Francis Bacon,
The Great Instauration

Basil Montague, ed. and trans.
Excerpts from The Works, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Parry & MacMillan, 1854)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned by Alison Waugh and proofread by Monica Banas in 1996.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

The Distribution of the Work




ONE point of our design is, that every thing should be set out as openly and clearly as possible. For this nakedness, as once that of the body, is the companion of innocence and simplicity. The order and method of the work, therefore, shall first be explained. We divide it into six parts. The first part exhibits a summary, or universal description of such science and learning as mankind is, up to this time, in possession of. For we have thought fit to dwell a little even on received notions, with a view the more easily to perfect the old, and approach the new; being nearly equally desirous to improve the former and to attain the latter. This is of avail also towards our obtaining credit: according to the text, "The unlearned receives not the words of knowledge, unless you first speak of what is within his own heart." We will not, therefore, neglect coasting the shores of the now received arts and sciences, and importing thither something useful on our passage.

But we also employ such a division of the sciences as will not only embrace what is already discovered and known, but what has hitherto been omitted and deficient. For there are both cultivated and desert tracts in the intellectual as in the terrestrial globe. It must not, therefore, appear extraordinary if we sometimes depart from the common divisions. For additions, whilst they vary the whole, necessarily vary the parts, and their subdivisions, but the received divisions are only adequate to the received summary of the sciences, such as it now exists.

With regard to what we shall note as omitted, we shall not content ourselves with offering the mere names and concise proofs of what is deficient: for if we refer any thing to omissions, of a high nature, and the meaning of which may be rather obscure, (so that we may have grounds to suspect that men will not understand our intention, or the nature of the matter we have embraced in our conception and contemplation,) we will always take care to subjoin to an instance of the whole, some precepts for perfecting it, or perhaps a completion of a part of it by ourselves. For, we consider it to concern our own character as well as the advantage of others, that no one may imagine a mere passing idea of such matters to have crossed our mind, and that what we desire and aim at resembles a wish; whilst in reality it is in the power of all men, if they be not wanting to themselves, and we ourselves are actually masters of a sure and clear method. For we have not undertaken to measure out regions in our mind, like augurs for divination, but like generals to invade them for conquest.-

And this is the first part of the work.

Having passed over the ancient arts, we will prepare the human understanding for pressing on beyond them. The object of the Second Part, then, is the doctrine touching a better and more perfect use of reasoning in the investigation of things, and the true helps of the understanding; that it may by this means be raised, as far as our human and mortal nature will admit, and be enlarged in its powers so as to master the arduous and obscure secrets of nature. And the art which we employ (and which we are wont to call the interpretation of nature) is a kind of logic. For common logic professes to contrive and prepare helps and guards for the understanding, and so far they agree. But ours differs from the common, chiefly in three respects, namely, in its end, the order of demonstration, and the beginning of the inquiry.

For the end of our science is not to discover arguments, but arts, nor what is agreeable to certain principles, but the principles themselves, nor probable reasons, but designations and indications of effects. Hence, from a diversity of intention follows a diversity of consequences. For, in in the one an opponent is vanquished and constrained by argument, in the other, nature by effects.

And the nature and order of tbe demonstrations agree with this end. For in common logic almost our whole labour is spent upon the syllogism. [Page 339] The logicians appear scarcely to have thought seriously of induction, passing it over with some slight notice, and hurrying on to the formulae of dispute. But we reject the syllogistic demonstration, as being too confused, and letting nature escape from our hands. For, although nobody can doubt that those things which agree with the middle term agree with each other, (which is a sort of mathematical certainty,) nevertheless, there is this source of error, namely, that a syllogism consists of propositions, propositions of words, and words are but the tokens and signs of things. If, therefore, the notions of the mind (which are as it were the soul of words, and the basis of this whole structure and fabric) are badly and hastily abstracted from things, and vague, or not sufficiently defined and limited, or, in short, faulty (as they may be) in many other respects, the whole falls to the ground. We reject, therefore, the syllogism, and that not only as regards first principles, (to which even the logicians do not apply them,) but also in intermediate propositions, which the syllogism certainly manages in some way or other to bring out and produce, but then they are barren of effects, unfit for practice, and clearly unsuited to the active branch of the sciences. Although we would leave therefore to the syllogism, and such celebrated and applauded demonstrations, their jurisdiction over popular and speculative arts, (for here we make no alteration,) yet, in every thing relating to the nature of things, we make use of induction, both for our major and minor propositions. For we consider induction to be that form of demonstration which assists the senses, closes in upon nature, and presses on, and, as it were, mixes itself with action.

