Title: Do we know anything for certain ?

How to learn to ? .... go here.

Background | Information | Essay | Argument | Conclusion | Lesson

Write for five minutes without stopping:

How does the author...

Francis Bacon use the term idol?

1.2.3. Approach:

1.2.3. Approach:

A photo of the apparent motion of the planets in the solar system taken in time-lapse photography displaying how the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) appear to move in a loop, called retrograde motion with respect to the earth.

Francis Bacon lived between 1561-1626


He attended Trinity College, Cambridge University
He is considered an Elizabethan & Jacobethan renaissance materialist writer, historian, and jurist, who rejected the Platonic & Aristotelian traditions of antiquity. He favored experimental activity to advance what we know. The saying "knowledge is power," is attributed to Bacon.

English solicitor, Member of Parliament, knight, statesmen, writer, convicted criminal (bribery) advocated a moderate Irish reform policy ( as opposed to Henry & Elizabeth’s invasions) he published between 1597 & 1625

§ § §

In 1622 he wrote The New Atlantis where he promoted “scientific academies” for advancement of society.

Return to start of page


The Four Idols” by Francis Bacon (1620, Novum Organum)

Bacon believed that:
common modes of thought; idiosyncratic errors, too great a dependence on precise language to convey truth, and the dead hand of traditional, unchallenged authority frequently hampered the human acquisition of knowledge and hindered the collective understanding of nature.

Nature had to be understood and copied in order to be mastered.

He insisted on an inductive method of logic to discern errors in understanding nature.

By “ampliative inference”
Bacon meant that we infer meaning by means of an analogy from the characteristics or properties of a single datum, the characteristics and properties of the larger group to which that datum belonged -- leaving to later experience the correction of evident errors.

Bacon established his reputation as an advocate for unbiased, accurate observation in the sciences that should be scrutinized by others.

Return to start of page


By common modes of thought we mean: idols, fictions, presumptions, follies and fallacies that we are normally unaware of in our prejudice for learning.

Idols false images or actual objects to believe in or worship, see the Four Idols

flaws are imperfections inherent in the composition of things

fallacies are errors in judgment, mistaken assumptions.

fancies are common, personal preferences, likes or affections for people or things.

Bacon believed that “truth is to be sought for not in the felicity of any age, which is an unstable thing, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal.”


Return to start of page


1584-1595 Member of the House of Commons
mediator between the court of Queen Elizabeth & Parliament
1603 advocated and masterminded the legal unification of England & Scotland
Knighted & made commissioner of the Union of England & Scotland
1605 wrote the Advancement of Learning for James 1st
1607 named Solicitor General
1613 appointed Attorney General
1617 Privy Councilor
1618 Lord Chancellor of United England & Scotland
1619 became a peer of the realm: Baron Verulam.
1620 Novum Organum…Interpretations of Nature ; about facts of natural history
1621 raised to Viscount St. Albans.
1621 Charged, tried, and convicted by Parliament of taking bribes ; fined £40,000
1621 pardoned
in September by James I


return to start of page


The Four Idols are really a metaphor depicting the four serious errors in judgment. These are flaws, fallacies or fancies in the logical exercise of reason due to common, personal, social & dogmatic qualities of our character.

The idol of the tribe, the idol of the cave, the idol of the theatre, & the idol of the marketplace.

“truth is to be sought for not in the felicity of any age, which is an unstable thing, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal.”

see worldview concept.

Contemplation of nature and of bodies in their simple form break and distract the understanding… overpower and dissolve understanding:”

An ancient dialectical argument about reality:
lost in the eidola (ideal)
exclusion of structure
admiration of the structure
atoms in a void
excluding the simplicity of nature

return to start of page

idols of the Cave… education. , habit, and accident”

“have most effect in disturbing the clearness of the understanding.… ideas” to which we of convenience have become habituated or “partial”

“let every student of nature take this as a rule,-- that whatever the mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion and so much the more care is to be taken”

idols of the marketplace: … . lead men away in numberless empty controversies or idle fancies.”

