Novum Organum by Sir Francis Bacon: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Sir Francis Bacon's ''Novum Organum'' is a treatise meant to adjust the thought and methodology of learning about and understanding science and nature. Learn about the four Idols and the inductive method outlined in this keystone philosophy work.

Everybody Loves Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon lived in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, serving in Parliament and as Queen's Counsel, a position reserved for only the most trusted and respected lords of the time. He was basically the most prominent philosopher of his time and space in history.

Bacon established himself as a lawyer, but his real passion was in writing and philosophy, of which he strove to lead the way. And lead he did. Although other philosophers and teachers of the time were more interested in continuing the tired pedagogical (teaching) methods of the past, Bacon decided that this complacent educational and philosophical system was not only not good enough, but a blight on the intellectual landscape.

Thus, Sir Francis Bacon embarked on the journey to right the wrongs of his contemporaries by breaking the mold of the apathetic teachers and philosophers he saw as holding back progress by writing his philosophical manifesto, Novum Organum. The book began as a replacement or rethinking of Aristotle's Organum, a logical, philosophical treatise that originated as a tool for approaching the world, nature, and science. In fact, the word organum actually means ''tool.''

In this lesson, we will look at the overarching concept and then at the primary components of the Novum Organum.

A portrait of Sir Francis Bacon. He was a philosopher, scientist, educator, and statesman.
Sir Francis Bacon portrait

Novum Organum: The 30,000 Foot View

What is the Novum Organum? This would be an easy question to ask if not for thousands of years of philosophy in human history. Ultimately, the Novum Organum is defined as the ''New Tool.'' But, a new tool for what, and why is it 'new'?

Sir Bacon's answer to this question might be, ''It's new because it's necessary in order to define what kinds of questions we should be asking or not asking.'' While this might be a satisfactory answer for some, it still leaves open the definition of exactly what the tool is and why philosophers and teachers of the day, in Bacon's view, needed it.

Scientific Method Flaws

The origination point of the Novum Organum was in Bacon's perception that the scientific process or method of his time was woefully inadequate to get to the bottom of deep and important questions about nature and knowledge. The system Bacon eventually proposed was what we know as the scientific method, a process by which one, through inductive principles and empirical data gathered through observation, can find precise answers to natural and scientific phenomena. Up until this time, Sir Francis saw the educational methods of his peers as completely disjointed and separated from reality.

Tool for Objectivity

Bacon's eventual cure for the ills of the inadequate educational environment in which he operated was the Novum Organum. This document was meant as a tool for the use of establishing a foundation of objectivity prior to approaching a given subject or problem. In Bacon's philosophy, the human mind is not a blank slate that will automatically synthesize and receive information in an objective way, thereby creating a perfect picture of the world around it. Instead, the human mind is fraught with biases in perception and cannot be trusted to construct a clear image of any given circumstance.

The Novum Organum, then, is a tool for establishing the clearest, most complete, and most level image of truth based on observation, prior to approaching any problem. It is through this lens that educators were able to formulate valid and reliable data, hypotheses, and theories.

An original copy of the Novum Organum. The document was revolutionary in its time.
Copy of Novum Organum

Novum Organum: At Ground Level

The Novum Organum was developed as a guiding plan or template; it was a philosophy for getting as close as possible to the truth found in the world and nature. As a result, the document itself was designed very intentionally with precise instructions concerning how one might remove thoughts and assumptions that would mar a scientific outcome, while simultaneously guiding the observer into the best methods for gathering facts and data.

The process of removing obstacles was referred to as removing Idols, which are presupposed truths about various spheres of assumed reality. The process of guiding to proper observation and data collection was referred to induction.

Four Idols

There were four Idols Bacon referred to: The Idols of the Tribe, The Idols of the Cave, The Idols of the Marketplace, and The Idols of the Theatre. All of these idols were seen by Bacon as suppositions in the human mind that obscured truth and the scientific method.

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