"Idols that Beset Men's Minds"
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
was, as you will see when you look at his essay, an English statesman,
essayist and philosopher. One
his most famous and influential books was titled Novum Organum (1620).
That title translates as The New Instrument and it's purpose was to
lay out a whole new way of coming to know about the world, a method that would
based on direct experience, empirical data, testing, etc., rather than just
on reason or divine revelation. Bacon is generally considered to be one of
early originators of what we now refer to as "the scientific method," and this
book is his outline of what that method should be.
The short essay
you will be reading, titled "Idols
that Beset Men's Minds," is taken from an early section of The Novum Organum.
If you have ever taken an Introduction to Biology
course you know that the first lab project is to study the microscope. The reason
for that is because the microscope will be one of the main tools you will be
using during the rest of the class to study various aspects of different life
forms, and it is important to understand how exactly that tool works. You will
want to learn what it's strengths and limitations are so that you can use it
to understand life forms better.
Bacon does something similar in The Novum
Organum. He spends the early chapters of the book looking at the human mind
and how it works, because the mind will be the main instrument we use when we
go out and look at the world. Bacon thinks that if we do not start by understanding
the instrument that will be doing the knowing, then we could make some big mistakes
in our understanding of what the world is and how it works.
As part of his examination of how the mind works
he examines some of the distortions that the mind sometimes accidentally introduces
into its perceptions. If we are not aware of these distortions, these obstacles
to accurate knowing, we could make significant mistakes in our judgments about
what the world is like.
Here's just one
quick example: Bacon says that one characteristic of the human mind is that
it is hungry to see
order in its universe,
and if, when it looks out at the world it does not immediately see orderliness,
it will unconsciously project some sort of order onto it. When we look up
the night sky, for example, and see a broad variegated field of dots of light
up there, one of the first things we want to do is project some sort of order
onto it. So we start arranging those dots of light into shapes, like animals
and eating utensils, and mythological figures. There is no actual "dipper" in
the sky, of course, nor are the stars that form the big dipper actually anywhere
near each other. But since we do like to see order in things, we will do
we can to impose some sort of order on the complex mass of our perceptions.
Did you know that, despite what appears to be a
huge variety of human personalities, there are really only four basic personality
types? Actually I'm wrong. There are in fact seventeen basic personalities.
Woops, no, there are really nine different kinds of personalities....
I have no idea which of these claims is true, if
any of them are, but I can tell you that all of them, each taken from a different
personality theorist, are attempts to impose some sort of order on the unbelievable
variety of human personalities. This is just one more example of how strong
the tendency is in our minds to want to see order out there, even if there is
no order evident there.
Bacon thinks that we should be aware of this tendency
of the mind to project order onto the world even when there may be no order
there. He thinks we should be aware of this tendency because it may work to
introduce little distortions into our perception of what is actually out there
in the world. He thinks we should be aware of this tendency so that we can,
if need be, correct for it when it comes time to figure out what the world out
there is actually like.
So what Bacon does in this essay is just catalog
what some of those distortions are that the human mind, by its own little tendencies
and imperfections, can introduce into its perceptions. He thinks there are four
categories of distortions.
- Those distortions common to the whole human tribe
(idols of the tribe);
- Those distortions that apply to certain groups
of people more than others -- i.e., people who live in one cave rather than
another (idols of the cave);
- Those distortions caused by our inaccurate and
unclear use of words and language (idols of the marketplace); and
- Those distortions introduced by the various philosophies,
theologies and world views that people believe (idols of the theater).
Let's look at just one example from each category:
The example of
desiring to see more order in the universe than is actually there is one
of his examples of an idol of the tribe.
thinks that we all suffer from that one.
An example of
an idol of the cave (one of Bacon's examples) is that some minds are more
drawn to new things
and new ideas
they are to what has been around for a long time, while other minds are more
drawn to "tradition" and "old school" ideas and ways than they are to
newness. Bacon thinks we should become aware what our own tendency is
so that we can
make corrections for it. He hopes that by becoming aware of our own mind's
tendencies toward loving novelty or tradition that we might be able to "correct" for
them and then hopefully see things more clearly and truly.
We often use words
very loosely in common discourse. Bacon sees nothing wrong with that when
we are just
with friends and family. But, when it comes to trying to describe the world
accurately and precisely, we should be aware of our tendency to use words
loosely and should try to correct for it. When we are trying to speak precisely
we should probably not say things like "The
mountain is out today" (anyone outside of the Puget Sound area wouldn't
have a clue what this means); or "The sun went under a cloud" (the sun
did not go anywhere, let along underneath something); or "The sun came
up this morning" (the earth actually just rotated). None of those
sentences is precisely true, and if we use language imprecisely like this
it can sometimes accidentally
lead to huge misapprehensions about the world. Bacon thinks this misuse of
words and language causes far more problems than we realize.