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Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes on Learning

1. On Learning from Experiments

Both outstanding minds and common people learn. Outstanding minds, having mastered all the learning of their times (for example, Faust of Goethe), continue to learn from careful observation of experience and experiments. An experiment is also a kind of experience, in which, however, the conditions are controlled, and there is an interaction between the experimenter (“the subject”) and the object of experiment. Everyday experience and social cataclysms may be viewed as a kind of experiment, in which, however, the conditions are not well controlled, or not controlled at all. However, there is an interaction between “the subject” and the object, and there is an analysis following this interaction, with conclusions – right or wrong – drawn.

Socrates said that unexamined life is not worth living. He may have been getting closer to experimental mode of knowing. Goals of experiments may be to establish a cause and effect relationship. A collection of these “cause-and-effect” links may provide us with a logical chain of the phenomenon we’re examining.

Social experience and cataclysms, such as social revolutions, are not properly repeatable. For example, it is not possible to repeat World War I, and the social revolutions that followed it. However, social experience has the nature of being not a singular phenomenon, but repeatable many times over. The same phenomenon repeats itself in different countries, as for example the socialist revolution in XX century. This repetition must be studied, variations in the experience, and results following the cataclysms, must be carefully analyzed. Repetition and comparison of experience is what gives these phenomena the nature of experiment.

If Socrates said that unexamined life is not worth living, then certainly the unexamined social experiments, that are the socialist revolutions, are not worth repeating.

* * *

Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes were masters of learning. Both of them protested against the instruction that they received in schools. They both looked for "a more powerful instrument of knowledge", in the words of Descartes. And they were both antecedents of the social revolutions which broke out in their respective countries. Bacon was an early bird of the English revolution. Descartes was an early bird of the French revolution. Properly speaking, both of these men were part of the vortex that was sweeping the world in that era, gathering the forces for the overthrow of the feudal order. We can formulate a generalization: whenever a mind is searching for "a more powerful instrument of knowledge" than that which is obtained in common schools, we're dealing with the gathering of forces of the global vortex that is destined to sweep away the old world order. In the present moment we're living in one such epoch.

2. Roger Bacon (c.1214-1292)

Optic studies by Roger Bacon

On the place of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, a new form of knowledge appears. Its first messenger was Roger Bacon, a monk in XIII century. Formation of this monk was different in that his father did not pay for his education, and hence he had to make money by himself, for example working with other craftsmen building a church, or working as an apprentice in a smith shop. Hence, he thinks that experience is the primary source of knowledge. Roger Bacon writes that there are three sources of knowledge: authority, rational thinking and experience. By "authority" he means dogmas of the Church. By "rational thinking" he means philosophy of Aristotle, as interpreted by scholastics. Experience, says Bacon, allows us to distinguish the true from the false in all sciences. Bacon practiced experiments and observations in various spheres of knowledge, while seeing this as a more profound knowledge of god. However, being a rebel in his nature, he was not able to hold his position at Oxford University, and the last years of his life he spent in prison (which reminds us of Faustus).

3. Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

«Scientia et potentia humana in idem coincidunt»

(Knowledge and human power coincide)

Francis Bacon

1. Bacon was writing in aphorisms. It should be understood that aphorisms were a step towards an independent thinking and a systematic presentation of material.

2. Two most important aphorisms of Bacon appear to be the following: "Nobody can rightly and successfully follow the nature of any one thing limiting himself to that thing only." And: "Nobody will seek with success the nature of a thing in the thing itself; investigation must widened to include the more general."

In my opinion, these words are worth more than all the volumes in epistemology written by modern university professors, “the specialists”. The precept of Bacon is: don’t limit yourself to any one thing, try to extend your practice to the general. For example, if you study the history of one state, try to compare that to the history of other similar states. Thus general traits of these similar states may be understood. Through comparing one with the other, the mind will grasp what is hidden by politicians.

3. In order to understand anything, or do something, writes Bacon, it is necessary to understand the order of things. This means understanding what follows after what, hence: 1) chronological order, 2) cause and effect order, 3) logical development.

4. Understanding the order of things implies understanding their development. In the end, you should hit upon those questions which are not answerable in the present, but formulation of which is important for the future progress. For example, these questions may be in the form of a dilemma for future development, outlining possible, often opposite, paths of development.

