McLuhan Studies : Issue 4


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ERIC MCLUHAN

FRANCIS BACON'S THEORY of COMMUNICATION and MEDIA





Abstract:For centuries, Francis Bacon has been revered as a philosopher and as the founder of modern scienceóand honour which would have baffled him. He thought of himself as a grammarian, not a dialectician (philosopher), and as engaged in restoring the wisdom of the Ancients, not in founding scientific novelty. The "Novum" in the title of his major work, the Novum Organum (or Novum Organon) was ironic and indicated both that the work was intended to supersede the dialectical Organon of Aristotle and that the work was in support of traditional learning and technique in reading the Book of Nature. In Part One of the N. O. he sets forth his theory of the bias of communication in the celebrated doctrine of the Idols; in Part Two he presents in detail his theory of communicationóa theory already present in such other works as The New Atlantis and Of The Advancement of Learning.

 

Francis Bacon's theory of communication and of media permeates his work. Often called the father of modern scientific method, Bacon saw his mission as that of restoring in his time the wisdom of the ancientsóhis program called the Great Instauration.

As a grammarian, Bacon could claim all of human knowledge as his province: Of The Advancement of Learning is an encyclopedic report on the state of the arts and sciences in his day. Bacon never for a minute ceases to view the business of the arts and sciences as being the relief of manís fallen moral state. (See Of The Advancement of Learning, Everyman, pages 37, 138; and Novum Organum, I, lxviii; xciii; II, lii.) In this matter he is in perfect accord with St. Bonaventure, with his ancestor, Roger Bacon, and with a long tradition in which manís task had been defined as "as the organization of our earthly exile into a sort of suburb of the heavenly kingdom..." [Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1938), page 479.] Consequently, Baconís protestations of originality are seldom to be taken seriously. His account of philosophy in Book I of the Novum Organum (lxiii - lxxxviii) is nearly identical with Ciceroís. Nor is this strange, since both held the view that the arts are entirely to be judged on the basis of their usefulness to man.

The Grand Renaissance was, in the matter of the revival of grammar as the method both of science and of theology, not fully achieved until the sixteenth century. Erasmusí great work was to restore patristic theologyóthat is, grammatical theology. His significance in his own eyes, as well as in the eyes of his age, was that of the man who cast out the stream-lined grammars of the dialecticians of the schools and who restored the full discipline as understood by St. Jerome, the pupil of the great Donatus. "Humanism" was thus for Colet, More, Erasmus, a deliberate return to the Fathers. But that which equally marks the modern Renaissance and lends to it a character which has been much misunderstood is its "science." From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well.

Omnis mundi creatura

Quasi liber et pictura

Nobis est, et speculum...

 

The Theory of Words and Scientific Study

In the dialogue named for Cratylus, the follower of Heraclitus, Plato has this exchange between Socrates and Cratylus:

Socrates: But if these things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?

Cratylus: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which were thus given are necessarily their true names. [Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, 4 Vols. (New York: Charles Scribners, 1895), Vol. I, page 678.]

Obviously, with this kind of importance associated with the names of things, and of gods, heroes, and legendary beings, etymology would be a main source of scientific and moral enlightenment. And such was the case. The prolific labors of the etymologists reflected in Platoís Cratylus, but begun centuries before and continued until the seventeenth century, are as much the concern of the historian of philosophy and of science as of the historian of letters and culture. Indeed, it was not only in antiquity but until the Cartesian revolution that language was viewed as simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of man and of the physical world as well.

At any time from Plato to Francis Bacon the statement of Cratylus would have made sense and would have evoked respect even when its wider implications were rejected. With the opening of the Christian era, the doctrine of Cratylus gained new significance from scriptural exegesis, and especially from Genesis 2.19:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them: and whatsoever he called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

The doctrine of names is, of course, the doctrine of essence and not a naïve notion of oral terminology.

