Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bacon and Aristotle

The introduction to my edition of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning says that Bacon developed a dislike for the philosophy of Aristotle during his years at Trinity College, Cambridge. So he surprised me by referring so often to Aristotle in the book and by basing some of his most interesting ideas on Aristotle’s theory of four causes.

Bacon certainly gets his digs in on his Greek predecessor here and there. In his outline of all possible subjects of knowledge, Bacon naturally comes to the field of ethics, and in this section he upbraids Aristotle for neglecting to mention anything about the effect of temperaments and affections on moral judgment. He admits that Aristotle “touched upon” the affections in the Rhetoric and in a few other scattered places, “but they were never incorporate into moral philosophy, to which they do essentially appertain.”

He also derides the classic treatment of logic for having no bearing on practical life. Bacon includes logic in his taxonomy of learning, but he relegates it to an obscure position that I classified in my outlined notes as C.3.a.ii.β.1.B, where C) stands for the general topic of philosophy, 3) for human philosophy, a) for philosophy of individual humans (as opposed to politics, for instance), ii) for knowledge of the mind (as opposed to knowledge of the body), β) for the faculties of the mind (as opposed to substance or nature of the mind), 1) for rational (as opposed to moral) functions of the mind, and B) for the judgment of rational ideas.

But Bacon appears perfectly comfortable with Aristotle’s theory of the four causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. We tend to define cause only in terms of the efficient and final causes. If I ask, “Why is the tire flat?” I’m looking for an efficient cause. Perhaps I drove over a nail, and the hole caused the flat tire. But if I ask, “Why did you go to the store?” I don’t expect my wife to answer, “Because I put myself in the car and pointed it in that direction.” I’m not asking here about the efficient cause, the actions that resulted in her motion; I’m really asking about her purpose or goal. I don’t want to know what happened before that led her to go but what she hoped would happen after getting to the store. Maybe she went to buy milk, for instance.

To explain the other causes, Aristotle uses (somewhere) an example of a table. In his theory, a cause of thing X is whatever must exist in order for X to exist. What all must exist in order for this table to exist? First, the wood it’s made of must exist. In everyday parlance, we don’t tend to think of wood causing the table’s existence, but considering cause as a necessary condition suddenly makes the existence of wood a quite obvious cause. Second, the table’s existence depends on a table maker and his act of table making: the efficient causes. Third, the table must have a plan or design: the formal cause. A carpenter randomly sawing and hammering won’t produce a table. Fourth, the table has to have a final cause, a purpose. Put a carpenter, some wood, and a blueprint in a room, and still no table will come to be if the carpenter sees no need for the table. The most obvious purpose for the table is to support lamps and vases and dinner plates. But the final cause might also include the carpenter’s need to make money or simply his desire to exercise and display his skills.

Francis Bacon makes two intriguing points out of the theory of causes. First, he posits that since science looks for material and efficient causes, it really doesn’t ever contradict faith, which is directed to formal and final causes. I don’t know that any part of that explanation is completely true, but I admire his attempt, at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, to clarify that the movement was not, as far as he and other Christians were concerned, aimed at or in danger of opposing sacred doctrine. Second, Bacon offers a generic plan for each field of study centered on the causes. Knowledge of any subject, he says, is like a four-tiered pyramid. The base of the pyramid comprises history: the pertinent elements, observed facts, and terminology. The second layer, which he terms physic, examines the material and efficient causes. On top of physic lies the metaphysic of the field, knowledge of formal and final causes. The opus Dei, that is, the ways and purposes of God regarding the subject matter, we may never know, he says, but still stands conceptually at the apex of the pyramid.

I planned at first to speculate on applications of this model to several topics. But the post has already gone on too long, so I’ll just experiment with one. Knowledge of literature might fit into the pyramidal scheme in this way. The history of literature would consist of, well, the bare facts of the history of literature, the stuff that would help you play a game of Authors. The physic of literature might delve more deeply into the lives of authors. Who was Dickens or Dante? When did they write their books? Who published them? What social or familial or financial or linguistic influences led to the composition of the work? The metaphysic gets more personal. What themes tie the work together? What did the author hope to accomplish artistically? How does the plot work? How do I, the reader, interpret the characters?

And now, both the excessive length of my post and the alarm on my computer tell me to stop and leave it to the reader to think out more examples.

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