Romanticism Roadshow: Bacon and the Idols of Thought

At the conclusion of An Essay Conerning Human Understanding (IV.XXI.4-5), John Locke coins the word "semiotics" ("the doctrine of signs") to describe a branch of science which is neither wholey speculative ("the contemplation of THINGS themselves, for the discovery of truth") nor wholey practical ("about the things in [one's] own power, which are [one's] own ACTIONS, for the attainment of [one's] own ends") but a combination of the two ("both in the one and the other"). In his analysis, the primary concern of semiotics is to correct the abuses of language which lead to confused ideas. Figurative language, he says, is entertaining but useful "for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment..." (III.X.34)

Not surprisingly, this caused a counter-revolution among poets. Locke's theory, particularly his emphasis on the arbitrariness of language, ignited a "Cratylus"-like debate about the "natural" or "conventional" status of language. That debate continues to the present day (e.g., Chomskian "natural grammar"), but it saw especially heightened expression among the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Blake expressed "Contempt & Abhorrence" for Locke because his books "mock Inspiration & Vision"--i.e., they disavow innate ideas and make the mind a passive receptor of images; Coleridge appealed to an "eternal language" uttered by God; and Thoreau (cryptically and half-jokingly?) divined inherent meaning in phonetics.

Despite the ready opposition, Locke's philosophy had opened the door for WILL. For the word "arbitrary" itself has connotations of power (deriving from the concept of legal "arbitration"). And language, seen as a political institution, became a battleground for competing interests. See, for instance, Ishmael's attempt to re-appropriate the meaning of "whiteness" in Moby-Dick, and modern feminist discourse on language.


For Blake, the great "axis of evil" was Bacon, Locke, and Newton.  In Novum Organum, Bacon attacked four "idols"--of the tribe, cave, market, and theater--each resting on confused notions.  "The syllogism is made up of propositions, propositions of words, and words are markers of notions. Thus if the notions themselves...are confused, and recklessly abstracted from things, nothing built on them is sound. The only hope therefore lies in true Induction."

For this meetup we will read Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorisms 1-68.


This meetup will be the first in a series tracing the philosophy of language in roughly chronological order from Locke through the Romantics. Although situated in a historical context, we will discuss each text on its own terms. This list represents a tentative itinerary of the other stops along this "tour":

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 3, Chapter 5

Berkeley - Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, "Introduction"

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo - Origin and Progress of Language

Condillac - An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge

John Horne Tooke - The Diversions of Purley, pg. 9-22 (Part[masked]):

Destutt Tracy - A Treatise on Political Economy, pg 1-26 (Aphorisms through section 2.1):

Rousseau - Essay on the Origin of Languages

Wordsworth - Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Coleridge - Biographia Literaria, Chapter 13 "On the imagination, or esemplastic power":

Coleridge - Aids to Reflection

Shelley - "In Defense of Poetry"

Emerson - "Nature," Chapter 4

Tennyson - "In Memoriam"

Charles Kraitsir, "Signifiance of the Alphabet"

Kraitsir, Glossology

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  • Chad B.

    A suggestion for how Bacon is complementary (rather than in antipodal) to the Romantics: Bacon is often contrasted with Descartes (as rationalist) and noted for his opposition to Aristotle. Descartes starts with radical doubt (which presupposes knowledge to be doubted); Aristotle , dialectic (in which established opinion is withered by critique). Likewise for Bacon's idol-bashing. But insofar as induction is compositional, Bacon envisions a (wordless) "interpretation" and "inquisition" of nature, learning its vocabulary and "alphabet." Thus he is engaged in recovering a sort of pre-lapsarian, non-linguistic language, establishing a direct communion with nature. This may be why he considers "the idols of the market" (based on linguistic convention) to be "the most troublesome of all."

    1 · February 11, 2014

    • Rick O.

      hm - perhaps if we keep in mind this is an (historical) early stop in the Roadshow?

      1 · March 1, 2014

    • Rick O.

      okay - can't resist - here's my take:

      Bacon is the first stop on the Roadshow since he represents the break from the past 'wrong paths' and introduces the new path - which is firmly entrenched in THIS world and all that that entails (experimentation above abstraction).

      The prior false paths were either 1) sophistical school (Aristotle) and traps the understanding (forces it into logic), or 2) fanciful poetical school (Plato) which flatters the understanding (just look where I can go!).