Hence also the order of demonstration is naturally reversed. For at present the matter is so managed, that from the senses and particular objects they immediately fly to the greatest generalities, as the axes round which their disputes may revolve: all the rest is deduced from them intermediately, by a short way we allow, but an abrupt one, and impassable to nature, though easy and well suited to dispute. But, by our method, axioms are raised up in gradual succession, so that we only at last arrive at generalities. And that which is most generalized, is not merely national but well defined, and really acknowledged by nature as well known to her, and cleaving to the very pith of things.

By far our greatest work, however, lies in the form of induction and the judgment arising from it. For the form of which the logicians speak, which proceeds by bare enumeration, is puerile, and its conclusions precarious, is exposed to danger from one contrary example, only considers what is habitual, and leads not to any final result.

The sciences, on the contrary, require a form of induction capable of explaining and separating experiments, and coming to a certain conclusion by a proper series of rejections and exclusions. If, however, the common judgment of the logicians has been so laborious, and has exercised such great wits, how much more must we labour in this which is drawn not only from the recesses of the mind, but the very entrails of nature.

Nor is this all, for we let down to a greater depth, and render more solid the very foundations of the sciences, and we take up the beginning of our investigation from a higher part than men have yet done, by subjecting those matters to examination which common logic receives upon the credit of others. For the logicians borrow the principles of one science from another, in the next place they worship the first formed notions of their minds, and, lastly, they rest contented with the immediate information of the senses, if well directed. But we have resolved that true logic ought to enter upon the several provinces of the sciences with a greater command than is possessed by their first principles, and to force those supposed principles to an account of the grounds upon which they are clearly determined. As far as relates to the first notions of the understanding, not any of the materials which the understanding, when left to itself, has collected, is unsuspected by us, nor will we confirm them unless they themselves be put upon their trial and be judged accordingly. Again, we have many ways of sifting the information of the senses themselves: for the senses assuredly deceive, though at the same time they disclose their errors: the errors, however, are close at hand, whilst their indication must be sought at a greater distance.

There are two faults of the senses: they either desert or deceive us. For in the first place there are many things which escape the senses, however well directed and unimpeded, owing either to the subtilty of the whole body, or the minuteness of its parts, or the distance of place, or the slowness or velocity of motion, or the familiarity of the object, or to other causes. Nor are the apprehensions of the senses very firm, when they grasp the subject; for the testimony and information of the senses bears always a relation to man and not to the universe, and it is altogether a great mistake to assert that our senses are the measure of things.

To encounter these difficulties, we have everywhere sought and collected helps for the senses with laborious and faithful service, in order to supply defects and correct errors: and that not so much by means of instruments, as by experiments. For experiments are much more delicate than the senses themselves, even when aided by instruments, at least if they are skilfully and scientifically imagined and applied to the required point. We attribute but little, therefore, to the immediate and proper perception of the senses, [Page 340] but reduce the matter to this, that they should decide on the experiment, and the experiment on the subject of it. Wherefore, we consider that we have shown ourselves most observant priests of the senses, (by which all that exists in nature must be investigated if we would be rational,) and not unskilful interpreters of their oracles: for others seem to observe and worship them in word alone, but we in deed. These then are the means which we prepare for kindling and transmitting the light of nature: which would of themselves be sufficient, if the human understanding were plain and like a smoothed surface. But since the minds of men are so wonderfully prepossessed, that a clear and polished surface for receiving the true rays of things is wholly wanting, necessity urges us to seek a remedy for this also.