5. We should learn from observations and from experiments. Aphorism “L” ("50") of “The New Organon”, says: "The truest interpretation of Nature comes through the medium of observations and experiments which correspond to these." Different forms of experiments should be tried, so that they will complement and enrich each other.

6. Characterizing the medieval mode of thinking, Bacon writes (in aphorism XCV) that those who studied sciences were either empiricists or rationalists. Empiricists, like ants, only collect material and use what they've collected. Rationalists, like spiders, create the web out of themselves. But the bee chooses the middle way, as it collects the nectar out of the flowers in the field, but arranges it according to its own ability. Hence, the preferable way of understanding the world is through combining the methods of empiricism and rationalism, i.e. being able to obtain important facts from experience, and arranging these according to some rational theory. There is a constant interaction and struggle between the empirical data and the logical chain in which they fit. Hence, knowledge can be expressed by the formula:

knowledge = experience + thinking

7. Knowledge starts with experience, with a number of particular instances of “X”. The road of learning leads upward, into the airy regions of thinking. There, we discover the basic axioms and laws upon which our experience is based. Then, we go back to practice, deducing from these axioms and laws what our possible new experience should be. This can be represented by the following picture: 

8. Bacon, writing against the medieval style of thinking, writes that it is necessary to ascend slowly from most concrete experiences and perceptions to larger and larger generalizations, and not "jump to conclusions", as they do in his time. For example, people point to complexity of the Universe, and from this they deduce the existence of God.

Bacon's method consists in ascending from particular instances 1, 2, and 3 of phenomenon “X” to what may be called “low-level axioms”, which are almost the same thing as the experience of 1,2 and 3. From these low-level axioms we ascend towards more general principles, until we reach the highest generalizations. From the highest generalizations, we can go back to particular principles, and then further down to particular instances of “X”. Such gradual ascent, and then descent, makes knowledge possible.


9. When investigating causes of events, it is useful to list those cases where these events have occurred and those cases where they didn't occur. In this way, we're able to understand better what has triggered the process. For example, Theda Skocpol investigates revolutions in France, Russia and China, and opposes that to what has happened in Japan, i.e. a relatively peaceful transformation from a feudal society to the one dominated by capitalists. Hence, she can ask: why was there bloodshed and violence in France, Russia and China, but little or no violence in Japan?


10. In order to proceed faster in a research, it is necessary to secure cooperation of several people, and divide the load of work between them (aphorism CXIII in Book I of "New Organon"). When people work together in some given direction, each one of them feels as though s/he has more power than if that person was working alone. For example, bikers riding together exhibit greater speed than if each individual was going by him/herself. Going at it alone makes sense only if no appropriate, compatible company can be found. Cooperation of individuals is necessary when working on some big program or a project.

11. Bacon has something to say about the pleasures of teaching: "It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below". Moreover, one is not simply standing upon a high point, but one is able to help others, who are struggling, to get to the shore of safety.

Some additional remarks on Francis Bacon

Bacon’s “New Organon” belongs to those books that should be read and re-read. Hence, I add the following remarks, after a new listening to Book I of “New Organon”.

  1. We must start our knowledge anew, not declaring that we know all, and not despairing completely.
  2. Bacon is parallel to Alexander Fetisov in his desire to rebuild the whole structure of knowledge.
  3. When inquire into something, don’t jump to large generalizations, but rise gradually from experience to local generalizations, then to larger ones. Pay more attention to actual experience. Analyze it carefully.
  4. When human mind despairs of finding the truth, its interest in all things grows fainter and fainter. It doesn’t keep going in one direction, but wanders in a disputatious manner.
  5. Discoveries and inventions are more important than political revolutions, as their effect is more long lasting, global and more profound.

4. Descartes (1596-1650)

For an introduction to the life of Descartes, I recommend listening to Bertrand Russell’s “Descartes”, from his “A History of Western Philosophy”.

