On the reception of Bacon’s views in 1625

A while ago, in the Scientiae 2013 conference-panel on “Francis Bacon’s Art of Discovery: origins and development,” I’ve raised the problem of talking about “Baconianism” in the second half of the seventeenth century. The context discussed in that paper was that of the French Cartesianism, a very implausible source for such a discussion, if we are taking seriously the traditional stories about the seventeenth-century thought. The cases discussed in that paper – Nicolas Poisson, François Bayle (via Samuel de Fermat), and Descartes himself – reveal an interesting approach to “Baconianism,” which I would like to complement in this blog-post with several new questions. More recently, in a panel-discussion at the 4th Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Science, I’ve asked some questions about Mersenne’s early reception of Bacon’s views on method.

In 1625, Marin Mersenne published his treatise on La Vérité des sciences, which, in the ch. 16 of Book 1 deals with Bacon’s method. From the text, Mersenne’s sources seem to be Bacon’s Great Instauration and The Advancement of Learning. Mersenne’s first objection to Bacon is that most of the things he says are not needed or insufficient. Mersenne explicitly refers to medicine as refuting Bacon’s views: “il se trompe en plusieurs choses, comme quelques excellens Medecins ont reamarqué, lors qu’il parle de la Medecine, & qu’il dit que l’histoire, & l’experience de plusieurs choses qu’il nomme, n’a point encore été faite” (p. 209).

Why would medicine come to represent such a clear evidence against Bacon’s views?

What kind of medicine is discussed here?

There are various objections raised by Mersenne to Bacon, but for this blog-post, I would like to point only to another passage, where he praises the Englishman’s experimental activity on/ with animals, vegetables, and different materials of alchemical use: “Ce que je trouverois bon en sa doctrine, est qu’on feît toutes sortes d’experiences pour découvrir comment les esprits des plantes, & des animaux exercent leurs operations: & leur multitude: comment & par quelle vertu les eaus Royalles, fortes, & toutes celles que l’Alchymie nous donne, dissolvent l’or, l’argent, le cuivre, l’étain, le fer, & les autres métaus, & mineraus: porquoy elles ne dissolvent pas le verre, les pierres, les plantes, &c.” (p. 211).

Why is Mersenne highlighting these aspects? Is this because Bacon picks up some experiments and practices from outside of the philosophical domain and adjusts them as proper philosophical problems?

If this means doing experiments on all sorts of materials, to which one has to try various operations – in other words, variation both within the materials involved and in the experimental procedures – something that has been done by other natural philosophers (and craftsmen) of the early modern period, then what makes it “Baconian”?

And as a final question, these passages seem to suggest that Bacon’s experimentalism says something to his seventeenth-century contemporaries when he talks about medical and alchemical problems. Why are these two disciplines receiving more emphasis in the reception of Bacon’s views rather than other philosophical disciplines?

We would love to hear your comments, suggestions and thoughts on these matters, so please leave us a comment.