The images or idols by which the mind is preoccupied are either adventitious or innate. The adventitious have crept into the minds of men either from the dogmas and sects of philosophers, or the perverted rules of demonstration. But the innate are inherent to the very nature of the understanding, which appears to be much more prone to error than the senses. For however men may be satisfied with themselves, and rush into a blind admiration and almost adoration of the human mind, one thing is most certain, namely, that as an uneven mirror changes the rays proceeding from objects according to its own figure and position, so the mind when affected by things through the senses does not act in the most trustworthy manner, but inserts and mixes her own nature into that of things, whilst clearing and recollecting her notions.

The first two species of idols are with difficulty eradicated, the latter can never be so. We can only point them out, and note and demonstrate that insidious faculty of the mind, lest new shoots of error should happen to spring up, from the destruction of the old, on account of the mind's defective structure; and we should then find ourselves only exchanging instead of extinguishing errors; whilst it ought on the other hand to be eternally resolved and settled, that the understanding cannot decide otherwise than by induction and by a legitimate form of it. Wherefore the doctrine of the purifying of the understanding, so as to fit it for the reception of truth, consists of three reprehensions; the reprehension of the schemes of philosophy, the reprehension of methods of demonstration, and the reprehension of natural human reason. But when these have been gone through, and it has at last been clearly seen, what results are to be expected from the nature of things and the nature of the mind, we consider that we shall have prepared and adorned a nuptial couch for the mind and the universe; the divine goodness being our bridemaid. But let the prayer of our epithalamium be this; that from this union may spring assistance to man, and a race of such discoveries as will in some measure overcome his wants and necessities.---

And this is the second part of the work.

It is our intention not only to open and prepare the way, but also to enter upon it. The third part, therefore, of our work embraces the phenomena of the universe; that is to say, experience of every kind, and such a natural history as can form the foundation of an edifice of philosophy. For there is no method of demonstration, or form of interpreting nature, so excellent as to be able to afford and supply matter for knowledge, as well as to defend and support the mind against error and failure. But those who resolve not to conjecture and divine, but to discover and know, not to invent buffooneries and fables about worlds, but to inspect, and, as it were, dissect the nature of this real world, must derive all from things themselves. Nor can any substitution or compensation of wit, meditation, or argument, (were the whole wit of all combined in one,) supply the place of this labour, investigation, and personal examination of the world; our method then must necessarily be pursued, or the whole forever abandoned. But men have so conducted themselves hitherto, that it is little to be wondered at if nature do not disclose herself to them.

For in the first place the defective and fallacious evidence of our senses, a system of observation slothful and unsteady, as though acting from chance, a tradition vain and dcpending on common report, a course of practice intent upon effects, and servile, blind, dull, vague, and abrupt experiments, and lastly our careless and meagre natural history, have collected together, for the use of the understanding, the most defective materials as regards philosophy and the sciences.

In the next place, a preposterous refinement, and, as it were, ventilation of argument, is attempted as a late remedy for a matter become clearly desperate, and neither makes any improvement, nor removes errors. There remains no hope therefore of greater advancement and progress, unless by some restoration of the sciences.

But this must commence entirely with natural history. For it is useless to clean the mirror if it have no images to reflect, and it is manifest that we must prepare proper matter for the understanding as well as steady support. But our history, like our logic, differs in many respects, from the received, in its end or office, in its very matter and compilation, in its nicety, in its selection, and in its arrangements relatively to what follows.