The scriptural exegetists will hold, as Francis Bacon held, that Adam possessed metaphysical knowledge in a very high degree. To him the whole of nature was a book which he could read with ease. He lost this ability to read this language as a result of his fall; and Solomon alone of the sons of men has ever recovered the power to read the book of nature. The business of art is, however, to recover the knowledge of that language which once man held by nature. The problem as to which of the arts should have priority in the work of explaining man and nature had arisen among the pre-Socratics. Grammar, or allegorical exegesis of natural phenomena, as well as of folk myths and even the works of Homer and Hesiod, enjoyed many advantages for the task. In the Cratylus, however, Plato asserts the superior claims of dialectics for the same work, but, as a philosopher who habitually employed the grammatical modes of poetry and myth to express his own most significant and esoteric teaching, he is far from confident that grammar can be or ought to be entirely superseded. Shortly afterwards, however, Aristotle established the nature of non-grammatical scientific method in the Posterior Analytics. His achievement bore no fruit until the twelfth century. Until the twelfth century, therefore, grammar reigned unrivalled as the prime mode of science, and, from the patristic period, of theology as well. But grammar was far from forgotten during the great age of dialectics. In the thirteenth century, with the triumph of Aristotle in St. Thomas Aquinas, came simultaneously the consummate achievement of the grammatical method in St. Bonaventura. The great grammarians are also alchemists. There is thus not the least incongruity in the fact that eminent humanists like Pico Della Mirandola and Cornelius Agrippa are also alchemists. The grammatical method in science, therefore, persists as long as alchemy, which is to say, well into the eighteenth century. But from the time of Descartes the main mode of science is, of course, mathematical. In our own time the methods of anthropology and psychology have re-established grammar as, at least, a valid mode of science.

Needless to say, Aristotle did not share the analogistís view of words and phenomena as interrelated by proportions and etymologies. Yet, dialectics and rhetoric in the hands of the analogists were certainly refashioned until they became not merely sciences but the queens of the sciences. This is true not merely of Ciceronian rhetoric and scholastic dialectics, but of the "system" of Francis Bacon as well. (Advancement, Everyman, page 66.)

At the core of his program, Bacon puts the traditional role of the arts as providing the indispensable training for the sciences: "Our labours must therefore be directed towards inquiring into and observing resemblances and analogies, both in the whole and in its parts, for they unite nature, and lay the foundation of the sciences." (N. O., II, xxvii) And at the close of the Novum Organum Bacon points out that it "springs from the nature of things, as well as from that of the mind," and that much care must be expended in perceptual training and practical modes of criticism and observation, either to "assist and cure the understanding and senses, or furnish our general practice." (N. O., II, lii)

 

Idols and the Bias of Perception

Naturally, Bacon turned his attention to bias and corruption of the faculties and as imposed by media:

[T]he powers of bodies are more or less impeded or advanced by the medium, according to the nature of the bodies and their effective powers, and also according to that of the medium. For one medium is adapted to light, another to sound, another to heat and cold, another to magnetic action, and so on . . . (N. O., II, xlviii)

He mounted a two-pronged counterattack on the bias of communication. First, he identified the "false gods" or idols which bewitch and confuse human reason (weakened by the Fall), so that once seen they might be purged. Second, he prescribed a means of re-engaging and retuning the faculties by writing in aphoristic style.

As early as the Advancement of Learning the Idols appear in embryo:

But lastly there is a much more important and profound kind of fallacies in the mind of man which I find not observed or inquired at all, and think good to place here, as that which of all others appertaineth most to rectify judgment: the force whereof is such, as it doth not dazzle or snare the understanding in some particulars, but doth more generally and inwardly infect and corrupt the state thereof. For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced. For this purpose, let us consider the false appearances that are imposed upon us be the general nature of the mind (Advancement, Everyman, page 132: Cf. "Idols of the Tribe," N. O., I, xxiv - xxxi)

Let us consider again the false appearances imposed upon us by every manís own individual nature and custom. (Advancement, Everyman, page 134: "Idols of the Cave," N. O., I, xxxi - xxxv)

And lastly let us consider the false appearances that are imposed upon us by words, which are framed and applied according to the conceit and capacities of the vulgar sort: and although we think we govern our words, and prescribe it well, loquendum ut vulgus, sentiendum ut sapientes; yet certain it is that words, as a Tartarís bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert the judgment. (Advancement, Everyman, page 134)

