hope for a new natural philosophy (the positive side of Bacon’s rhetoric), specified in light of anticipated objections

6. NO Bk II, plus I.95-108: outline of the new inductive method, for the generation of learned experience, the tables, procedures for generating axioms, ascending and descending from particulars to universals, to generate a new natural philosophy.

Lecture 5: Bacon, the mysteries, the practical philosophy, and the New Atlantis

Details to come.


Recommended Reading:

  • Aristotle, Posterior Analytics
  • Bacon, Advancement of Learning
  • Bacon, Novum Organum
  • Bacon, New Atlantic 
  • Barnes ed., The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, chapters on Philosophy of Science, and Science by Hankinson
  • Christopher Reeve, Practices of Reason
  • Christopher Reeve, Contemplation, Action, and Happiness.
  • Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse
  • White, Peace among the Willows
  • Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (which I rate highly)
  • Rossi, Bacon: From Magic to Science (which is hit and miss but is well regarded)

Level of Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced