Monday, August 10, 2009

The Importance of Concepts for Bacon

Though Bacon adopted the term notion, he took discussion of it in a new direction. [McCaskey, “Regula Socratis,” 239]
Since about April of this year, if someone had asked what was Francis Bacon’s most important concept in his philosophy, I would’ve replied “‘induction’ , of course.” It wasn’t until reading Dr. John McCaskey’s Regula Socratis that I decided to change my mind. I’ve decided that the word “notion” is the most important for Bacon. The following is my summary of Bacon’s approach to knowledge in light of reading McCaskey’s dissertation.

(From Bacon’s usage of the word “notion” in his texts, it is synonymous with our general understanding of “concept,” so I will primarily use “concept” in the following paragraphs. A notion or concept for Bacon is a unit of thought that is abstracted from particulars, whether objects or other concepts, and is retained by a perceptual symbol, such as a word.)

I’ll discuss why concepts have so much importance for Bacon, what we must understand about reality to form them, the explicit method of induction he proposes that will allow us to form concepts with certainty, and what his account of concepts and induction imply about contemporary issues in logic.

…Everything Falls to Pieces

Bacon was perhaps the first philosopher to dramatize the importance of having proper concepts, and the negative consequences for us often not possessing them.

The formation of concepts is something that is under our control, and thus can be carried out well or badly: it is normative. The negative consequences for having poor concepts apply to both our minds and our ability to physically affect the world around us. In respect to our minds, vague and carelessly abstracted concepts effectively eliminate our success at gaining knowledge and thinking properly, and this in turn drastically impairs our ability to achieve practical ends and improve our lives.

An example would be a man attempting to cook some meat over a fire with only vague concepts of “medium,” “medium-well,” and “well-done“; his practical intent to cook the meat to a certain degree will in all likelihood go unfulfilled without a clear, well-defined guide. Clearly explained and understood conceptions of “medium,” “medium-well,” and “well-done,” as well as knowledge like “temperature” and “degrees Fahrenheit” would certainly assist him in accomplishing his task (and no doubt would assist with cooking other food items properly).

It was his consideration of concepts that led Bacon to reject deductive thinking (syllogisms) as the foundation of reasoning:
The syllogism consists of propositions, propositions consist of words, words are symbols of notions. Therefore if the notions themselves (which is the root of the matter) are confused and over hastily abstracted from the facts, there can be no firmness in the superstructure. [Bacon, Novum Organum, book 1, aphorism 14.]
And elsewhere: “And therefore if the very notions of the mind[…]are badly or carelessly abstracted from things[…]everything falls to pieces.” [Bacon, The Plan of the Work, my emphasis]

Here, Bacon is directly challenging the philosophers who defend deductive thinking as the foundation of reasoning and gaining knowledge, especially the neo-Aristotelians and neo-Platonists of his time and in the past. Without well-formed concepts, it is impossible to generate reliable words or propositions (or even thoughts), and as a consequence, it will be impossible to reach sound deductions.

(Interestingly, Ayn Rand agrees:
There are such things as invalid concepts, i.e., words that represent attempts to integrate errors, contradictions, or false propositions[…]or words without specific definitions, without referents, which can mean anything to anyone. […] An invalid concept invalidates every proposition or process of thought in which it is used as a cognitive assertion. [Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Invalid Concepts ] )
Bacon’s thought on this aspect of deductive thinking is rare, perhaps even novel. In current accounts of logic, it is typically deductions which are regarded as generating certain, necessary knowledge and truth, while inductions grant only probable knowledge; in Bacon’s view, deductions, at least as they were carried out in his time (and unfortunately as in our own modern philosophy) could only grant approximations of the truth, and more often than not were false or even ridiculous. Bacon thought that deductions, properly used in conjunction with his method of induction, could generate valid, certain conclusions. This is because he believed (along with Aristotle) that statements that agreed in the syllogism's middle term (the premises) also agree with each other (the deductive conclusion); properly formed deductions have a kind of "mathematical certainty." [Bacon, The Plan of the Work]

To state Bacon’s perspective briefly, without valid concepts, every type of conceptual identification or integration, such as a proposition or even a syllogism, “falls to pieces.”

It was this understanding of what concepts are, and what they are for, that motivated Bacon to discover a methodical theory of induction: the validity of concepts, and of all our knowledge and ability to be efficacious in the world, depended on it.