Not surprisingly, Francis Baconís four Idols appear in Roger Bacon. Rogerís quarrel with the Schoolmen is precisely the same as that of his remote kinsman Francis; nor is there any time from Augustine to Descartes when this grammatical tradition is not very much alive. (Roger Bacon [ca. 1210-1292], educated at Oxford, spent most of his life at Paris. His Opus Majus is St. Augustineís De Doctrina Christiana put into the new formulas of the thirteenth century. What might seem to be startling anticipations of Renaissance notions turn out to be continuous traditions given the appearance of novelty or revival by the circumstances of the sudden triumph of the grammarians over scholasticism.) The eloquence of the two men is identical:

There are four principal stumbling blocks (offendicula) to comprehending truth . . . . From these deadly pests come all the evils of the human race; for the noblest and most useful documents of wisdom are ignored, and the secrets of the arts and sciences. than this, men blinded by the darkness of these four do not see their ignorance but take every care to palliate that for which they do not find the remedy; . . . when they are in the densest shades of error, they deem themselves in the full light of truth. [For the entire section from Roger Bacon, see Selections from Medieval Philosophers, edited and translated, with introductory notes and glossary by R. P. McKeon (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1930), Vol. II, pages 8, ff.]

Since the tradition of Descartes, Hobbes, and Newton is that not of the Fathers but of the schoolmen or Moderni, it is small wonder that some writers have been puzzled how to reconcile Erasmus and Bacon with the "moderns." Humanists such as Erasmus, Vives, Reuchlin, Agrippa, Mirandola, and Bacon took great pains to advertise themselves as "ancients."

Like Francis Bacon after him, Roger Bacon orders the arts with regard to their function for the relief of manís fallen estate. The principal evils of the fall are ignorance, concupiscence, and death. McKeonís statement about Roger holds for Francis and the whole grammatical tradition:

God revealed all philosophy to man in the beginning, and the history of thought since has been the cyclical rediscovery, after periods of sin, of a wisdom the patriarchs received. Of course, the primitive revelation had to be filled by the details of science (that was why the patriarchs lived three hundred years), and Bacon therefore strikes the double posture of the prophet who heralds the return to the ancient truths and of the scientist who possesses new and strange truths with which to revivify the ancient doctrine. Wisdom is one, but items of information may be added to substantiate it without altering its outlines. Experimental knowledge is to accomplish this, and its procedure will be to work either with the Things without the mind or the Things within; God is the active intellect. The study of Bacon is chiefly the study of this theory of knowledge and of the details of reform to which knowledge of languages and of the various sciences is to be subjected. (McKeon, Selections from Medieval Philosophers, II, pages 5-6.)

 

Aphoristic style

Francis Bacon envisaged two modes of delivering scientific knowledge, both functions of rhetoric: one is esoteric; the other, exoteric: "But as young men, when they knit and shape perfectly, do seldom grow to a further stature; so knowledge, while it is in aphorisms and observations it is in growth: but when it once is comprehended in exact methods, it may perchance be further polished and illustrate [sic: in the edition of 1605] and accommodated for use and practice; but it increaseth no more in bulk and substance." (Op. Cit., page 32) Bacon makes it perfectly clear that he considered his own aphoristic style in the Essays as part of a scientific technique of keeping knowledge in a state of emergent evolution and thereby of constantly referring it to perception and observation.

Another diversity of Method, whereof the consequence is great, is the delivery of knowledge in Aphorisms, or in Methods; wherein we may observe that it hath been too much taken into custom, out of a few axioms or observations on any subject, to make a solemn and formal art, filling it with some discourses, and illustrating it with examples, and digesting it into a sensible Method.

