Application for Funding

John Bossy

  • Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Natural Philosophy by Julian Martin
    Cambridge, 236 pp, £35.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 521 38249 1

Francis Bacon has had a variety of reputations, which have tended to go up and down in a random or independent sort of way. At the moment he is generally regarded as a master of English rhetoric, an unsuccessful reformer of natural philosophy, and a cold fish. Julian Martin has tried to put him together, not by a lumping biography, but by finding the crux. His title is clumsy, but he is a good read, has an excellent point to make, and makes it successfully. His line is that it has been impossible to get at the inwardness of Bacon because of the radical division between writers who are interested in the history of science or philosophy, in Jacobean politics, and in the advancement of English prose. His method of dealing with this is to engineer a restoration of proper categories, where ‘science’ is not distinguished from ‘polities’, or indeed from the ‘arts’, if the construction of aphorisms is to be regarded as an art.

His main particular argument, which he works out carefully and persuasively, is that the model of Bacon’s proposals for the advancement of true knowledge in natural philosophy is the mode of fact-finding and rulemaking characteristic of English law. Since everybody agrees that Bacon was a master of English law, though he did not much practise it in the conventional sense, Martin’s proposal has an instant plausibility; since almost nobody outside the profession actually understands English law, it comes as a breath of fresh air.

In Chapter Four he delivers a most welcome lecture on the intellectual procedures involved, explaining what a ‘fact’ meant for lawyers (roughly, a criminal deed alleged), and how the precedents extracted from particular cases were incorporated into principles of increasing generality, until they formed the ‘maxims’ which were (or so Bacon claimed) to the details of the law what Euclid’s axioms were to particular theorems. The parallels between this system and Bacon’s recommendations for the advancement of natural knowledge seem extremely convincing. Other writers about Bacon have remarked on the likelihood of a carry-over from Bacon’s professional expertise to the occupation of his leisure hours, but I do not think that anyone has gone into the matter properly before. Martin’s discovery accounts for Bacon’s peculiar lack of connection with anything else that was going on in what we call science in his lifetime; it looks entirely compatible with his ignorance of, or contempt for, everything to do with the elaboration and verification of the Copernican system of the universe. It seems a genuine coup, both in its substance and in its method – a figuring-out of the right category to start with. In this case the category is the commonwealth.

Martin’s central intuition, which persuades, is surrounded by a good deal of less persuasive accessory matter. I feel a little nervous when he incorporates into his legal paradigm the practice of questioning suspects and witnesses by written interrogatories and signed depositions which was characteristic of non-common-law courts like Chancery and Star Chamber, and of investigative proceedings against those suspected of treason, where torture was quite commonly used. Martin needs to extend his theory in this direction because Bacon fairly frequently uses this inquisitorial model, including torture, as his metaphor for extracting truth from nature by what he calls ‘experiments’. But it has a rather muddling effect, and it requires him to suppose that in his professional career Bacon was as much concerned with such matters as with everyday affairs of the law. I am not really convinced that this is true.

Martin claims that from about 1587 Bacon was deeply engaged in collecting intelligence against Catholics and in interrogating suspects: but I cannot see much sign that he was in intelligence (though his brother Anthony was, in a modest way), nor that he acted as an interrogator on more than a very occasional basis.

Nor am I quite persuaded that we are to think of Bacon’s plan for the organisation of learning as a scheme for controlling knowledge in the interest of the Crown. It is true that he wanted it to be overseen by crown-appointed committees and funnelled through crown-supported institutes: but it is rather a jump from there to claiming that Bacon was entirely hostile to the ‘voluntary’ or unsupervised contributions of individual investigators. He may have been, but Martin has chosen a bad argument to prove it. In 1589 Bacon wrote under official inspiration a piece against the Puritans, which Martin interprets as an attack on ‘voluntaryism’ in the Church. So far as I can see, this is what historians like Christopher Hill and Patrick Collinson feel he ought to have said, rather than what he actually did say: indeed, like Hooker, he expressly exonerated the Puritans from preaching voluntaryism. And even if he had said it, Martin’s conclusion would still be unjustified: ‘Bacon clearly was alarmed by the Puritan insistence on the unmediated distribution of information.’ No, he was not. He was presumably alarmed, or professing to be alarmed, at Puritan insistence on discussing theology and the Church on the exclusive basis of Biblical authority. This has nothing to do with freedom of information: Martin, who has so carefully sorted out his categories elsewhere, has got them absurdly muddled here.

