Distillations: what kind of phenomena?

One way to look at the phenomena described by Bacon in the first century of Sylva is through his repeated affirmations that percolation, filtering, distillation etc. are either produced by the same invisible motion or even identical phenomena. What is the source of such affirmations?

A good number of experiments in Century I are taken from Della Porta, Magia naturalis. Does Bacon take over the same classification of phenomena as Della Porta? Or is there a common and accepted meaning of ‘distillation’ containing phenomena as diverse as filtering, separation due to different specific weights, differences of density, condensation, transmutation etc.?


In fact, at the end of the sixteenth century, distillation is a chemical procedure circumscribing a wide range of phenomena. There are a good number of books dealing with this subject, but here is just one example: Conrad Gesner, Thesaurus…de remediis secretis, Zurich, 1555. A best seller: it was translated into English, French, German and Italian and was often republished until 1600. This book is interesting and relevant, I think, because it belongs to one of the most important sixteenth century ‘naturalists’ , and it ‘belongs’ to the tradition of ‘natural history’. Gesner belongs to the tradition of humanist natural history, he is interested in the natural histories (animals, plants, pharmacy and medicine), he is a doctor (in Zurich) a philologist and a collector. He is also opposed to Paracelsianism.

Thesaurus was published in England a couple of times between 1570 and 1600, under different names: The newe jewell of health (translated by George Backer), London, 1676, and The practise of the new and old physicke, London 1599 (the same translation). It is mainly a book on distillation, where by distillation is understood any procedure through which one manages to separate, from a mixed body, thin, aerial or subtle components. It involves heating, vaporization and condensation but the experimental set-up, the apparatus involved or the principles at work can differ widely, according to what the experimenter wants to achieve.

Definitions of distillation

The book begins with a number of definitions of distillation drawn from ancient and modern authors (Langius, Cardano etc.) – the most general involving any separation of elements or particular virtues from a given mixed body. Distillation can be done in various experimental set up (the simplest: bain marie) and it includes filterying drying evaporation etc. Heating is essential, but boiling is not – in fact, Gesner offers a number of slow distillations where the evaporation takes place in the heat of the sun, or by the rays of light augmented through a mirror or a lens.


Theory of matter

Gesner adopts a very curious ‘mixture’ of ‘Atomism’ and Aristotelian matter theory in order to explain the principle of distillation. Here is a significant passage:

No person needeth to doubt, that all Bodies which growe and take increasement in the earth, are compounded of divers, and in a manner, infinitely small parts (which the Greeks properly name Atomes) of the Elements, and that in those rest differing and contrarie vertues: neverthelesse, under one maner of forme of all the Bodies compounded, as the like appeareth, and is confirmed in that roote of Rubarbe, so much regarded and esteemed in all places, which doth both loose the Belie, and bynde the same, yet this delivereth and openeth the obstructions of the Liver (p. 4).

Since in one single plant or substance (having one substantial form) we can find sometimes different (even opposing) qualities and virtues, the question is how can we separate such virtues and incorporate them in medicines or directly in the human organism. Gesner claims that the experimenter should pay attention to two major ‘principles’: the matter subject to distillation, and the apparatus. In this context, he offers a good number of experimental set-ups and apparatuses for various kinds of distillations, from the most simple (‘drawing waters’ of X) to the more complex (involving transmutations, spirits and immateriate virtues).


Classifications and experimental set-ups

Gesner classifies distillations according to the geometry of the experimental set-ups in ascendent and descendent distillations. Also, according to the kind of heat used, distillation can be produced by the heat of the sun (augmented through mirrors and lenses), by the heat of the fire and by the heat emanating from the putrefaction of matter.

The descending distillation can involve a very simple experimental set up, so simple that we can ‘see’ how many of Bacon’s experiments of filtering, percolation etc. can be developed from there. It begins with simply two pots with the mouths joined and buried in the ground (source: Albertus Magnus’ book on distillation). The upper pot is heated and the lower part is the receiver. There is an entire book on the ‘degrees of heate’ needed (moist heat, gentle heat, strong heat etc.). The geometry can also vary. Although the principle is the same, the stillatory can be placed in vessels of different shapes and forms, sometimes even on the top of a tower (p.16).


Common elements

There are three common elements of every distillation: the vessel (a glass bulb with a long neck, or a metallic version of the same), ‘the head’ (see figure) and the receiver. The matter to be distilled is put in the vessel, it gets evaporated and reaches the head, where a process of condensation takes place. The result has to be captured by the receiver.

Although heat is involved in all the distillations described, Gesner also mentions the possibility of distillation to be done ‘by the ice’ (28). What is also interesting is that in the second and third book Gesner is fully aware of the importance of the geometry of the experimental set-ups (for ‘catching’ various volatile components of various substances).