But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer. Whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorisms, except they should be rediculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the Aphorisms but some good quantity of observation: and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt to write Aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded. But in methods,

Tantum series juncturaque pollet,

Tantum de medio sumptis accedit honoris;

óHor. Ep. Ad Pis. 242

as a man shall make a great shew of an art, which, if it were disjointed, would come to little. Secondly, methods are more fit to win consent or belief, but less fit to point to action; for they carry a kind of demonstration in orb or circle, one part illuminating another, and therefore satisfy; but particulars, being dispersed, do best agree with dispersed directions. And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire further; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest. (Advancement, Everyman, page 142)

Knowledge in discontinuous form has specific power to involve:

...for the contemplation of Godís creatures and works produceth (having regard to the works and creatures themselves) knowledge, but having regard to God, no perfect knowledge but wonder, which is broken knowledge. (Advancement, Everyman, page 7)

Using the traditional awareness of the impact of style on the perceptions of the audience, Bacon saw his Novum Organum, for example as remedial: the choice of aphoristic style was calculated to freshen awareness and assist in purging the bias of communication. Mind as well as senses had to be cleansed to prepare them for the great task of reading and interpreting the Two Books.

 

Formal Cause and the Encyclopedia of Knowledge

As much as literature, Nature is an encyclopedia, so the grammarian needed full knowledge of the trivium and quadrivium as well as keen perception and critical faculties. The objective of using the arts and sciences to penetrate the Book of Nature is ever to recover knowledge of the languages in which it is inscribed, lost at the Fall. To this task grammar brings all of its tools of interpretation and etymology and formal analysis. Bacon opens Book II of the Novum Organum with a report on the state of understanding in each of the four departments of causality.

The unhappy state of manís actual knowledge is manifest . . . It is rightly laid down that true knowledge is that which is deduced from causes. The division of four causes also is not amiss: matter, form, the efficient, and end or final cause. Of these, however, the latter is so far from being beneficial, that it even corrupts the sciences . . . The discovery of form is considered desperate. As for the efficient cause and matter . . . they are but desultory and superficial, and of scarcely any avail to real and active knowledge.

The discovery of form united all labours on the Two Books; for, as held throughout the tradition, the forms manifest the Logos and provide the common language in which both Books are inscribed. They serve not as the figure but the ground of matter, and they underlie the analogical ratios between the Two Books. In this regard, etymology provides a major technique of scientific investigation. The whole aim of the arts and sciences therefore is to enable the discovery and understanding, and ultimately the manipulation (alchemy), of forms. This constitutes media study of a high order. The great alchemists, the Paracelsans from Raymond Lully to Cornelius Agrippa, were grammarians. Bacon is perfectly aware of how the sciences and arts are united by the study of forms and formal causes:

On a given basis of matter to impose any nature, within the limits of possibility, is the intention of human power. In like manner, to know the causes of a given effect, in whatever subject, is the intention of human knowledge: which intentions coincide. For that which is in contemplation as a cause, is in operation as a medium....

He who knows the efficient and materiate causes, composes or divides things previously invented, or transfers and produces them; also in matter somewhat similar, he attaineth unto new inventions; the more deeply fixed limits of things he moveth not.

He who knows the forms, discloses and educes things which have not hitherto been done, such as neither the vicissitudes of nature, nor the diligence of experience might ever have brought into action, or as might not have entered into manís thoughts. (óTract entitled "Francis Baconís Aphorisms and Advices Concerning the Helps of the Mind and the Kindling of Natural Light")

Francis Baconís theory of communication, then, has these two main elements. For one, there is the conventional understanding of the analogical relation of the Two Books and the entire tradition of words and of forms that surrounds it. For the second, his view of the mind as prey to Idolatry of various kinds since it was weakened by the Fallófalse perception and skewed judgmentóand in need of remedy. His solution to these include identifying and clearing away of Idols and the employment of aphorisms to reengage the faculties and restore their acuity and wonder.

Just as Bacon was later to claim in attacking the dialecticians, St. Augustine says arts and knowledge are for use, for the relief of manís estate; and, as Bacon freely admits, the greatest art is theology, since it is for the relief of manís spiritual estate.

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or farthest end of knowledge: for men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a tarrasse, for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of manís estate. (Advancement, Everyman, pages 34-35)


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