When Bacon conies, in 1602 and after, to cry down ‘the voluntary collections that the mind maketh of knowledge’, it is not at all clear to me that he is making a political statement Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of history in general have reguraly deplored individual operations in history, and called for collective historical enterprises on a grand scale. Such enterprises are likely to involve the state in financing something like Solomon’s House or the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales; they probably also carry overtones of an epistemological, and certainly of a moral kind, about the superiority of collective to individual efforts; and they make some kind of a statement about scholarship and the nation. But to say that Braudel has been political in the strong sense that Martin is claiming for Bacon does not seem very plausible. Are we necessarily to conclude, when Bacon says that knowledge is power, that he means that knowledge should be a department of state? I do not think so.

It’ Bacon did want to strengthen the state by controlling knowledge, I do not see that we have to agree with Martin that he wished to strengthen it for purposes of empire. ‘Enlarging the bounds of Human Empire’ is one thing: inventing the British Empire is something else. Martin makes a lot of the frontispiece to the Instauratio Magna, which shows the Pillars of Hercules facing a choppy Atlantic, and a galleon on the point of sailing through. Point made, one might think; except that there are a couple of problems. The first is that the galleon is sailing the wrong way; in through the Pillars, not out through them. I cannot quite square this with an imperialist interpretation. The second is that Bacon had already explained what he meant in The Advancement of Learning: ‘for why should a few received Authors stand up like Hercules’ Columns, beyond which there should be no sailing or discovering, since we have so bright and benign a star as (James I) to conduct and prosper us?’ The whole image looks more like an application for funding than an emblem of empire.

None of these difficulties in Martin’s thesis is trivial, but they probably do not amount to more than saying that he has pushed the right idea farther than it will really go, and been excessively particular about its implications. We ought to be grateful for it, and for the restitution of proper categories which has enable him to think of it. That restitution seems to provide the kernel of truth in Sir Geoffrey Elton’s bold affirmation that the book ‘will signal a new start for Early Modern science and philosophy’. There is something in that, and something too in an equally bold affirmation from the other end of the historical spectrum.

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault discerned around the end of Bacon’s lifetime a geological shift in the mode of operation of the European intellect: it switched, he thought, from a ‘Renaissance’ mode where the issue was to establish resemblances between things, to a ‘classical’ mode intended to establish identities and differences. He put Bacon down as one in whom the shift was not quite accomplished – ‘16th-century thought becoming troubled as it contemplate[d] itself, and beginning to jettison its most familiar forms’ (i.e. the Idols). This judgment seems pretty good to me, though Brian Vickers has demurred at taking Bacon’s method as a ‘paradigm of changes in the Renaissance mind’. I take from Vickers’s masterly account of Bacon’s rhetoric (Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose, 1968) a passage from Bacon which is rather compatible with it: the passage seems the more apropos in that it is quoted at the end of a chapter in which Vickers has been expounding Bacon’s use of ‘division’ or partitio as a structural principle: ‘and generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved. For the contrary hereof hath made particular sciences to become barren, shallow and erroneous; while they have not been nourished and maintained from the common fountain.’ Hence, I dare say, the immense weight which Bacon put behind his metaphors. If at the end of a rather admirable book there remains a general worry beyond the particular cavils expressed, it is that Martin works on the assumption that Bacon’s metaphors and similitudes only proceed in one direction; whereas their force is that they always bite at both ends.