Sylva sylvarum: experiments on transmutation of bodies (24.04.2012)

This meeting followed two important directions: 1) the relation between Bacon’s matter theory and Sylva Sylvarum Century I and 2) the particular discussion of experiments 25 to 30 and the way they connect to the other experiments of Century I. This post deals with the second one.

(25) Experiment solitary touching the making of artificial springs. Before touching the actual experiment, Bacon makes a series of observations about experiments in general that are worth being mentioned. First, we are told that although it may be unexpected, Bacon actually continually rejects experiments. Yet, he tells us that “if an experiment be probable in work and of great use, I receive it, but deliver it as doubtful”: a) How should we understand Bacon’s skeptical attitude towards experiments? b) Does he have a criterion (or criteria) for a trustworthy experiment? Bacon’s constant skeptical attitude towards experiment shows that he does not accept experiments at face value. He seems to believe that some experiments do not provide certain knowledge, and that one has to be constantly aware of the experiment’s limitations, and of its construction, and how this tool should be used for the study of nature. A good demonstration of Bacon’s constant preoccupations with the limits of experiments is the first set of experiments from Sylva, where he criticizes Della Porta’s experiment of filtration of seawater as a bad case of translation (from a natural fact to an artificial fact). Thus, Della Porta’s experiment is taken to be an unreliable experiment whose results are not trustworthy. Consequently, for Bacon, what is important is not whether indeed sand can filter the seawater and make it potable, but the fact that Della Porta’s experiment is not actually telling us anything about that particular phenomenon.

The experiment of an artificial spring goes as follows: On sloping land, a hole is dug, and in the hole a trough of stone is introduced. The hole is covered with brakes and sand. What it is observed, according to Bacon’s source (Bacon did not actually perform the experiment), is that even after the rain stops, a spring of water can be observed at the lower end of the trough. According to Bacon, if this is the case, then this phenomenon can be read as a case of transmutation of air into water because it is as if “the water did multiply itself upon the air, by the help of the coldness and condensation of the earth, and the consort of the first water.”

If this reading is correct, then this experiment should be correlated to experiment 27 which discusses the version and transmutation of air into water. This experiment is interesting in many respects. The experiment cites 4 processes through which air is transmuted to water, or in terms of matter theory, a more pneumatic body (the air) into a more tangible body (the water). Those 4 processes are: condensation (as the example of experiment 25), compression (e.g. distillation vapors, dews), the mingling of moist vapours with air (method suggested for testing via an experiment), and via the porosity of bodies. A few things need to be noted. Bacon grades those 4 processes differently: the first 2 are apparent and sure, the last 2 are considered probable, but not yet manifested. Bacon deals with study cases of these processes later on in Sylva, in an entry entitled Experiments in consort touching the version and transmutation of air into water, where the experiments from 76 to 82 deal precisely with how the ‘version’ is acquired via such processes. The immediate question raised is why Bacon chose to (or did he actually choose to?) separate experiment 27 from experiment 76–82. In fact, experiment 29, entitled Experiment solitary touching the condensing of air in such sort as it may put on weight and yield nourishment, seems to fit well with these experiments. This entry touches on also a process of transition of air, as a pneumatic body (the air) to a denser, tangible body. Bacon’s reasoning is the following: usually for sprouting, seeds/plants are buried in the ground and watered. Yet, some things sprout even if they are only left in the air. Bacon proposes to verify whether those things that sprout in the air increase in weight, thus gain some solid mass. If they don’t increase in weight, then the sprouting is just an inner transformation of the body. If they do increase in weight, then Bacon reasons that the only place where this new mass could come from is the air, which in return would mean that the pneumatic air has transformed into a denser, tangible body. Some things to be noted here: the conclusion Bacon reaches here is dependent on his matter theory. Moreover, we could see the experimental proposal that Bacon makes here as a case of a corroborative evidence for the problem of transforming air into a denser body. A second thing: this experiment could also be used to study the problem of whether air can nourish or not, which is nothing other than a case of translation, one of the methods of experientia literata.

Coming back to experiment 27, we observe that this experiment includes some methodological moves worth mentioning: One of the examples given as a case of transmutation of air into water via condensation is the following: “and the experiment of turning water into ice, by snow, nitre, and salt, would be transferred to the turning of air into water”. Provided the 8 rules of EL, this would be a case of production by extension, since as exp. 82 claims, it “is a greater alteration to turn (artificially) air into water, than water into ice”. The same experimental setup is used to study two different problems: whereas the transformation of water into ice is a case of induration of bodies (a process happening in the same body), the transformation of air into water is a case of transmutation (a case of transition from one species to another).

If a connection seemed apparent between these experiments, we couldn’t trace any ways to connect experiments 26 and 28.

