Novum Organum

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A Latin treatise on scientific method, which F. Bacon included in his Instauratio Magna (1620). This ‘great renewal’ of natural philosophy (which Bacon never completed) involved a systematic methodology, starting with fresh observation of natural phenomena, followed by carefully controlled experiments, to provide data from which scientific laws could be formulated. The ‘new instrument’ outlined here (the title alludes to the corpus of Aristotelian philosophy, known as the Organon) abandoned the main tool of logic, the syllogism, which Bacon criticized as a self‐contained verbal procedure starting from an a priori premiss. Instead, he advocated an inductive method, generalizing upward from experimental results, tested by the use of ‘negative instances’ (if a hundred white swans are observed, the discovery of a single black one is enough to falsify the thesis that all swans are white).

Book i of the Novum Organum restates in the form of detached aphorisms Bacon's fundamental criticisms of science and his plans for its renewal. Calling for the direct observation of nature (rather than recycling Aristotle's texts), Bacon was nonetheless aware of the possible distortions involved, brilliantly analysing the four ‘Idols’ (from the Greek eidola, illusions) to which human beings are prone. These are the Idols of the Tribe, Cave, Market‐Place and Theatre. In the more technical Book ii Bacon gives a worked example of inductive method as applied to heat, using experimental data to construct tables of absence and presence, concluding that heat is a form of motion. Bacon's inductive method has often been misrepresented as a purely mechanical procedure, but recent research has shown that it includes hypothetico‐deductive elements, representing a substantial contribution to natural science.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Francis Bacon (1561—1626) lord chancellor, politician, and philosopher

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