Bacon understood obstacles to clear thinking

July 30, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Sometimes we might assume that we need to return to ancient Greece as a source of good ideas. There is little doubt that a rich, original source of thought is readily available from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other well-known ancients. Another rich place to mine for brilliance is England. One overlooked person at the close of the medieval period, Francis Bacon, had a grasp that was almost modern of those obstructions that thwart the mind in the quest for knowledge.

Bacon was one of the earliest of a long line of gifted British thinkers who led the way in developing the philosophy of science. Perhaps his best-known work, Novum Organum, included what he called "Idols of the Mind." In 1620, the year the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Bacon gave his explanation of what keeps us from discovering the truth about ourselves and the world in which we live.

According to Bacon, we could achieve our goal by using the scientific method of observation, experimentation and verification if we were disciplined and rational. However, there are four ever-present blocks which Bacon called "Idols of the mind" which stand in our way. When we are honest, we recognize that Bacon's "Idols" (attitudes, ideas, and habits) all combine to keep us from getting a clear picture of reality.


"Idols of the Tribe" are the first class of obstructions "which have their foundation in human nature itself ..." All human beings are vulnerable to preconceptions and prejudices which distort the real picture we should perceive. "Like a false mirror, which receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things, by mingling its own nature with it," Bacon ascribes our human weaknesses as the cause.

The second class of "Idols" are "Idols of the Cave" or ailments possessed by particular individuals in the tribe (clan or nation). Bacon describes the holders of these Idols as individuals who "have a cave or den of its own which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature or to his education and conversation with others."

This seems very similar to Plato's, "Allegory of the Cave," in which all human beings are held and who confuse the shadows on the wall with reality. For Bacon, there are great variations in temperament and ability which makes it impossible to get agreement on the interpretation of the images we perceive.

The third class of obstacles to clear thinking Bacon calls "Idols of the Market Place." By this he means the breakdown of communications because of the difficulty of a mutual understanding of the words we use. Bacon writes, "For it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and the unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding ..."

We are all aware that disagreements over words are the basis of much friction. As Bacon states the case, words can " ...throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies." After a near lifetime of attending meetings in which agreements on word usage were settled at a snail's pace, I heartily agree with Bacon. Almost daily I hear words used without understanding. Commentators repeatedly talk of taking a quantum leap to represent a very large leap. They cannot possibly understand that a quantum leap can only mean an incredibly tiny move such as that made by subatomic particles.

The last category of Idols is "Idols of the Theater" by which Bacon means ideas that "have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies ..." There are bound to be philosophies, ideologies, cults and sects with proposals that are " ...but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion." Today we call these entities interest groups, social movements or vested interests who promote their point of view.

We become indoctrinated from childhood with ideas and values that are very difficult if not impossible to alter or discard because of attachments based on loyalty, coercion or fear. Ideally, we develop skills in sorting out the conflicting claims made by these competing interests. It is truly amazing that Francis Bacon was so perceptive about the obstacles to clear thinking at such an early period of philosophical activity.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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