Experiment 26 entitled Experiment solitary touching the venomous quality of man’s flesh. This ‘experiment’ establishes a correlation between cannibalism and its malignant effect for human bodies on the basis of a collection of reported instances of cannibalism. In this example, we could say, in modern terms, that instances are corroborated and that a fact (that syphilis/“the disease of Naples” was originally caused by cannibalism) is considered to be probable precisely because of its status as corroborated evidence. On the other hand, we failed to see how this experiment connects to previous ones or how this experiment could be suggested by any of the others that Bacon has presented so far. Even more, we failed to see what theoretical question underpins it. This also happened with experiment 28, entitled Experiment solitary touching the helps towards the beauty and good features of persons, where Bacon discusses how some of man’s features, while growing, can be moulded by pressure.

Proposals for connecting some experiments:

a. experiments 25, 27, 29, and 76 to 82 appear to study a similar problem—whether a pneumatic body can be transformed into a tangible one

b. experiments 17–23 and experiments 76, 77, 79, and 80 deal with  the problem of how pneumatic matter is “trapped” into bodies, e.g. in infusion, in the pores of bodies . We also alluded to a connection of these experiments with the experiments on percolation (in Sylva’s text, experiments 1 to 8. )

Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum, or a natural history in ten centuries, 1627

The purpose of the seminar this semester is to clarify some of the puzzles and mysteries of Bacon’s most widely read and most puzzling work: the posthumous Sylva  Sylvarum.

Sylva Sylvarum or a natural history in ten centuries was published posthumously (but very soon after Bacon’s death in April 1626) by William Rawley. It was by far  the most widely read of Bacon’s writings, at least in seventeenth century England. It went through 10 editions until 1670 and there were subsequent editions up to the end of the century[1]. There seemed to be 17th editions altogether, plus two Latin editions[2] and a French translation[3]. They not always contain the same texts. The first couple of editions contained unpublished fragments and drafts of Bacon’s natural histories, the subsequent editions contained various other material including, from 1660s on, an abridged English version of Novum Organum. All editions contained New Atlantis. However, in the first editions, this is not explicitly stated on the title page (why?).

As the name indicates, Sylva Sylvarum tended to be seen/read as a collection of materials for building the new science (Bacon is slightly modifying the ancient/Renaissance meaning of Silva, creating a new genre, see De Bruyn, 2001. Traditionally, sylva was used to designate the materials necessary for the construction of a discourse/speech. Bacon is not the first one to move the term in the field of natural history/natural philosophy, however). It contains 1000 “experiments” grouped in 10 groups of 100 (centuries). There are two ‘units’ of SS: solitary experiments and experiments in consort. It is not straightforward what is the meaning of ‘experimetns’ in either of the unit: observation, hearsay, travel reports, questions, suggestions, causal explanations and philosophical questions are mixed both in solitary experiments and in the experiments in consort.

A number of manuscripts relating to Sylva are extant. At least one of them indicates, as Graham Rees has shown (Rees 1981), that the text of Sylva was edited and prepared for publication by Bacon himself. In other words, we don’t have a mere heap of remaining experiments and observations that didn’t find their way into Bacon’s late histories, but a book/project of its own, planned to carry forward the third part of the Instauratio (see also Rawley’s claim). Such an interpretation is substantiated by the historical and contextual paper on the publication of Sylva Sylvarum written recently by Colclough (Colclough 2010).

All this is even more intriguing in view of the fact that Sylva is not only very eclectic but also highly unoriginal (at least “locally”); more than half of the “experiments” are second hand reports following ancient of Renaissance authors, some of them obviously untried by Bacon himself and accepted on dubious testimony.

According to Spedding: “a considerable part of it is copied from the most celebrated book of the kind, Porta’s Natural Magic” (II. 326). However, Spedding himself does not identify all the experiments taken by Bacon from Della Porta. A thorough study of the relation between Sylva Sylvarum and Natural Magic awaits to be written.

Moreover, the experiments Bacon ‘borrows’ from Della Porta, Aristotle, Pliny, Cardano, Sandys, Scaliger etc. are substantially rewritten. They are most of the times more ‘general’ and ‘theoretical’ than the punctual observations and experiments of the sources quoted above. Moreover, Bacon integrate such experiments into a larger scale program: they are the kind of experimental activity that would build up a community of experimental scientists (and in this way, they serve as illustration of the activities of Solomon’s House, see Colclough 2010). They are also a storehouse (or program?) for the future experimental philosophy.

.Questions and puzzles:

1. What is Sylva Sylvarum? (Bacon’s experimental notebook, a treatise of natural history, a plan for another kind of natural history than the Latin natural histories, an illustration of the scientific activities of the Salomon’s House…)

2. What is the relation between the materials assembled in this book and other Baconian writings (esp. natural histories)?

3. Is there a secret order of Sylva? (as Rawley claims in the preface?). Is there any order in Sylva whatsoever and if yes, whose plan/order is it? (Is this volume Rawley’s creation?).


