I am reading "Advice for young investigators" by Santiago Ramón y Cajal , in which the author suggested Francis Bacon had made no impact on the scientific development*:

"It would not be wise in discussing general principles of research to overlook those panaceas of scientific method so highly recommended by Claude Bernard, which are to be found in Bacon’s Novum Organum and Descartes’s Book of Methods. They are exceptionally good at stimulating thought, but are much less effective in teaching one how to discover. After confessing that reading them may suggest a fruitful idea or two, I must further confess an inclination to share De Maistre’s view of the Novum Organum: “Those who have made the greatest discoveries in science never read it, and Bacon himself failed to make a single discovery based on his own rules.” Liebig appears even more harsh in his celebrated Academic Discourse when he states that Bacon was a scientific dilettante whose writings contain nothing of the processes leading to discovery, regardless of inflated praise from jurists, historians, and others far removed from science"

However, I have also found that Thomas Young have said:

“Bacon first taught the world the true method of the study of nature, and rescued science from that barbarism in which the followers of Aristotle, by a too servile imitation of their master, had involved it.”

Also, Charles Darwin has written that he proceeded

“on true Baconian [inductive] principles and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale.”


“How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

In order to solve the seemingly contradiction, I have read what Francis Bacon exactly had written, but the language was too hard for me to understand; while in general, I have read from other introductory texts claiming that Bacon has introduced the induction method into science; hence, so far I failed to see justification for Cajal's criticisms. Nevertheless, as I can't agree more with mostly everything else he wrote, I am left wondering:

What was the major influence of Francis Bacon on the development of modern science?

  • Besides, I remember Richard Feynman once said, Bacon's idea was great, but too impractical. However, I couldn't find the exact words.

  • Personally, I guess Beacon got the right idea, but wrong (sterile) rules.


3 Answers 3


Francis Bacon did not himself do science, his chief contribution is to what is now called the methodology of science. But De Maistre only comments on one side of Novum Organum Scientiarum, its "method" of discovery by "inductio per enumerationem simplicem ubi non reperitur instant & contradictoria" [induction by simple enumeration, excluding contradictory instances]. That is indeed not the most influential part of Bacon's methodological legacy.

To better appreciate the New Organon we have to look at what it replaced, the Aristotle's old Organon, which reduced "toolkit of science" to mastering syllogisms (in fairness, Aristotle's view of the syllogistic was far richer than the redux scholastics turned it into). Bacon's view of induction might have been naive, but his takedown of the syllogistic in favor of it reoriented scientific inquiry in the right direction, from juggling empty generalities to observing and experimenting with nature, and gave it a ground to stand on in opposing "old wisdom" backed by ages and Aristotle's authority. His identification of major threats to successful scientific methodology and ethics was also highly liberating and influential, and his call to watch out for them is up to date even today. They are: the Idols of the Tribe (general stereotypes of human nature), the Idols of the Cave (personal preconceptions), the Idols of the Market (linguistic stereotypes) and the Idols of the Theatre ("the dogmas of the philosophers", conceptual obstacles).

It is one thing to imitate the masters of early science, but another to express what motivated and animated them generally and explicitly, if crudely. Bacon made the idea of science intellectually respectable, he made it make sense to outsiders, and something the scientists could rally to, he gave the popularizers, like Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, arguments and mottos to work with in promoting it to the public. Bacon was not alone in it, of course, but his was the most focused and comprehensive of the early accounts, and it became a landmark and a point of departure. To generations of scientists Bacon was so "morally right" that as late as mid 19th century his inductive naivete was mostly overlooked, and even partly reproduced, by "professional" methodologists like John Stewart Mill. This also shows that while the "scientific method" is "clear" to us in the works of Kepler, Galileo and Newton it took two centuries to finally spell out what it was.

C.S. Peirce was one of the first to do it with the recognizable contours of the "hypothetico-deductive method". Here is his somewhat irreverent assessment of both Bacon's strengths and weaknesses in Fixation of Belief (1877):

"To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen's conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth... Four centuries later, the more celebrated Bacon, in the first book of his Novum Organum, gave his clear account of experience as something which must be open to verification and reexamination. But, superior as Lord Bacon's conception is to earlier notions, a modern reader who is not in awe of his grandiloquence is chiefly struck by the inadequacy of his view of scientific procedure.

That we have only to make some crude experiments, to draw up briefs of the results in certain blank forms, to go through these by rule, checking off everything disproved and setting down the alternatives, and that thus in a few years physical science would be finished up -- what an idea! "He wrote on science like a Lord Chancellor," indeed, as Harvey, a genuine man of science said. The early scientists, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, and Gilbert, had methods more like those of their modern brethren."