For, in the first place, we begin with that species of natural history which is not so much calculated to amuse by the variety of its objects, or to offer immediate results by its experiments, as to throw a light upon the discovery of causes, and to present, as it were, its bosom as the first nurse of philosophy. For, although we regard principally effects and the active division of the sciences [Page 341] yet we wait for the time of harvest, and do not go about to reap moss and a green crop: being sufficiently aware that well formed axioms draw whole crowds of effects after them, and do not manifest their effects partially, but in abundance. But we wholly condemn and banish that unreasonable and puerile desire of immediately seizing some pledges as it were of new effects, which, like the apple of Atalanta, retard our course--such then is the office of our natural history.

With regard to its compilation, we intend not to form a history of nature at liberty and in her usual course, when she proceeds willingly and acts of her own accord, (as for instance the history of the heavenly bodies, meteors, the earth and sea, minerals, plants, animals,) but much rather a history of nature constrained and perplexed, as she is seen when thrust down from her proper rank and harassed and modelled by the art and contrivance of man. We will therefore go through all the experiments of the mechanical and the operative part of the liberal arts, and all those of different practical schemes which have not yet been put together so as to form a peculiar art: as far as we have been able to investigate them and it will suit our purpose. Besides, (to speak the truth,) without paying any attention to the pride of man, or to appearances, we consider this branch of much more assistance and support than the other: since the nature of things betrays itself more by means of the operations of art than when at perfect liberty.

Nor do we present the history of bodies alone, but have thought it moreover right to exert our diligence in compiling a separate history of properties: we mean those which may be called the cardinal properties of nature, and of which its very elements are composed, namely, matter with its first accidents and appetites, such as density, rarity, heat, cold, solidity, fluidity, weight, levity, and many others.

But, with regard to the nicety of natural history, we clearly require a much more delicate and simple form of experiments than those which are obvious. For we bring out and extract from obscurity many things which no one would have thought of investigating, unless he were proceeding by a sure and steady path to the discovery of causes; since they are in themselves of no great use, and it is clear that they were not sought for on their own account, but that they bear the same relation to things and effects, that the letters of the alphabet do to discourse and words, being useless indeed in themselves, but the elements of all language.

In the selection of our reports and experiments, we consider that we have been more cautious for mankind than any of our predecessors. For we admit nothing but as an eyewitness, or at least upon approved and rigorously examined testimony; so that nothing is magnified into the miraculous, but our reports are pure and unadulterated by fables and absurdity. Nay, the commonly received and repeated falsehoods, which by some wonderful neglect have held their ground for many ages and become inveterate, are by us distinctly proscribed and branded, that they may no longer molest learning. For, as it has been well observed, that the tales, superstitions, and trash which nurses instil into children, seriously corrupt their minds, so are we careful and anxious whilst managing and watching over the infancy, as it were, of philosophy committed to the charge of natural history, that it should not from the first become habituated to any absurdity. In every new and rather delicate experiment, although to us it may appear sure and satisfactory, we yet publish the method we employed, that, by the discovery of every attendant circumstance, men may perceive the possibly latent and inherent errors, and be roused to proofs of a more certain and exact nature, if such there be. Lastly, we intersperse the whole with advice, doubts, and cautions, casting out and restraining, as it were, all phantoms by a sacred ceremony and exorcism.

Finally, since we have learned how much experience and history distract the powers of the human mind, and how difficult it is (especially for young or prejudiced intellects) to become at the first acquainted with nature, we frequently add some observations of our own, by way of showing the first tendency, as it were, and inclination or aspect of history towards philosophy; thus assuring mankind that they will not always be detained in the ocean of history, and also preparing for the time when we shall come to the work of the understanding. And by such a natural history as we are describing, we think that safe and convenient access is opened to nature, and solid and ready matter furnished to the understanding.

But after furnishing the understanding with the most surest helps and precautions, and having completed, by a rigorous levy, a complete host of divine works, nothing remains to be done but to attack Philosophy herself. In a matter so arduous and doubtful, however, a few reflections must necessarily be here inserted, partly for instruction and partly for present use.

