The Renaissance to Francis Bacon

At this point in my journey through western philosophy I have reached the modern era, which is characterised by the increasing authority of science and the secular state over religion. This led to increased freedom of thought within philosophy as compared to the medieval period.

The Italian Renaissance

The modern era starts with the renaissance, and Bertrand Russell distinguishes between the Italian renaissance of the 15th century and the northern European renaissance of the 16th century. The Italian renaissance was not a mass movement but one for the wealthy and highly educated. It preceded the rise of science and was characterised by the substitution of the authority of the Church with that of the ancient Greeks. It was not a great period for philosophy in its own right, but did pave the way for the greatness of the 17th century by reviving the study of Plato and breaking through the straightjacket of scholastic philosophy.  Intellectual discussion became a popular and social activity, as opposed to the individual contemplation of previous periods. Adherence to a single authority (such as Aristotle or Aquinas) gave way to lively debate between competing ideas, even though few new ideas were generated in philosophy. While the Italian Renaissance thinkers were intellectually unorthodox, they were well aware of the considerable temporal power of the Church in Italy, and of the fact that the wealth of Italy relied on the wealth of the Church, which still received tributes from states all across Christendom. The lack of centralised political control in Italy (as compared to the emerging nation states of England, France & Spain) allowed individual achievements to flourish, but as with the ancient Greek city states it was an unstable political system and would be extinguished by outside powers.

The Northern Renaissance

The northern renaissance (principally in England, France and Germany) did not have the intellectual anarchism of its Italian equivalent, but  was concerned with applying greater standards of scholarship to the study of the Bible, as well as with reform of the Catholic church. Erasmus was the most influential person of this period. He wrote a satirical book called ‘The Praise of Folly’, claiming that happiness can best be found in flattery and delusion – it is far easier to imagine yourself successful than to become successful. Reason is a burden and a source of endless worries. The humour is gone in those passages where he attacks the Church, including the practice of indulgences. His attack on the monastic orders is particularly fierce. Monks care only for their own happiness and for the minutiae of doctrine, and for the power they gain from learning secrets at the confessional. Erasmus desired simplicity in Christianity, and rejected all elaborate theology with the view that true religion comes from the heart and not the head. Before we think of Erasmus as truly modern, it should be said that he was far more interested in the world as depicted by the ancients than in the discoveries that were taking place around him. The legend of the Argonauts was of more interest than the discoveries of Columbus. As the Reformation broke out both sides tried to recruit him. Despite his feelings on ecclesiastical abuses his hatred of violence won out, and he sided with the status quo. As religious passions become inflamed, timid men of letters lost their influence. Russell makes the point that the Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation led to no immediate intellectual benefit, but did eventually lead people to abandon the medieval hope for doctrinal unity, which in turn led to greater freedom of thought.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in the late 16th century and became Lord Chancellor in England under King James I. Russell refers to his philosophy as ‘unsatisfactory’, but Bacon is significant as the founder of the modern inductive method (where knowledge is derived from observation). He is also commonly regarded as the originator of the saying ‘knowledge is power’. He was a Christian, but believed that philosophy should be separate from theology. Matters of theology can only be discovered through revelation, whereas philosophy is the realm of reason. Philosophy is also practical, and should have the aim of giving humankind mastery over nature by scientific discovery. Bacon improved on simple methods of induction, where general laws and theories were derived from observations, but often from insufficient and unscientific observation, leading to flawed outcomes. As well as taking a more systematised approach to observation he also used a hierarchic approach to induction, where you start by making very specific inductions from observation (which are therefore more likely to be valid). It is then possible to make less general inductions from multiple more specific ones, until very general laws can be derived based on a mass of supporting observations.

Bacon was hostile towards Aristotle, and entirely followed the mechanistic rather than teleological way of thinking, where things can be understood by studying their causes rather than their purpose. He identified four bad habits of thinking that lead to error: errors which are inherent in human nature, those that are due to personal prejudices, those caused by the misuse or misunderstanding of language, and finally those that are due to excessive acceptance of received wisdom. According to Russell, Bacon was not without error himself. Most importantly he underestimated the importance of the deductive method. Any observation should be grounded in a hypothesis which has been deduced, otherwise the work will be inefficient, and likely to lead to an unmanageable mass of data. If for example one is searching for buried Roman treasure, it is impossible to deduce its exact location, but it is also impractical to dig everywhere. Better to be guided by a hypothesis, such as the treasure is more likely to be found near the site of Roman settlements.

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