“But the idols of the marketplace are most troublesome of all idols which have crept into the understanding through the alliances of words and names.”

“An understanding of greater acuteness”
replace the conventional wisdom of any peculiar period (zeitgeist)

“a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature
-- might dispel --

“words stand in the way and resist the change.”

Bacon blames:
philosophical narrowness
(which excluded experimentation & observation under the scrutiny of logic)
Plato & neo-platonists
theological bent (untamed, unexamined , uncritical exegesis of sacred & transcendent meaning)

Idols of the Theater
“movement of souls”
“Pythagoras…, Plato and his school.”

identified with “cumbrous superstition”
“entrance into the kingdom of man.”

Return to start of page



Bacon was a powerful and influential member of the Court of King James, during the time of William Shakespeare. He wanted to reform society by creating a class of people whose sole purpose was the investigation of nature in order to make useful contributions to society.

In doing so, Bacon believed, these researchers, motivated by a curiosity and a search for verification in experience, would lead to the improvement of the human condition

Link to explaining the parts of this page


Any attempt to examine what people believe in must account for widespread assumptions that are rarely questioned and a set of unstated biases that influence what is accepted as real, true or trustworthy information. Sir Francis Bacon was, according to many, and astute observer of the follies of his age and he sought to correct the commonly held superstitions that people, even educated people harbored. His examination of the prevailing mistakes and prejudices of his era were addressed in a utopian work, Novum Organum, or the New Order, is a selection he called "the four idols." He believed that these delusional propensities in humans were due to our character, upbringing, experience and surroundings.

Believing in errors besides leading to serious mistakes can be seen as the origins of folly. Any folly involves the inability to distinguish what we believe to be true from what is really occurring.

return to start of page


Bacon suggested that “the corruption of philosophy by superstition and an admixture of theology is far more widely spread.” And this tainting of reason by theological prophecy and belief in unsupported and undemonstrated fears undermines a society's capacity to meet the imperious problems faced by every age.

“abstract forms of first and final causes”

Bacon argued against Aristotle’s 4 causes: immediate, efficient, formal, & final in favor of the efficient (hot air rises) and formal causes, such as ice floats on water, or at 32 degrees and below, liquid water solidifies into ice.

“there is taken… a great deal out of a few things, or a very little out of many things.”

return to start of page


“let every student of nature take this as a rule,-- that whatever the mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion and so much the more care is to be taken”

Alexander von Humboldt's father was an army officer, died when he was nine years old so he and his older brother Wilhelm were raised by their aloof and emotionless mother. Tutors provided their early education which was based on languages and mathematics. He was among the most famous men of his time, a polymath and Renaissance man in an age of genius, perhaps the greatest naturalist and explorer of the nineteenth century, was born on 14 September 1769 in Berlin, Prussia.

Charles Darwin described von Humboldt as "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived." He is widely respected as a founder of modern geography. Alexander von Humboldt's travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed western science in the nineteenth century. From 1799-1804, he visited Latin America, studying natural history and geology on a scientific exploration accompanied by botanist Aime Bonpland.

Alexander von Humboldt, whose ten volumes of Cosmos was a comprehensive look at knowledge of nature in the early 1800s (19th Century). He traveled to South America an d thus popularized naturalists traveling to take stock of the Earth. In Cosmos, his intention was to write a popular scientific book which would give the educated public a picture of the whole of the natural world and would lead to an expanded appreciation of scientific study. The book was a great success and was translated into most of the European languages, selling thousands of copies in a relatively short period. Humboldt died while working on the fifth, and final, volume.

return to start of page


"...in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal."

Christian Huygens who differed with Isaac Newton over light being composed of waves.


We must be skeptical always of untested or unobserved evidence.

return to start of page

Title | Background | Information | Essay | Argument | Conclusion | Lesson

Link to explaining the parts of this page