Research seminar: The Sources of Sylva Sylvarum

In parallel with our translation project, the first year of 2013 will be dedicated to the exploration of the sources of Sylva Sylvarum. Each member of the team will work on particular strings of experiments, trying to trace their sources, the background knowledge and the questions they are supposed to answer/pose. Each week the team will meet and discuss particular experiments (strings of experiments) and their presumptive sources.

Such an investigation has both historical and philosophical relevance. Identifying Bacon’s sources is of a vital importance for a scholarly edition of Sylva Sylvarum and our project needs to perform this investigation. However, even more relevant is the philosophical problem of Bacon’s sources.

Francis Bacon’s handling of sources: borrowed material

Sylva Sylvarum contains substantial quantities of “borrowed material.” Unfortunately, thorough exploration of this material and of the ways Bacon handled his sources was undermined by layered strata of prejudices regarding Baconian natural history. From nineteenth-century onwards, Bacon’s natural histories were regarded as simply miscellaneous “collections” of “facts,” stories and hearsay observations, mostly borrowed from books. Similar prejudices were attached to Bacon’s notion of “experimentation;” doubts about Bacon’s experimental activities were already formulated in the nineteenth-century by Justus Liebig and were reiterated by Bacon’s Victorian editors James Spedding and Robert Leslie Ellis. As a result, Sylva was classified as belonging to the tradition of ‘popular’ books of curiosities, natural magic and secrets. Ellis and Spedding also claim that “in truth, a considerable part of it is copied from the most celebrated book of the kind, namely Porta’s Natural Magic.”[i]

By contrast, Graham Rees has shown in a seminal article that many of Sylva’s “experiments” are “complex, multi-faceted entities,” originating not only in books but also in Bacon’s own “observational and experimental work.”[ii] Moreover, by comparing the published text with an existing manuscript, Rees has shown that “there can be no question of Bacon trying to pass off second-hand material as his own,” that Bacon was “particularly fastidious about signaling borrowed material.”[iii]

Clearing Bacon’s name from accusations of plagiarism it is not enough to understand the way he dealt with sources. Spedding and Ellis have identified some of the sources of Sylva Sylvarum (although by no means all, as Rees’ has shown in his seminal paper). They have not, however, compared the handling of “observations” and “experiments” in the “source” and in Bacon’s text. As a result, they sometimes failed to see, for example, that in many of the places where Bacon “borrows” from Della Porta, he suggested experiments meant to refute Della Porta’s claims or even to refute Della Porta’s experimental findings. In some other places he begins with a question or suggestions “borrowed” from Aristotle Problemata only to move the direction in a completely different direction.

Francis Bacon’s handling of the sources: the commonplace book tradition

Francis Bacon’s handling of the sources is very similar with the common-place book tradition. It is consistent with his own belief that natural history begins with reading and collecting stories, facts and observations from books. Such facts, observations, ideas etc. are then the starting point in the activity of the experimenter. In this way, the “sources” are not so much Aristotle, Della Porta, Cardano, Pliny etc. but Bacon’s own Kalenders of doubts and Kalenders of problems: common-place books with collections of problems, questions, doubts, ideas etc. to be treated as starting point for natural history.

In The Advancement of Learning such calendars of problems and doubts are part of natural philosophy. Bacon argues that the registering of “doubts” has benefic effects for natural philosophy:

doubts are as so many suckers or sponges, to drawe use of knowledge, insomuch as that which if doubts had not preceded, a man should never have advised, but passed it over without Note, by the suggestion and sollicitation of doubts is made to be attended and applied (OFB IV 91)

As a result, he recommends certain catalogues, collections of Kalenders of doubts. As for the calendar of problems, Bacon indicates that a good exemplar of such a “kalender” is Aristotle’s Problemata. Such calendars of doubts and problems are gathered from books and they have to be supplemented with an interesting calalogue of opinons (errors). How to gather such a catalogue?

To which Kalender of doubts or problemes, I advise be annexed another Kalender as much or more Materiall, which is a Kalender of popular Errors, I meane chiefly, in naturall Historie such as passe in speech & conceit, and are neverthelesse apparently detected & convicted of untruth, that Mans knowledge be not weakened nor imbased by such drosse and vanitie. As for the Doubts or Non liquets generall or in Totall, I undertand those differences of opinions touching the principles of nature, and the fundamentall points of the same, which ahve caused the diversitie of Sects, Schooles, and Philosophies, as that of Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, Parmenides, and the rest.

In other words, the collection of doubts should be supplemented by a collection of philosophical opinions (errors). In order to explain why do we need such a calendar of errors, Bacon uses a very interesting astronomical analogy: in the same way in which “the same Phenomena in Astronomie” are equally satisfied by the theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus

So the ordinarie face and viewe of experience is many tiems satisfied by severall Theories & Philosophies, whereas to finde the real truth requireth another manner of severitie & attention. For, as Aristotle saith that chidren at the first will call every woman moether; but afterward they come to distinguish according to truth: so Experience, if it be in childhook, will call every philosophie Mother; but when it commeth to ripenesse, it will discerne the true Mother. (OFB IV 92)

In other words, acccording to his own theory in The Advancement of Learning Bacon is interested in two things when reading: to identify problems and “doubts” from where investigation of nature can begin afresh and gain momentum; and to identify, classify and study various philosophical errors (in dealing with the facts and phenomena of nature).

My suggestion is that the way Bacon deals with his sources in Sylva Sylvarum is an application of this theory. This is the working hypothesis I propose for our next few encounters.






[i] Bacon, F., Works, vol. II, 326.

[ii] Rees, G., “An Unpublished Manuscript by Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum Drafts and Other Working Notes”, Annals of Science 38 (1981):377-412, 388.

[iii] Rees, G., “An Unpublished Manuscript by Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum Drafts and Other Working Notes.”