      These two false methods give rise to two false errors of subject 1) primary forms, or doctrine of elementary properties, and 2) metamorphosis of species, or occult properties/powers (Prime Mover).

      Rather than move from secondary properties (what we have) towards first properties (the above), we should move, THROUGH INDUCTION, toward third and fourth properties. And to do this, we are firmly in this world.

      If I might coin a phrase - "back to the senses"

      2 · March 1, 2014

  • Rick O.

    I'm up to aphorism 50, and having a hard time seeing how Blake didn't like this guy.

    2 · February 25, 2014

    • Rick O.

      I missed that (was thinking more in line with theories of consciousness - fits well with Bergson). But you're right - since Urizen is Blake's re-casting (actually, elaborating and fixing) of creation Myths, after Genesis is the perfect fit.

      February 26, 2014

    • eric

      Seems Blake may have been alluding to this..."Bacon, Locke and Newton, whose pictures I will trouble you to have copied for me: and as I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences" Thomas Jefferson

      1 · March 1, 2014

  • Rick O.

    Favorite sentence (aph 66):

    "The human understanding is perverted by observing the power of mechanical arts, in which bodies are very materially changed by composition or separation, and is induced to suppose that something similar takes place in the universal nature of things."

    2 · March 1, 2014

  • Brian

    Worth sharing with the group:

    February 28, 2014

  • Chad B.

    An excerpt from Blake's "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion," describing "Three Forms. named Bacon & Newton & Locke": "Three strong sinewy Necks & Three awful & terrible Heads
    Three Brains in contradictory council brooding incessantly.
    Neither daring to put in act its councils, fearing each-other.
    Therefore rejecting Ideas as nothing & holding all Wisdom
    To consist, in the agreements & disagreents of Ideas.
    Plotting to devour Albions Body of Humanity & Love."

    Here is Blake's illustration of the scene, showing Bacon, Newton, and Locke streaming out of the chest of the central figure. Presumably Bacon is the leftmost (Janus-faced?) figure:

    1 · February 24, 2014

    • Rick O.

      The picture reminds me of the unveiling scene from "Phantom of the Opera." Once you tear off the mask of reason and see what lies beneath you're kinda creeped out.

      Reason cannot create - it can only devour fruits from the Prolific.

      February 24, 2014

    • Erik C.

      Blake is a visionary genius!

      3 · February 26, 2014

  • Chad B.

    In Rick's honor, it is time for another round of "translation roulette." Aphorism 86:

    Jonathan Bennett: "Just look at the structure
    and the classifications they bring with them! They seem to cover everything that could come up in that subject, and to the minds of the vulgar they present the form and plan of a perfected science; but really the classificatory units are little more than empty bookshelves."

    Basil Montague: "For, if you consider their method and divisions, they appear to embrace and comprise every thing which can relate to the subject. And although this fame be badly filled up, and resemble an empty bladder, yet it presents to the vulgar understanding the form and appearance of a perfect science."

    February 26, 2014

    • Rick O.

      if bookshelves are equated with bladder, what does that say about books?

      February 26, 2014

    • Rick O.

      oh, wait - the reference is to "perfect science" - now it makes sense.

      February 26, 2014

  • Rick O.

    I really like the Blake picture. Compare the background for scientific reason with the backgrounds used for Poetic Inspiration.

    1 · December 26, 2013

    • Chad B.

      "Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death." --Blake

      December 27, 2013

    • Rick O.

      "Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth."
      - Proverb of Hell

      1 · January 9, 2014

  • Chad B.

    I'm fascinated when eric-with-a-c shows up to my meetups. Then I learn that my interests (from George Lakoff to Moby-Dick) have an affinity to Buddhism.

    1 · December 26, 2013

    • eric

      I've been into philosophy long before I found Buddhism. Buddhism has been my praxis for 15 years after realizing my intellect was not the limitation in groking under developed consciousness was. But Buddhism is a wide net...anything in the west is gonna have correlates in the east. It could just be that we are friends Chad and I miss you! :-) Here is a koan for you...what isn't semiotics?

      1 · December 26, 2013

  • Chad B.

    NOTE: I have updated the reading for this meetup. We will start with Bacon instead of Locke.

    December 24, 2013

  • Josefina

    I may be out of town for this one, but this looks really interesting!

    1 · December 25, 2013

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