It is easy to say that enumerationem simplicem can't do the trick, it turned out to be incredibly hard to say what does. Bacon's naivete can be all the more excused considering that the more recent methodologists of science, logical positivists and Popper, had even less to say on how scientific hypotheses are formed. In the ironically named Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper wrote:"The initial stage, the act of conceiving or inventing a theory, seems to me neither to call for logical analysis nor to be susceptible of it." The hypothetico-deductive method (H-D) is supposed to apply to the "justification" stage only. Hanson in Is there a Logic of Scientific Discovery? (1960) points out that while Bacon's account is simplistic the hypothetico-deductive story is deficient without it:

"There is something wrong. It is false. Scientists do not always discover every feature of a law by enumerating and summarizing observables... H-D accounts do not, however, tell us anything about the context in which laws are proposed in the first place; nor, perhaps, were they even intended to. The induction-by-enumeration story did intend to do this... But this does not strengthen the H-D account as against the inductive view. There is no H-D account of how "sophisticated generalizations" are derived. On his own principles, the H-D theorist's lips are sealed on this matter."

Peirce did offer a more sophisticated analysis of hypothesis formation based on his theory of abductive inference, but unlike his "fallibilism" picked up by Popper, it was forgotten for a while. It became a topic of active research in the last decades however, see Magnani's Abductive Cognition for a recent overview.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you might misunderstand Popper. The conjectures are purely unfounded, free constructions. They can be aesthetic as Dirac, Eccles, Popper, Atiyah, Penrose, Poincare, Wheeler, etc, think. And there is no justification stage. Only falsification. We cannot justify a conjecture, only falsify competing ones. Popper's (and Hayek's), Wheeler's, and Errol Harris's are basically the first completely without foundations methods of science. Because foundations, justification of justification, leads to infinite regress ... $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2016 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ @GuidoJorg Discovery is certainly distinct from justification. But looking at how discoveries are made shows that they are certainly susceptible of "logical analysis", and far more detailed and pointed one than generalities about "elegance", the "logic" of science does not reduce to justification. Peirce held a position similar to Popper's before actually studying how Kepler made his discoveries. His mature position on induction and falsification was similar to Popper's, if less developed, but he had a complementary account of the discovery stage, which Popper did not. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Nov 29, 2016 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ I was reading a bit about Bacon over the weekend when I remembered reading your answer here. Apparently Bacon did contribute to natural science when he used his method to establish an exact correlation between heat and motion, concluding that heat is a "form" of motion. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Oct 2, 2017 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @NickR Yes, and "form" he understood in the quasi-Aristotelian sense as an independent entity with causal power to act on "smaller particles of bodies". It is rather doubtful that he got the idea from enumeration tables though, indeed it seems like a typical case of abduction followed by deduction and testing. Scientists often reason and act in ways far more sophisticated than their self-descriptions. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2017 at 20:20

It is difficult to measure the influence of a specific book (or a writer). For example, I dare to say that very few scientists since the beginning of 18th century ever read anything by Newton (I have abundant evidence of this). I am speaking about Principia, not mentioning his mathematical papers. Most of his mathematical papers were not even published until they became "history". And still the influence of Newton is enormous, and he invented calculus, etc.

His ideas spread very quickly, and very soon more digestible expositions of them were published.

Even more this applies to Descartes. But there is hard evidence that Newton read Descartes.

I suppose this applies to Bacon as well. There is evidence of his large influence in the early 17th century (see Wikipedia article on Bacon). So his ideas spread somehow, even if few later physicists read him. And they spread so quickly, that soon the need to read Bacon to learn these ideas disappeared: this just became "common knowledge". This almost always happens with truly great discoveries.

It is true that Bacon made no specific scientific discoveries. But his ideas had great influence nevertheless. Other philosophers who made no scientific discoveries were Aristotle, Voltaire, Kant. But their influence on the general intellectual atmosphere (in which scientific inquiry was possible at all) was enormous.

EDIT. Michael H. Hast wrote a book 100 most influential people in the world. Of course one can argue with his list, but on my opinion it is essentially sound in its main features, and reflects common opinion (except some evident bias towards English-speaking authors). In this list the people I mentioned have these ranks: Newton-2, Aristotle-13, Descartes-49, Voltaire-74, Bacon-90, and Kant is not included. (Any German list like this would have Kant). Here is the list:


EDIT2: There is an evidence that Galileo either read Bacon or learned about his writings from an intermediary:


and this paper also discusses the direct influence of Bacon on the Royal Society in 17th century.

  • $\begingroup$ What would be an intermediary to the Principia in 18 th century ? Who would do such a job of rendering it in other terms ? $\endgroup$
    – copper
    Nov 27, 2016 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @copper: there were many, one cannot name a single one. Many of the 18th century and later works were inspired by Principia directly or indirectly. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2016 at 21:04

I had not the time to write something shorter.

Stanley Jevons, 1874, Principles of Science, 2, wrote: Bacon's method is strictly impossible, and if were possible, is the least productive method one could imagine: observe everything, write it all down, and wait for it to digest itself by eliminating disagreements into theories.

The problem with scholastics was not that they did not base their universals on experience. They did not believe in laws of nature, or even principles, universals. The Nominalists based all on the concrete, much like Hutton (1794) and Joachim (1948) and Wheeler (1990), but significantly unlike them in that Hutton and Joachim and Wheeler based their universals ontologically on the concrete. The Nominalists rejected universals.