1. The basic purpose of all economy is to win time, and hence to use this to elevate both individual and society to a higher level of culture. It is important not to be distracted by trivialities. Descartes says: "although it is true that every man is obliged to promote the good of others, as far as it is in him to do so, and that to be no use to anyone is really to be worthless, it is none the less true also that our solicitude ought to extend beyond the present time, and that it is good to omit doing things which might perhaps bring some profit to those who are living, when one aims to do other things which will be of greater benefit to posterity." Hence: "I shall always hold myself to be more indebted to those by whose favor I may enjoy my leisure w/out hindrance, than I shall be to any who may offer me the most honorable position in all the world." That person is the "richest" who has the most free time, which he uses to realize his creative plans. This is the meaning of the word "richness" different from feudal point of view (in the sense of ownership of land and peasants), different from capitalist point of view (in the sense of ownership of capital), different from bureaucratic point of view (in the sense of position in the hierarchy). 

2. When acquiring knowledge, it is necessary to create your own serene and unperturbed atmosphere. Descartes describes it in “Meditations on the first philosophy”: "Today, then, since very opportunely for the plan I have in view I have delivered my mind from every care (and am happily agitated by no passion) and since I have procured for myself an assured leisure in a peaceable retirement, I shall at last seriously and freely address myself to the general upheaval of all my former opinions." Wake up in the morning with a fresh mind, and immediately set yourself to work. Your most important task should be done first.

3. Bacon writes: "all knowledge I have made my province". Descartes writes similarly: "there is nothing more prone to turn us aside from the correct way of seeking out the truth than this directing of our inquiries, not towards their general end, but towards certain special investigations ... we must believe that all the sciences are so inter-connected, that it is much easier to study them all together than to isolate one from all the others. If, therefore, anyone wishes to search out the truth of things in earnest, he ought not to select one special science; for all the sciences are conjoined with each other and interdependent: he ought rather to think how to increase the natural light of reason, not for the purpose of resolving this or that difficulty of scholastic type, but in order that his understanding may light his will to its proper choice in all the contingencies of life. In a short time he will see with amazement that he has made much more progress than those who are eager about particular ends." This passage implies that the Universe is to be studied in its entirety. Another name for our subject of study is knowledge, for the entire Universe, when understood in conceptual terms, is knowledge. It is knowledge which is potential in things. Thus, the entirety is a system of knowledge. Arranging that system in order, finding out the missing pieces from the general pattern of things (as in the Mendeleev table of the elements), is one of the highest achievements of mind.

4. Descartes attempted to study many things, but medicine he thought was one of the most important: "the mind depends so much on the temperament and on the disposition of the organs of the body, that if it is possible to find some means of rendering men as a whole wiser and more dexterous than they have been hitherto, I believe it must be sought in medicine". Try to think when your body or your mind is not fresh! It is impossible. Personally, I practice swimming all year round, especially in winters, in the cold water in the morning. This is very stimulating to life energies of our body and mind.

5. Descartes advocated both reading books and studying things from nature. About reading books, he advocated 3 kinds of approaches: some books are to be read carefully, examined again and again, i.e. re-read. Other books are to be skimmed. And still others are not to be touched at all. Now, since Descartes advocates studying many different areas of knowledge, we should remember that in each area there are few original and fundamental works. All others are derived from these. Hence, in each area which you undertake to master, you want to isolate these few fundamental works, read and master them, even if they take a long time.

 6. On the usage of books, Descartes points out, "that the memorable actions of history elevate the mind and that, if read with moderation and discernment, they help to form one’s judgment; that to read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of the past centuries and, moreover, a studied conversation in which these authors reveal to us only the best of their thoughts". This passage reminds me of one girl from California who investigated the French revolution. She said that her passion is the company of dead men. These men stand so far above people of our epoch that it is far more interesting to converse with them than with the people surrounding us.

7. As for studying not only from books but also from nature, Ralph Eaton writes that Descartes “remarked to a visitor who wished to see his library: ‘These are my books’, pointing to the animals he had dissected ...” We must learn to "read" from things, from events happening around us, just like we have learned to read books. Hence, we say: "What's your take on this?", implying how we understand this or that event.

8. Descartes writes: "I noticed, concerning experiments, that they are all the more necessary the more one is advanced in knowledge". This coincides with what we have learned about the road of knowledge from Bacon. The further I go, the less I see that books, TV and even Internet satisfy me as sources of information, for they're either too old, or distort information, or too far removed from the events. The more one is advanced on the road of knowledge, the more it is necessary to make personal inquiry into the nature of things, in the sense of personally going and interacting with things. It is necessary to make "field trips", rather than being an outside observer.

