attualità di Bacone?

Weighing Experience: Experimental Histories and Francis Bacon’s Quantitative Program

by Cesare Pastorino, University of Sussex

Pubblichiamo qui l'abstract e il primo capitolo di un lavoro di ricerca di Cesare Pastorino, della University of Sussex, per gentile concessione dell'autore. Il lavoro è stato pubblicato in Early Science and Medecine 16 (2011) 542-570. Il testo è in inglese. A breve ne riporteremo la traduzione in italiano. Bacone e' veramente un autore notevole, quando lo si legge approfonditamente senza star dietro a certi stereotipi. E' indubbiamente il primo vero filosofo della sperimentazione. Il primo filosofo che cerca di esaminare le caratteristiche degli esperimenti in concreto. Forse è da riscoprire, ci pare che abbia molto da insegnare - pur tenendo conto della distanza storica della sua riflessione. N.d.R.


Weighing of experience was a central concern of what Bacon called the “literate” stage of experimentation. As early as 1608, Bacon devised precise tenets for standard, quantitative reporting of experiments. These ideas were later integrated into his experimental histories proper. Bacon’s enquiry of dense and rare is the best example of experientia literata developed in a quantitative fashion. I suggest that Bacon’s ideas on this issue can be tied to experiments for the determination of specific gravities born in a monetary context: Bacon’s investigation was very likely a generalization of Jean Bodin’s experiments in Universae naturae theatrum (1596). Overall, Bacon’s program of quantification calls for a revision of established historiographical notions, especially Thomas Kuhn’s sharp dichotomy between a mathematical and a Baconian experimental tradition in seventeenth-century science.

1 - introduction: History Mechanical” and experientia literata

In Francis Bacon’s philosophy of experiment, proper recording of e xperience acquired a paramount role.

For Bacon, the composition of experimental accounts was an integral part of the experimental process: ex perimental activity ended only when experience was reported and written down. The locus classicus of this conception can be found in aphorism 101 of Book I of Novum Organum:

"So far mental effort has had a much more important part to play in discovering than has writing, and indeed experience has yet to be made literate. And no discovery should be sanctioned save that it be put in writing. Only when that becomes standard practise, with experience at last becoming literate, should we hope for better things."(1)

Experience finally “becoming literate,” or experientia literata, provided the correct material for natural and experimental histories, the proper basis out of which to build natural philosophy and reach the higher philosophical stages of Bacon’s New Organon.

Experientia literata also included an operational side. In De augmentis scientiarum, Bacon identified it with eight different “modes of experimentation,” rules of thumb through which new experiments and technical inventions could be devised and “translated” from previous, existing ones. A two-sided activity, experientia literata was at the same time concerned with the production of experiments and their presentation in structured, systematic accounts. However, experimentation reached its “literate” stage only if detailed in written reports. In this paper, I specifically concentrate on some features of this second aspect of experientia literata.(2)

(1)  “Atque hactenùs tamen potiores Meditationis partes, quàm Scriptionis in inveniendo fuerunt; neque adhùc Experientia literata facta est: Atquì nulla nisi de Scripto inventio probanda est. Illâ verò in usum veniente, ab Experientiâ factâ demùm literatâ, meliùs sperandum.” Novum Organum, in the Instauratio Magna, part II: Novum Organum and Associated Texts, Graham Rees and Maria Wakely, eds., Vol. 11 of the Oxford Francis
Bacon (Oxford, 2004), 158-59.
(2)  On experientia literata, see the important articles by Lisa Jardine, “Experientia Literata or Novum Organum? the Dilemma of Bacon’s Scientific Method,” in W.A. Sessions, ed., Francis Bacon’s Legacy of Texts (New York, 1990), 47-67; Sophie Weeks, “the Role of Mechanics in Francis Bacon’s ‘Great Instauration’,” in Claus Zittel, Gisela Engel, Romano Nanni, and Nicole C. Karafyllis, eds., Philosophies of Technology: Francis Bacon and his Contemporaries (2 vols) (Leiden, 2008), 1: 133-95; and Rhodri Lewis,
“A Kind of Sagacity: Francis Bacon, the Ars Memoriae and the Pursuit of Natural Knowledge,” Intellectual History Review, 19 (2009), 155-77.

Francis Bacon’s initial thoughts on the notion of experientia literata are intertwined with the plans for the preparation of a “mechanical history,” or history of the experiments of the mechanical arts. Already in 1605, Bacon stressed the importance of a “History Mechanical, … of all others the most radical and fundamental towards natural philosophy.” Such history, Bacon stated in The Advancement of Learning,

"will not only minister and suggest for the present many ingenious practices in all trades, by a connexion and transferring of the observations of one art to the use of another, when the experiences of several mysteries shall fall under the consideration of one man’s mind; but further it will give a more true and real illumination concerning causes and axioms than is hitherto attained."(3)

As he later explained in Novum Organum, this was in fact the prerequisite for the research program of experientia literata:

"When all the experiments of all the arts have been collected and arranged, and come within one man’s knowledge and judgment, many new things, useful to our life and condition, can be discovered by means of that very translation of experiments from one art to others, i.e. by that experience which I have called literate."(4)

An often-overlooked passage from Commentarius Solutus, Francis Bacon’s private notebook of 1608, clearly shows that Bacon’s thoughts on a “History Mechanical” also helped to shape his ideas regarding the sort of written reports necessary to render experience literate. In the Commentarius, Bacon laid down strict requirements on how to record information regarding the experiments of the arts. Bacon had in mind systematic statements in which to specify important aspects of a particular technical process:

"To procure an History mechanique to be compiled with care and diligence and to professe it that is of the experimts and observations of all Mechanicall Arts. The places or thinges to be inquyred are; first the materialls, and their quantities and proportions; Next the Instrumts and Engins requesite; then the use and adoperation of every Instrumt; then the woork it self and all the processe thereof wth the tymes and seasons of doing every part thereof. Then the Errors wch may be comytted, and agayn those things wch conduce to make the woorke in more perfection. Then all observacions, Axiomes, directions. Lastly all things collaterall incidt or intervenient."(5)

3) Advancement of Learning, in the Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 2002),178.
4) Novum Organum, aphorism 103, book I; in the Instauratio Magna, part II, 161.
5) Commentarius Solutus, in Francis Bacon, Works, James Spedding, Robert L. Ellisand Douglas D. Heath, eds. (London, 1857–1874), 11: 65-66. (the Spedding edition has a single open bracket between ‘diligence’ and ‘and to professe’, which I have omitted). It is worthwhile to remember that Bacon related this project to that of the establishment of a college for inventors in the mechanical arts, a true laboratory and workshop in which to develop experientia literata; ibid., 66-67.
6) See Philosophical Studies c. 1611–c. 1619, ed. Graham Rees, vol. 6 of the Oxford Francis Bacon (Oxford, 1996),  Introduction, xxvii. I will discuss Phænomena universi and Historia densi et rari more fully in a following section.
(7) To stimulate “human industry,” among such observations Bacon inserted two new categories, namely the “Vellicationes de Practica,” or “incentives to practice” (these are added for “men’s attention and memory,” given that “I well know that such … is their stupidity that sometimes they do not see what is in front of their noses”), as well as the “Res impossibiles,” or “things deemed impossible” or at least “so far undiscovered.” Norma Historiæ præsentis, in the Instauratio Magna, Part III: Historia Naturalis and Historia Vitae, ed. Graham Rees and Maria Wakely; vol. 12 of the Oxford Francis Bacon (Oxford, 2007), 12-17.

It is noteworthy that this scheme, initially conceived to describe the experiments of the arts in a “History mechanique,” will be used more generally as a template for the accounts of Bacon’s experimental histories. Bacon’s first attempt at one, the Phaenomena universi of 1610-1611, already showed an arrangement that was clearly inspired by the model of the Commentarius. The Phaenomena included detailed accounts of experiments, the “Historiae” which gave precise and quantitative information on the apparatus and the experimental process under consideration. Following the sketch of the Commentarius, together with the Historiae Bacon included “Monita,” or suggestions for the improvement of experiments, and general observations (“Observationes”) with preliminary conclusions on causes. (6) The De fluxu et refluxu maris of 1611 added to these elements the “Mandata,” or directions and prescriptions for future enquiries. In the Historia naturalis et experimentalis of 1622 Bacon was to employ all the practices already described in his plan of 1608. In the prefatory section titled Norma Historiae praesentis he again highlighted the paramount role of “Historiae” and experimental ac counts. In accordance with his previous Commentarius, Bacon also included in his histories “advice and cautions about the fallacies of things, and the errors and snags which may crop up in the course of inquiring and discovering,” also incorporating personal interpretations, speculations, provisional rules and theoretical conclusions.(7)


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2. recording experience

However, the central and primary parts of Bacon’s accounts are the “Historiæ” and descriptions of actual experiments. It is interesting to note that, in the Latin texts of the Instauratio, in order to refer to the thorough recording of histories, Bacon repeatedly uses the term “perscribere,” a verb that, in a dictionary of Bacon’s time, is translated as
“to write through, or to an end: to write at length or at large: to register or to enroll.”(8)


3. weighing experience

Bacon’s aim, then, is that of weighing and evaluating experience. This is a very important point, because Bacon’s setting down of experience “in writing” is not a generic process of textual recording. Not all experiential
textual records are acceptable, but only those in which observations are rigorously evaluated and –as far as possible– counted, weighed, and measured. It is only this further stage of weighing and assessing that makes experience  “literate.”


4. weighing dense and rare: from Vulacno to Minerva

The investigation of dense and rare was Bacon’s first subject of choice for the development of an original natural history.26 The initial result of this enquiry was the Phænomena universi, composed in the period of 1610-1611. The Phænomena universi expanded subsequently into the Historia densi et rari. Bacon never published this text, even though, in the Historia naturalis et experimentalis of 1622, he included it among the titles of the histories he pledged to compose in the next six months as the first examplars of a full project of histories—“one … for each month that the goodness of God … prolongs my life.”(27)


5. On Bacon's method for the determination of specific gravities

If Archimedean suggestions inform Bacon’s indirect investigations on the quantity of matter in substances, it is also important to establish that his experimental methods strongly differed from those employed by early modern authors belonging to the mathematical Archimedean tradition. As a matter of fact, for the Victorian editors of his works, Bacon’s attempt to measure specific gravities without making use of hydrostatic principles was very puzzling. In his introduction to the istoria densi et rari, Robert Leslie Ellis, comparing Bacon’s method of weighing to those employed by Giambattista della Porta and Marino Ghetaldi, defined it as “the most unmanageable of all.” In fact, he
qualified Bacon’s technique as highly unskillful: “nothing can be more inartificial than the process employed.” Bacon

6. Specific Gravities: the Monetary Context and the Issue of Coin Counterfeiting

It useful to start this brief digression considering Jean Bodin’s Universae naturae theatrum (1596). Ann Blair has  reminded us that in this work, Bodin rarely reported quantitative facts, usually collecting “qualitative and descriptive” information

7. Quantification and Mathematics in Bacon

My analysis indicates that the weighing of experience was a key aspect of Bacon’s natural and experimental histories. “Weighing of experience” assumed a spectrum of meanings, ranging from the metaphorical to the literal. The latter included quantification of experiments, an integral part of experientia literata, the organizing principle of Bacon’s histories. Following the principles of experientia literata, Bacon explicitly stressed the necessity of producing—whenever possible—quantitative experiments, providing precise measurements of the properties under connsideration.


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