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.