Understanding the Idols

In writing the New Organon, Bacon Plans to improve upon Aristotle’s Organon by offering a mechanism for rational thinking for the modern age. Initially, Bacon’s aphorisms offer a definition for Man’s relationship with nature and examine the problems with the current methods of investigating nature. Bacon argues that hoping for absolute power over nature is futile and we can only grasp and consider how it functions. He describes the relationship between investigator and subject as problematic, since the methods lack imagination and do not follow any form of rigorous methodology. (1-10) Moreover, he continues and introduces his first real discussion of logic. Bacon contrasts the Aristotelian syllogism with inductive reasoning. The main issue with such a syllogism is that it proceeds straight to general axioms from the things that already exist in nature while supplying the steps in between afterwards. However, induction questions and examines the things for itself and then only proceeds to general statements in a methodical manner. He creates the argument that the link between syllogisms and argument is incorrect. According to Bacon the philosophical tradition of dialectic is tedious and leads to very little progress. The only value of philosophical argument is in suggesting new areas to consider. (11-20) Bacon uses the term “anticipation” (26) to describe the operation of syllogisms, because they move ahead or ‘anticipate’ from concrete things to general propositions. “Anticipation” essentially imposes a meaning on nature by missing out several key stages in the process of interpretation. Anticipations can be useful if you are more concerned with winning an argument than finding the truth, and on the basis of such a criteria Bacon would find Aristotle particularly guilty.(21-31)

Bacon’s relationship with the ancient skeptics becomes apparent again. Since the skeptic position of doubt is often based upon uncertainty over whether our senses can give a true picture of reality or allow us to know things, Bacon attacks them for undermining the importance of the senses. Bacon’s own position is that the senses can give an accurate picture of reality, but only if they are used and supported in the proper manner. Due to this reason Bacon can be seen as adhering to a weaker form of skepticism , which is less pessimistic about the possibility for knowledge. (37) Bacon then introduces the concept of the four idols or illusions, which represent the psychological, linguistic and philosophical barriers to progress in scientific investigation. Together they comprise a barrier that must be broken down before any meaningful progress can be established. First, he argues that the ‘idols of the tribe’ are shared by all people and are what may be termed as common psychological faults. The stem from the way the human mind operates and processes information from the senses and the manner in which the senses provide that information. The human mind has a tendency of imposing an order on things, developing fixed ideas and is heavily influenced by emotion. Therefore, Bacon draws on a long tradition of opposing the emotions and passions in favor of reason and the mind. Reason, even when controlled is adversely affected by emotion. According to Bacon, theses mental obstacles may not have a solution. However, since they are an integral part of human understanding, all that can be done is to recognize them and compensate for their effects. (41) He then goes on to offer that there is a greater chance of resolving the problems caused by the ‘idols of the cave’ because they affect the way an individual thinks. Men fall in love with different facts or ideas and become enslaved to them-Aristotle’s reliance on logic can be offered as an example.  Different minds work in different ways due to their unique experiences. To avoid the effects of the ‘idols of the cave’, such as a tendency to draw complicated distinctions or rely excessively on experience, an awareness of one’s own thought processes and a great deal of rigor are necessary. (42)

The phrase ‘idols of the marketplace’ is a translation of the Latin idola agorae, with the agora in ancient Greece being the public forum where citizens talked politics and traded. Problems of language and discussion are therefore central to this particular idol. Bacon has a keen awareness of the complex nature of words; they act as symbols of concrete things and abstract ideas but they can deceive us if we do not understand the relationship between the symbol and object or idea. It is necessary to look at particular instances and their order to form notions and axioms. Two types of illusion are imposed on the understanding by words: names of things that do not exist and names that are badly defined.   Carefully defining all the words used in an investigation does not always work. We need to think deeply about the way such definitions are formulated. Illusions of the first kind can be easily rejected however, it is the second kind which is more complex and caused by unskillful abstraction. The idea that knowledge and our ability to produce it depend on terminology is very important to Bacon. (42) Furthermore, he then spends more effort dissecting the ‘idols of the theater’, because they form the foundations of the authority that he wants to demolish. The ‘idols of the theatre’ are the most dangerous but also arguably the easiest to combat. They are false philosophies, and are therefore written by men rather than written into human nature. The three kinds of false philosophy that Bacon identifies (sophistic, empirical and superstitious) are equally bad. The key problem with each is their founding principle: sophistic philosophy is found on argument, empirical philosophy on limited experience, and superstitious philosophy on superstition.(46) Bacon argues that philosophy should be founded on sound method and on nature. He makes an interesting point about religion here; although he situates his philosophy within a generally Christian framework, bacon does not want to use Scripture as a foundation for Science. The Bible is, after all, another kind of authority that should be challenged and proper investigation looks only at Nature as God created it. Hence, Bacon’s categorization of errors explores and explains that scientific investigation has failed to progress because it has not recognized the true role of natural philosophy.


One thought on “Understanding the Idols

  1. Alina,

    I enjoyed reading this paper and thought it was nice work overall.

    I think Aristotle is a big fan of induction, too; in a way, it is very strange that Bacon critiques Aristotle so much. Bacon says he has a new and improved way, so to speak, but I am not sure it is so new. What is Bacon’s real axe to grind here? How fast the induction goes? Surely that isn’t the whole story.

    Both Plato (particularly in the Sophist) and Aristotle (particularly in the Posterior Analytics) pay significant attention to method and to demonstration versus induction. I wonder whether Bacon is taking Aristotle for something of a straw man here, given that so much of medieval scholasticism depends upon him (and especially the syllogism). I certainly don’t think Aristotle would call it demonstration or deduction to generalize about politics by studying over a hundred constitutions of neighboring poleis (which he did). Different studies require different methods; Aristotle is very clear on this in many places.

    At any rate, it’s just strange; if anybody was empirically minded in ancient philosophy, it was Aristotle. Maybe Bacon is taking issue with how Aristotle gets appropriated. As my teacher used to say, great philosophers are not sectarians: Aristotle is not an Aristotelian, Marx is not a Marxist, Derrida is not a Derridean, etc. Maybe Bacon’s real enemy is medieval Aristotelianism–a dogmatic reception of Aristotle’s ideas. But clearly he has some kind of novelty in mind, or we would not need a “new” organon.

    There are minor typographical errors but overall this is solid.


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