Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bacon for Lunch

It happens sometimes. I get excited about a book when I don’t have a lot of time to blog, and then 20%, 40%, or 80% of the way through, I finally get some spare time only to find my head full of more ideas than I can possibly write about before forgetting them all. In the previous post, I wrote some thoughts about a book on the Shakespeare authorship question. I finished the section on Francis Bacon in that book and then remembered that I had Francis Bacon on my reading list for this year. So I jumped ahead a bit to start reading The Advancement of Learning, and now I find my lunch “hour” growing and growing. It’s been so good that when I started this paragraph, I really didn’t know how to select what the rest of the post would concentrate on. So I’ll cheat and not concentrate at all. Instead, here are three disconnected details that really made me happy.

1. In the 1990s, American education suffered the Critical Thinking Movement, an initiative seeking to replace memorization of facts with higher-level cognitive skills such as judgment and synthesis. My critical thinking on the subject, though, tells me that without facts with which to work, one has nothing to judge and synthesize. We mustn’t replace memorization with critical thinking; one leads to the other – or should. Bacon saw the same problem in his time and denounced educational systems that jumped too quickly to logic and rhetoric, the arts of “setting forth and disposing matter.” But, he points out, minds that have no matter have nothing to think about or to express. Beginning with judgment and expression of matter without having acquired any matter to judge or express, Bacon says, is like painting the wind.

I couldn’t help thinking here of Dorothy Sayers’s article called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Employing the same terms Bacon used, terms from the medieval Trivium, Sayers cites the importance of mastering grammar before proceeding to logic and rhetoric. She defines grammar broadly as the study of the basic facts of each field. Teach children the alphabet, she says, the multiplication table, periods of history, names of animals, capitals of countries, poems, color theory, and key signatures while you can. They can and will argue with you about them and express themselves about them readily enough when they become teenagers.

2. In book II of The Advancement of Learning, Bacon divides up all possible fields of study systematically and tries to give advice on how best to proceed in each area. He begins by making three large classifications according to what he sees as the three “parts of man’s understanding.” History, he says, has reference to the memory, the arts to imagination, and philosophy to reason. History and philosophy sound to us like particular subjects that a typical college student might take a class or two in. But as Bacon defines it, history is as broad as Dorothy Sayers’s grammar. In addition to chronicles of events, it includes taxonomy of plants and animals and minerals and other natural phenomena as well as the mechanical and productive arts. And philosophy includes mathematics, natural sciences, logic, linguistics, metaphysics, and – of course! – music theory.

Now a person can memorize, imagine, and reason about all these topics. But I enjoyed contemplating the basic nature of the division, and Bacon convinced me with his correspondences. Our mind acquires and stores ideas (memory), manipulates and judges ideas (reason), and creates new ideas (imagination). And subject matter generally seems to fall into one of the three categories: concrete things and events that we observe in the world, abstract things that we discover only through thought, and new things that we design and create. The same division could be made on the terms of time: past (memory, history), present (philosophy, reason) and future (imagination, the arts). Or we could call the Trivium into service again, since Bacon’s history corresponds to Sayers’s grammar, logic easily expands to incorporate all that Bacon classes in philosophy, and rhetoric and expression clearly go with imagination and the arts.

3. Bacon foresees and almost prophetically responds to several issues that play a major part in the course of philosophy after his time. First, just when philosophers begin to divide themselves into rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) and empiricists (Hobbes, Locke, etc.), Bacon calmly and, as I see it, correctly informs us that both “the notions of the mind and the reports of the senses” provide springs of knowledge. Then, with a short, simple argument he tries to forestall the skepticism that the empiricists would bog down in over the course of the next century or so: the senses may be untrustworthy to a degree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t verify and correct their “reports” with careful measurement and reason. After all, Bacon argues by analogy, the inability of the unaided human hand to draw an accurate circle doesn’t mean we can’t use a compass to achieve that goal. The inaccuracy of the senses isn’t the true source of uncertainty, anyway, he says. All of our knowledge is in the form of arguments made up of propositions consisting of words, and words only betoken the “popular notions of things.” Here Bacon’s observation links way back to the confusion of language at Babel and forward several centuries to the linguistics of Saussure and Derrida.

If I could work the Trivium into that third topic, this post would have a neat theme running through it like warp through woof. (Or maybe it’s woof through warp. I can never remember.) But I can’t work it in, so I’ll have to leave today’s post as three mostly random observations about the book that has kept my mind so animated during lunch the last few days.

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