The sources of Francis Bacon’s natural history: vexing questions

Francis Bacon was very much immersed in the humanist tradition: he borrowed freely and creatively from many sources. Writing as he did for a cultivated reader, he rarely identified his source by name or explicit references. In many cases, this was just because any cultivated reader would be expected to know that a certain passage is a quote or a special reading of a well known author/paragraph. In other cases, this was a rhetoric strategy destined to select the readers (those being able to perform the ‘recognition’ task were the ‘more advanced’ readers, the ‘true sons of science’).

Today, this way of writing poses numerous problems: we are far less educated than Bacon’s contemporaries. Meanwhile, it would be very important to recognize Bacon’s sources. In some cases, this would be vital for the understanding of what is at stake in Bacon’s text. Such is the case of natural histories where Bacon freely used ancient and modern authors as sources.

Sources in natural histories

As we have discussed in our previous seminar, and as it became clear from Doina’s presentation of Bacon’s ‘borrowings’ from Della Porta, a large part of Sylva Sylvarum is constructed on a solid basis of ‘facts’ borrowed from natural historical sources. Despite the fact that Ellis, Spedding and Rees have all given  some statistics (30-50 % ‘borrowings’) there is still major work to be done on the identification of Bacon’s sources. It involves a considerable amount of historical and archival research. The more philosophical aspect of it  would be to consider, carefully, how Bacon read, borrowed, and handled the borrowings. In what way he constructed his own experiments from an ancient report or from another experiment taken from Della Porta. In what way he reflected upon the material he used (was he really using it as a ‘fact’? was he reflecting critically on it? At what level were his critical reflections? Theoretical? Methodological? Epistemological?).

Our edition of Sylva

The major challenge in the case of our projected edition is the identification of the sources of a text in which almost every second paragraph refers to an ancient and Renaissance source. We won’t be able to identify all of them. However, even beginning to scrap the surface would be useful, because it would provide the starting point for future contextual (and ‘philosophical’) readings and interpretations of Sylva Sylvarum and other natural histories.

1 thought on “The sources of Francis Bacon’s natural history: vexing questions

  1. Indeed, the study of the sources used for Sylva is very important to understand better Bacon’s interest in natural philosophy. Not only what he read, but, more important, how. If he was critical is not a question, this is very simple to answer, he was not copying experiments or observations, and he was using them with different purposes. As I try to show in my paper, and I hoped I also proved in my presentation, we can establish patterns of the changes he makes. Della Porta is an easy case, because the experiments he borrows from his books are concentrated in the two centuries on plants. In this sense, it is useful to see the changes Bacon realized in these experiments, this is Bacon’s originality, and it is something we discover easier if we look at the first instance, than if we read Sylva alone.
    It would be useful, as Dana suggests, looking at the instances found in Sylva and in another book at all these levels: theoretical, methodological, and experimental. No doubt, as we already noticed, some of the experiments are changed at all these levels, they are used in different places of Sylva, with a completely different purpose. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can consider that Bacon used these sources in order to correct some errors, basing his criticism on the fact that his readers were accustomed with the texts. Maybe this was one of his targets, but the main one was, in my view, the advancement of learning, grounded on some of the things already in use, and an example of how future generations can use also his own ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *