Dr Tom Kerns

Introduction to Francis Bacon's
"Idols that Beset Men's Minds"

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was, as you will see when you look at his essay, an English statesman, essayist and philosopher. One his most famous and influential books was titled Novum Organum (1620). That title translates as The New Instrument and it's purpose was to lay out a whole new way of coming to know about the world, a method that would be based on direct experience, empirical data, testing, etc., rather than just on reason or divine revelation. Bacon is generally considered to be one of the early originators of what we now refer to as "the scientific method," and this book is his outline of what that method should be.

The short essay you will be reading, titled "Idols that Beset Men's Minds," is taken from an early section of The Novum Organum.

If you have ever taken an Introduction to Biology course you know that the first lab project is to study the microscope. The reason for that is because the microscope will be one of the main tools you will be using during the rest of the class to study various aspects of different life forms, and it is important to understand how exactly that tool works. You will want to learn what it's strengths and limitations are so that you can use it to understand life forms better.

Bacon does something similar in The Novum Organum. He spends the early chapters of the book looking at the human mind and how it works, because the mind will be the main instrument we use when we go out and look at the world. Bacon thinks that if we do not start by understanding the instrument that will be doing the knowing, then we could make some big mistakes in our understanding of what the world is and how it works.

As part of his examination of how the mind works he examines some of the distortions that the mind sometimes accidentally introduces into its perceptions. If we are not aware of these distortions, these obstacles to accurate knowing, we could make significant mistakes in our judgments about what the world is like.

Here's just one quick example: Bacon says that one characteristic of the human mind is that it is hungry to see order in its universe, and if, when it looks out at the world it does not immediately see orderliness, it will unconsciously project some sort of order onto it. When we look up into the night sky, for example, and see a broad variegated field of dots of light up there, one of the first things we want to do is project some sort of order onto it. So we start arranging those dots of light into shapes, like animals and eating utensils, and mythological figures. There is no actual "dipper" in the sky, of course, nor are the stars that form the big dipper actually anywhere near each other. But since we do like to see order in things, we will do whatever we can to impose some sort of order on the complex mass of our perceptions.

Did you know that, despite what appears to be a huge variety of human personalities, there are really only four basic personality types? Actually I'm wrong. There are in fact seventeen basic personalities. Woops, no, there are really nine different kinds of personalities....

I have no idea which of these claims is true, if any of them are, but I can tell you that all of them, each taken from a different personality theorist, are attempts to impose some sort of order on the unbelievable variety of human personalities. This is just one more example of how strong the tendency is in our minds to want to see order out there, even if there is no order evident there.

Bacon thinks that we should be aware of this tendency of the mind to project order onto the world even when there may be no order there. He thinks we should be aware of this tendency because it may work to introduce little distortions into our perception of what is actually out there in the world. He thinks we should be aware of this tendency so that we can, if need be, correct for it when it comes time to figure out what the world out there is actually like.

So what Bacon does in this essay is just catalog what some of those distortions are that the human mind, by its own little tendencies and imperfections, can introduce into its perceptions. He thinks there are four categories of distortions.

      1. Those distortions common to the whole human tribe (idols of the tribe);
      2. Those distortions that apply to certain groups of people more than others -- i.e., people who live in one cave rather than another (idols of the cave);
      3. Those distortions caused by our inaccurate and unclear use of words and language (idols of the marketplace); and
      4. Those distortions introduced by the various philosophies, theologies and world views that people believe (idols of the theater).

Let's look at just one example from each category:

1. Tribe

The example of desiring to see more order in the universe than is actually there is one of his examples of an idol of the tribe. He thinks that we all suffer from that one.

2. Cave

An example of an idol of the cave (one of Bacon's examples) is that some minds are more drawn to new things and new ideas than they are to what has been around for a long time, while other minds are more drawn to "tradition" and "old school" ideas and ways than they are to newness. Bacon thinks we should become aware what our own tendency is so that we can make corrections for it. He hopes that by becoming aware of our own mind's tendencies toward loving novelty or tradition that we might be able to "correct" for them and then hopefully see things more clearly and truly.

3. Marketplace

We often use words very loosely in common discourse. Bacon sees nothing wrong with that when we are just speaking ordinary language with friends and family. But, when it comes to trying to describe the world accurately and precisely, we should be aware of our tendency to use words loosely and should try to correct for it. When we are trying to speak precisely we should probably not say things like "The mountain is out today" (anyone outside of the Puget Sound area wouldn't have a clue what this means); or "The sun went under a cloud" (the sun did not go anywhere, let along underneath something); or "The sun came up this morning" (the earth actually just rotated). None of those sentences is precisely true, and if we use language imprecisely like this it can sometimes accidentally lead to huge misapprehensions about the world. Bacon thinks this misuse of words and language causes far more problems than we realize.

4. Theater

If you can think of someone you know who has recently bought into a whole new religion or philosophy or psychology, you can probably see how they have suddenly come to interpret everything in the universe according to their new world view. That world view has become the new lens through which they perceive and interpret everything in their world. What Bacon says, though, is that we all do this. We all interpret the world through the lens of our own little world view. It's just easier to see other people doing it than it is to see ourselves doing it. Bacon thinks we should become aware of how these world views shape and distort our own perceptions of the world so that we might be able to correct for it a bit.

So that's a very brief overview of Bacon's essay. It just hits the main highlights. Your job now, with this skeletal outline, is to try to understand all the rest of his essay (and there is lots more than I've said here).

To help with this I've gone ahead and labeled the different parts of the essay so that you can see what he's discussing in the different parts. (That long last part, by the way, where he is giving examples of different philosophies popular in his time, probably won't make a lot of sense to you unless you are very familiar with the history of philosophical thought in the early modern period in Europe. So just get what you can from those pages, and don't worry too much about the rest.)

So that's it. The study questions are intended to help you discover some of Bacon's main points. The discussion questions are for you to explore with each other in seminar.

So go to it.

Bacon's Essay

Questions for Bacon's Essay