The first of these is, that we should offer some examples of our method and course of investigation and discovery, as exhibited in particular subjects; preferring the most dignified subjects of our inquiry, and such as differ the most from each other, so that in every branch we may have an example. Nor do we speak of those examples, which are added to particular precepts and rules by way of illustration, (for we have furnished them abundantly in the second part of our work,) but we mean actual types and models, calculated to place, as it were, before our eyes the whole process of the mind, and the continuous frame and order of discovery in particular subjects, selected [Page 342] for their variety and importance. For we recollected that in mathematics, with the diagram before our eyes, the demonstration easily and clearly followed, but without this advantage every thing appeared intricate and more subtile than was really the case. We devote, therefore, the FOURTH PART of our work to such examples, which is in fact nothing more than a particular and fully developed application of the second part.

But the FIFTH PART is only used for a temporary purpose, whilst the rest are being perfected, and is paid down as interest, until the principal can be raised. For we rush not so blindly to our object, as to neglect any thing useful on our way. We compose this fifth part of the work therefore of those matters which we have either discovered, tried, or added; without, however, employing our own method and rules for interpretation, but merely making the same use of our understanding as others are wont to do in their investigations and discoveries. For, from our constant intercourse with nature, we both anticipate greater results from our meditations than the mere strength of our wit would warrant; and yet such results as have been mentioned may also serve as inns upon the road for the mind to repose itself a while on its way to more certain objects. We protest, in the mean time, against any great value being set upon that which has not been discovered or proved by the true form of interpretation. There is no reason, however, for any one to be alarmed at such suspense of judgment in our method of teaching, which does not assert absolutely that nothing can be known, but that nothing can be known without a determined order and method; and in the mean time has settled some determined gradations of certitude, until the mind can repose in the full developement of causes. Nor were those schools of philosophers, who professed absolute skepticism, inferior to the others which took upon themselves to dogmatism. They did not, however, prepare helps for the senses and understanding, as we have done, but at once abolished all belief and authority, which is totally different, nay, almost opposite matter.

Lastly, the SIXTH PART of our work (to which the rest are subservient and auxiliary) discloses and propounds that philosophy which is reared and formed by the legitimate, pure, and strict method of investigation previously taught and prepared. But it is both beyond our power and expectation to perfect and conclude this last part. We will, however, furnish no contemptible beginning, (if our hopes deceive us not,) and men's good fortune will furnish the result; such, perhaps, as men cannot easily comprehend or define in the present state of things and the mind. For we treat not only of contemplative enjoyment, but of the common affairs and fortune of mankind, and of a complete power of action. For man, as the minister and interpreter of nature does, and understands, as much as he has observed of the order, operation, and mind of nature; and neither knows nor is able to do more. Neither is it possible for any power to loosen or burst the chain of causes, nor is nature to be overcome except by submission. Therefore those two objects, human knowledge and power, are really the same; and failure in action chiefly arises from the ignorance of causes. For every thing depends upon our fixing the mind's eye steadily in order to receive their images exactly as they exist, and may God never permit us to give out the dream of our fancy as a model of the world, but rather in his kindness vouchsafe to us the means of writing a revelation and true vision of the traces and stamps of the Creator on his creatures.

May thou, therefore, O Father, who gavest the light of vision as the first-fruits of creation, and hast inspired the countenance of man with the light of the understanding as the completion of thy works, guard and direct this work, which, proceeding from thy bounty, seeks in return thy glory. When thou turnedst to look upon the works of thy hands, thou sawest that all were very good, and restedst. But man, when he turned towards the works of his hands, saw that they were all vanity and vexation of spirit, and had no rest. Wherefore, if we labour in thy works, thou wilt make us partakers of that which thou beholdest and of thy rest. We humbly pray that our present disposition may continue firm, and that thou mayest be willing to endow thy family of mankind with new gifts through our hands, and the hands of those to whom thou wilt accord the same disposition.

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