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What after all was it that Bacon did for philosophy? In what did the wonder and in what did the benefit consist? I know that people have all agreed to call him the Father of the Inductive Philosophy; and I know that the sciences made a great start about his time and have in some departments made great progress since. But I could never yet hear what one thing he discovered that would not have been discovered just as soon without his help. It is admitted that he was not fortunate in any of his attempts to apply his principles to practice. It is admitted that no actual scientific discovery of importance was made by him. Well, he might be the father of discovery for all that. But among all the important scientific discoveries which have been made by others since his time, is there any one that can be traced to his teaching? traced to any principles of scientific investigation originally laid down by him, and by no other man before him or contemporary with him? I know very well that he did lay down a great many just principles ; — principles which must have been acted upon by every man that ever pursued the study of Nature with success. But what of that? It does not follow that we owe these principles to him. For I have no doubt that I myself, I that cannot tell how we know that the earth goes round, or why an apple falls or why the antipodes do not fall, I have no doubt (I say) that if I sat down to devise a course of investigation for the determination of these questions, I should discover a great many just principles which Herschel and Faraday must hereafter act upon, as they have done heretofore. Nay if I should succeed in setting them forth more exactly, concisely, impressively, and memorably, than any one has yet done, they might soon come to be called my principles. But if that were all, I should have done little or nothing for the advancement of science. I should only have been finding for some of its processes a better name. I want to know whether Bacon did anything more than this; and if so, what. In what did the principles laid down by him essentially differ
from those on which (while he was thus labouring to expound them) Galileo was already acting? From all that I can hear, it seems evident that the Inductive Philosophy received its great impulse, not from the great prophet of new principles, but from the great discoverers of new facts; not from Bacon, but from Galileo and Kepler. And I suppose that, with regard to those very principles even, if you wanted illustrations of what is commonly called the Baconian method, you would find some of the very best among the works of Gilbert and Galileo. What was it then that Bacon did which entitles him to be called the Regenerator of Philosophy? or what was it that he dreamt he was doing which made him think the work so entirely his own, so immeasurably important, and likely to be received with such incredulity by at least one generation of mankind?
A pertinent question; for there is no doubt that he was under that impression. "Cum argumentum hujusmodi præ manibus habeam (says he) quod tractandi imperitiâ perdere et veluti exponere NEFAS sit." He was persuaded that the argument he had in charge was of such value, that to risk the loss of it by unskilful handling would be not only a pity but an impiety. You wish to know, and the wish is reasona
ble, what it was. For answer I would refer you to the philosophers; only I cannot say that their answers are satisfactory to myself. The old answer was that Bacon was the first to break down the dominion of Aristotle. This is now, I think, generally given up. His opposition to Aristotle was indeed conceived in early youth, and (though he was not the first to give utterance to it) I dare say it was not the less his own, and in the proper sense of the word, original. But the real overthrower of Aristotle was the great stir throughout the intellectual world which followed the Refor mation and the revival of learning. It is certain that his authority had been openly defied some years before the pub
lication of Bacon's principal writings; and it could not in the nature of things have survived much longer. Sir John Herschel however, while he freely admits that the Aristotelian philosophy had been effectually overturned without Bacon's aid, still maintains Bacon's title to be looked upon in all future ages as the great Reformer of Philosophy; not indeed that he introduced inductive reasoning as a new and untried process, but on account of his "keen perception and his broad and spirit-stirring, almost enthusiastic, announcement of its paramount importance, as the alpha and omega of science, as the grand and only chain for linking together of physical truths, and the eventual key to every discovery and every application."
That is all very fine; but it seems to me rather to account for his having the title than to justify his claim to it; rather to explain how he comes by his reputation than to prove that he deserves it. Try the question upon a modern We are now standing upon the threshold of a new era in the science of History. It is easy to see that the universal study of History must be begun afresh upon a new method. Tales, traditions, and all that has hitherto been accounted most authentic in our knowledge of past times, must be set aside as doubtful; and the whole story must be spelt out anew from charters, names, inscriptions, monuments, and such like contemporary records. Now an eloquent man might easily make a broad and spirit-stirring announcement of the paramount importance of this process, as the only key by which the past can be laid open to us as it really was,the grand and only chain for linking historical truths and so forth. But would he thereby entitle himself to be called the great reformer of History? Surely not. Such a man might perhaps get the credit, but it is Niebuhr that has done the thing for Niebuhr was the first both to see the truth and to set the example.
So, I confess, it seems to me.
And if I thought that Bacon had aimed at no more than that, I should not think that his time had been altogether well employed, or his sense of the importance of his own mission to mankind altogether justified. For surely a single great discovery made by means of the inductive process would have done more to persuade mankind of the paramount importance of it, than the most eloquent and philosophical exposition. Therefore in forsaking his experiments about gravitation, light, heat, &c., in order to set forth his classification of the "Prerogatives of Instances," and to lay down general principles of philosophy, he would have been leaving the effectual promotion of his work to secure the exaltation of his name, than which nothing could be more opposite both to his principles and his practice. If his ambition had been only to have his picture stand as the frontispiece of the new philosophy, he could not have done better indeed than come forward as the most eloquent expounder of its principles. But if he wanted (as undoubtedly he did above all other things) to set it on work and bring it into fashion, his business was to produce the most striking illustration of its powers, the most striking practical proof of what it could do.
Therefore if I thought, as Herschel seems to think, that there was no essential or considerable difference between the doctrines which Bacon preached and those which Galileo practised; that Galileo was as the Niebuhr of the new philosophy (according to your own illustration), and Bacon only as your supposed eloquent man; I should agree with you that Bacon's right to be called the Reformer of Philosophy is not made out. But when I come to look at Bacon's own exposition of his views and compare them with the latest and most approved account I have met with of Galileo's works, I cannot but think that the difference between what Galileo was doing and what Bacon wanted to be done is not only essential but immense.
Nay, if the difference be immense, how comes it to be overlooked? It is from no want of the wish to claim for Bacon all the credit he deserves in that line.
No. Rather perhaps from the wish to claim too much. We are so anxious to give him his due that we must needs ascribe to him all that has been done since his time; from which it seems to follow that we are practising his precepts, and that the Baconian philosophy has in fact been flourishing among us for the last 200 years. You believe this, don't you?
People tell me so; and I suppose the only doubt is whether it be exclusively and originally his ;- there is no doubt, I fancy, that it is his.
Certainly that appears to be the general opinion; and it may seem an audacious thing in me to say that it is a mistake. But I cannot help it. It is true that a new philosophy is flourishing among us which was born about Bacon's time; and Bacon's name (as the brightest which presided at the time of its birth) has been inscribed upon it.
"Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest: "
not that Hesperus did actually lead the other stars; he and they were moving under a common force, and they would have moved just as fast if he had been away; but because he shone brightest, he looked as if he led them. But if I may trust Herschel, I must think that it is the Galilean philosophy that has been flourishing all these years; and if I may trust my own eyes and power of construing Latin, I must think that the Baconian philosophy has yet