9. There are several rules which Descartes resolved to follow in his studies: "The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not know to be evidently so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to include in my judgments nothing more than what presented itself so clearly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt". However, what if we accept as something to be true simply due to our upbringing and a long habit of seeing things in this way? For example, many girls and boys in today's Russia believe that marriage is the proper form of relationship between sexes, while in the West it is already decaying. Skepticism about one's own basic beliefs may be an appropriate attitude for today.

10. The second rule: "Divide each of the difficulties that I was examining into as many parts as might be possible and necessary in order best to solve it". This is the same technique that we've seen Bacon suggest, only that Bacon advices dividing up a problem among team members (i.e. people working in the same direction), while Descartes advices to sub-divide a problem for an individual person. "Divide and conquer". 

11. The third rule: "conduct my thoughts in an orderly way, beginning with the simplest objects and the easiest to know, in order to climb gradually, as by degrees as far as the knowledge of the most complex, and even supposing some order among those objects which do not precede each other naturally". The third rule suggests to start with what is easiest to know, what is familiar, and climb to things which are harder and less-familiar, until one reaches the highest peaks. In fact, this is similar to mountain climbing: first, you conquer the hills, and then you can proceed to taller mountains, until you attempt to climb the highest mountain.

12. The fourth rule: "everywhere to make complete enumerations and such general reviews that I would be sure to have omitted nothing". The key word is "review". It is necessary to go over one's notes and "final" compositions to remember what one have thought before and, in the process, to rework one's thoughts. In my own case, it is done when I redesign my Internet site, and so I attempt to improve not only the form of presentation, but also the ideas and concepts presented.

5. Some Additional Points About Descartes

1. Descartes represents quest for knowledge in the transitional period from the Middle Ages to the Industrial revolution, and hence the epoch of the Dutch revolution (against the Spanish rule), the English revolution (against the rule of Stuarts), and the French revolution (against the monarchy of Bourbons).

2. The most important in the inheritance that is left to us by Descartes is not his scientific research, or his mathematical studies, but his inquiries into the method of properly learning about things.

3. Knowledge starts through the 5 empirical senses. Then our minds gets to work, analyzing information thus received.

4. The mind grasps the regularities that are present in things. These regularities have a statistical character and can be found in all objects of the same type.

5. Knowledge starts with books. Reading is a type of conversation with an author. Just like with people, some books are to be read very carefully, and re-read again and again, some books are to be skimmed, and some are not to be touched at all.

6. After reading, knowledge turns to the primary sources. This can be only experience. Knowledge should learn to conduct experiments.

7. When you approach knowledge, a certain type of mentality is needed. It is necessary to distance yourself from immediate cares.

8. The Universe is one united system. Hence, knowledge about it should also be one united system.

9. There are several methods of knowledge. 1) Go from what is simple to what is complex, following the logic of the subject. 2) Divide and conquer the complex problems. 3) Make frequent enumerations and reviews of the ground covered. 4) Doubt and criticize all that is “well-known” and accepted as generally true.

10. There are two main logical operations: 1) deduction, i.e. a general premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. 2) Induction, i.e. a movement from plurality of concrete cases to a generalization. These two operations form one whole, as it is induction, and the resulting generalization, that make the deduction possible.

11. One field of knowledge logically follows from a previous field of knowledge. Logic is present within each field of knowledge, and in transition from one to another fields of knowledge.

12. Descartes understood the task before him as to learn to think correctly about all problems of life. We understand our task in a more complex manner: we should not only learn to think about all problems, but learn to do things, to change the reality in a desired fashion.

13. If a person goes deeply into one sphere of knowledge, losing at the same time the concept of the general relationship of things, then this person does not approach knowledge correctly. A holistic, systematic approach to knowledge is needed. “Not seeing the forest for the trees” is the mistake science guilty of.

14. Methodology of knowledge should not be developed separately from actual knowledge itself. The method of knowledge and the actual process of knowledge pre-suppose each other, are two sides of one process.

15. A theory of something should be studied in relation to practical problems. For example, the theory of revolution is developed because the problem of a global revolution is upon us.

16. A reward for our labors will be a kind of omnipotence and immortality. Thus, humanity approaches closer to the qualities that it prescribed to gods.


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