[1] Title pages of the subsequent editions don’t agree on their number or on the content, there are various editions claiming to contain “for the first time” materials published in the previous years etc.

[2] Elzevir 1648, 1661, according to Sarah Hutton, 2001 (to check!)

[3] Pierre Amboise, 1631.


General objectives:

1. Challenging the received view on the origins of experimental philosophy by:

a. Pushing the origins of the “scientific revolution” backwards towards the beginning of the seventeenth century, by showing that the major ingredients of early modern science were already at work before the formation of scientific academies in the 1660s;

b. Challenging the received view on the nature, importance and impact of Bacon’s natural histories.

2. Refining the clear-cut divide between speculative and experimental natural philosophy by showing the diversity of natural historical approaches building up empirical and experimental elements.

3. Offering a more integrated approach to the history and philosophy of early modern science by focusing on the specific problem-solving and creative character of experimentation and experiment in the seventeenth century.

4. Integrating young researchers and students in an independent research team through active research and the work of editing and translating some of the major works of early modern experimental philosophy.


Specific objectives and stages of research:

1. Exploring the diversity of natural histories and exploring natural historical works that escaped so far to the attention of scholars: cosmographies and travel literature; natural history of the heavens; the transformation of the scientia de anima and the emergence of natural histories of the soul, mind and passions; mixed -mathematics and mechanics.

2. Showing that Francis Bacon worked with a multi-layered concept of natural history and emphasizing the creative and productive character of Baconian experiments by:

2.1. Investigating Bacon’s conception on experiment and experimentation

2.2. Critical discussions of the received views on the nature of experimentation and the relation between experiment and theory

3. Exploring the natural historical elements in the works of Galileo, Beeckman, Mersenne, Descartes and Gassendi by:

3.1. Investigating the concept of experiment in the “scientific circles” of the early seventeenth century and its Baconian origins

3.2. Assessing the relation between natural philosophy and natural history.

Selective Bibliography

Selective bibliography

1. Anstey, Peter R., “Experimental versus Speculative Natural Philosophy” in Anstey, Peter R. and Schuster, John A. (eds.), The Science of Nature in the Seventeenth Century: Patterns of Change in Early Modern Natural Philosophy (Springer, Dordrecht, 2005), pp. 215–242

2. Blair, Ann, “Historia in Theodor Zwinger’s Theatrum humanae vitae” in Pomata, Gianna and Siraisi, Nancy (eds.), Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (MIT Press, Cambridge/MA, 2005), pp. 269-296

3. Costa, Fontes da, “The Culture of Curiosity at the Royal Society in the first half of the Eighteenth Century”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 56 (2002): 147-166

4. Daston, Lorraine, “Baconian facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity”, Annals of Scholarship 8 (1991): 337-363

5. Daston, Lorraine, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe”, Critical Inquiry 11 (1991): 93-124

6. Dear, Peter, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995)

7. Dear, Peter (1991), “Narratives, Anecdotes, and Experiments: Turning Experience into Science in the Seventeenth Century”, in Peter Dear (ed.), The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

8. Findlen, Paula, “Francis Bacon and the Reform of Natural History in the Seventeenth Century”, in History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe ,ed. Donald R. Kelley (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 239-260

9. Hanson, Elizabeth, Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998)

10. Johnes, Adrian, “Identity, Practice, and Trust in Early Modern Natural Philosophy”, Historical Journal 42 (1999): 1125-1145

11. Kuhn, Thomas S., “Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions in the Development of Physical Science” in The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977), pp. 31–65

12. Lüthy, Christoph, “What To Do With Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy? A Taxonomic Problem”, Perspectives on Science 8 (2000): 164-195

13. Manzo, Silvia, “Probability, Certainty, and Facts in Francis Bacon’s Natural Histories. A Double Attitude towards Skepticism” in Maia Neto, José R., Paganini, Gianni and Laursen, John C. (eds.): Skepticism in the Modern Age: Building on the Work of Richard Popkin (Brill, Leiden, 2009), pp. 123-138

14. McAllister, James, “Thougth experiments and the belief in phenomena”, Philosophy of Science, 2004, 1164-1175.

15. Ogilvie, Brian, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006)

16. Poovey, Mary, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998)

17. Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985)

18. Shapiro, Barbara, A Culture of Fact: England, 1550 – 1720 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2000)

19. Shapiro, Barbara J. Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

20. Shapiro, Barbara, “Testimony and Probability in seventeenth-century English natural philosophy: Legal origins and early development”, Studies in history and philosophy of science, 33 (2002) 243-263.

21. Steinle, Friedrich, “Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science”, Perspectives on Science, 10 (2002) 408 – 432

22. Steinle, Friedrich, “Entering new fields: exploratory role of experimentation”, Philosophy of Science, 64 (1997) 74-90