They believed all was special intervention of God and God could always change his mind (even Jevons superstitiously inserted that clause in his book at late as 1874). They never bothered to make sense of their experience and Bacon recommends against it; he suggests it must be accumulated to digest itself. If it fails to give a theory, you just need more experience. But this method always fails. No amount of instances can prove a universal. At best we can assume an experiment is well controlled, so the sequence falsifies all other theories, because it is the same everywhere and everywhen, since all is measurable and nothing measurable can be inconsistent (Hutton) or simply that it at least falsified a competing conjecture because its predictions failed, regardless of how controlled the experiment was, at most leaving fewer explanations than before (Popper).

The problem with the Nominalists's methods is that they did not take theories or conjectures seriously. They did not believe in universals. For example: Buridan writes: an ass is a horse is true. Huh? What did you say? Buridan explains: it is written on a piece of paper, the words are objective now (in a sense Popper (1972) reintroduced), therefore an instance of this exists, and truth is correspondence with experience.

The scholastics and nominalists did not take any predictions seriously, did not believe in universals, in laws of nature, all was special arbitrary choice of god, so they alleged, and they collected experience and tested theories, but never admitted that the theory applies to any other instances. No wonder science made no progress prior the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

That had to wait for others to champion the idea of simple laws of nature explicitly. James Hutton (1794, 1795) and Ralph Gerard (1940) and then Stephen Wolfram (2002) write that all the universe complexity and complication is by repeated operation of extremely simple constant laws which have enormous scope in time to work out. Wheeler (1994) suggests the laws may self modify over time as part of their operation but that is it. Uniformitarianism. Conjectured universals. That was the big idea. First tacitly then in public, finally, by Leibniz and Hume and Hutton. Newton writes that explanations should be as simple as possible to explain appearances. (Menger later added: Yes, but not simpler.) Newton also postulated rules that Euler revised into the Newtonian classical mechanics. The explicit fact that however even simpler rules over a long time can create complexity and all natural forms, instead of merely describing interaction of complex or complicated natural forms, had to wait.

Jevons agrees with Hume and Popper that induction, in sense of learning universals from experience, does not exist at all, and there is no problem of induction, except strict inverse deduction, enumerating all combinations and solving a very complex combinatorics to find out all combinations of objects that could combine to construct those instances according to their know behavior. Enumerating all finite instances and eliminating the contradictions is not a method but proves nothing about universals.

Joachim, Eddington, Hayek, Wheeler, Popper, Harris write that there are no foundations and no justifications only falsifications and elimination of free conjectures. The precedence of the conjectures allows us to know and use the truth without having to prove it and let us survive for often had we to prove it be some inductive procedure we would know what exists in our environment to late to survive (Hayek 1952, Popper 1962).

I think some misunderstand Popper. He does not say anything about how conjectures are formed. True; but that is only because the conjectures are purely unfounded, free constructions. They can be aesthetic as Dirac, Eccles, Popper, Atiyah, Penrose, Poincare, Wheeler, etc, think. Based on nothing more than this would be pretty if it were true.

There is no justification stage. Only falsification. We cannot justify a conjecture, only falsify competing ones. Popper's (and Hayek's), Wheeler's, and Errol Harris's are basically the first completely without foundations methods of science. Because foundations, justification of justification, leads to infinite regress, foundations that have foundations and yet in the end no foundations, no towers of turtles ...

Joachim, Blanshard, Wheeler, Eddington, Hayek (but not Popper), Harris, etc, also point out that all is without foundations but circular and consistent in epistemology as in ontology. The conjecture not only defines what falsifies it (and this is what it means) but also what and how to measure. Fodor (1968) writes: different conjectures not only predict different results but perform different experiments and measure different things in different ways. Deutsch (2011) writes: most conjectures are not even falsified but cease to be entertain or become unentertainable.

This is all consistent with some empiricists (Hume, Condillac, Hutton, Bailey, modern physicists) and inconsistent with others (Bacon, Mill, Russell, Wittgenstein, logical positivists).

Some further thoughts.

Boden, 2006, Mind As Machine, 1, 2, is an empiricist who correctly emphasizes the framing problem for empiricism. You need a conjecture ready to decide what is relevant to then use to build bottom-up associations for further empirical theory generation. Chomsky basically alleges this frame is genetically inherited. That is because he tacitly assumes conjectures can be falsified only a finite number at a time so only a finite number must be posited for an experience sieve to leave a finite filter. I disagree with him; genes do not code for reasoning nor how to reason. Rather they are developmental resources. They only code for proteins, which have enormous degrees of freedom; the framing problem is still unsolved after five decades.

There are hundreds of different algorithms, all possible for generating conjectures from experience, that is why Popper and all but Harris avoided talking about how conjectures are made. That is the field of artificial cognition and not methodology. Dozens of journals with new algorithms each year.


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