Bacon’s Metaphysics: Natures, Bodies, and Forms

To understand the world and form proper concepts, we must understand natures, Bacon’s word for attributes or properties that the objects of the world possess, such as “length,” “weight,” “density,” and “durability.” Understanding natures makes us eminently more capable of dealing with the world around us, which amounts to manipulating or altering the natures of objects in ways that are beneficial to us--in fact, this is essentially what human power is. “The task and purpose of human Power is to generate and superinduce on a given body a new nature or new natures,” Bacon aptly observes. [Novum Organum, book 2, aphorism 1] Going back to my cooking example, heating the meat changes its attributes, adding certain natures like a different flavor, heat, texture, color, size, shape, and tenderness, among others (while removing natures previously held). Understanding what concepts like “flavor” (or a certain kind of flavor), or “tenderness” mean will give a person the ability to create flavorful and tender qualities to any suitable body, at any time, anywhere. This is the "free Operation" and "liberty" that Bacon thought would be possible to us once we had well-formed concepts.

A series of logical and practical questions about induction should naturally arise: one can speak of “texture,” or “heat,” but how does one know what these natures (attributes) are? We can speak of giving a certain flavor or toughness to a piece of meat, but how do we figure out how to create such a change? And what exactly is the change? How do we know that what has effected these changes in the past will do so in the future, or that what has worked for a sample of instances will work in all instances of a kind?

The answer to all those questions can be given by finding the cause of natures. “The task and purpose of human Science is to find for a given nature its Form, or true difference, or causative nature or the source of it coming-to-be.” [Novum Organum, 2.1] The form of a nature is the given nature considered as a species or differentia of a more general and better-known nature, the genus.” A oceanic tide’s form, for instance, is a quantity of water subjected to gravitational pull (the species) and is also a kind of fluid motion (the genus). The form is also the source of the nature, that by which the nature comes to be what it is.

Referring back to the earlier questions, knowing the form will inform us how to change the natures of bodies, what the change will consist of, and whether or not the attempt to change will succeed in the future and for all the instances of a given kind. The “how” of understanding natures is essentially a discovery of their underlying forms.

“Nothing really exists except individual bodies,” Bacon remarks, meaning that natures only exist as aspects of given bodies, such as a ball, a school, or a person, never as a Platonic Form existing without material composition. [Novum Organum, 2.2>] To achieve the “task and purpose of human Power,” we must investigate bodies, identify the natures of bodies, and, most importantly, achieve the “task and purpose of human Science”--discover the causes (forms) of natures in bodies. Doing so will give one “true Thought,” the ability to comprehend the underlying similar natures of many disparate bodies and thus forming a well-defined concept, and “free Operation,” the ability to give bodies new natures at will by understanding the causes of various natures.

The kind of induction Bacon is discussing proposes to investigate the bodies of the world, discovering the causes of their natures, and thus validating concept-formation, definition, and inductive generalization and conclusion. This method will achieve the “task and purpose of human Science,” enabling us to achieve the “task and purpose of human Power.”

The New Instrument and Concepts

To truly gain knowledge, and thus gain power over the world to suit our ends, we must form clear and well-established concepts. To form such concepts, we cannot rely on the syllogism or strictly on deductive thinking, which is only effective at settling disputes and arguments, but not for understanding the nature of things. Nor can we rely on “induction by enumeration,” which is easily subdued by merely one contradictory instance (the “black swan” in relation to the induction that “all swans are white“). Rather, we must utilize a kind of induction that has not yet been attempted, one which assists the senses, stays firmly grounded to the facts of the world, and rises cautiously to more and more general knowledge.

Bacon’s theory of induction, presented in the Novum Organum (New Instrument) is in many ways unprecedented. Going beyond previous inductive thinkers like Socrates or Aristotle, Bacon held that discovering the essence of things is actually a matter of discovering the causes of natures in bodies. The means of carrying out this discovery would also be unheard of prior to Bacon: A true induction is not merely the result of surveying examples, in hopes of elucidating the essence by argument (as Socrates often tried, but failed), but is the result of us actively intervening in natural events by experiment. It is by experiment that we really discover the causes of natures in the world, by excluding other purported causes, and bringing ourselves closer to the underlying forces at work.

Induction is, at its root,"careful and extensive comparing, contrasting, suggesting, and excluding. At bottom, this procedure—and not an enumeration of similar instances—is what induction is." [McCaskey, Regula Socratis, 270]

One of the novelties of Bacon’s approach is his shift from particular subjects to the universal predicate. Copying McCaskey’s style for illustration, consider these statements:
The Mute swan of Toronto is white.
The Coscoroba swan of South America is white.
The Tundra swan of the Artic is white.
Flames from explosions are hot.
Flames from forest fires are hot.
A modern philosopher would ask the inductive questions: Are all swans white? Are all flames hot? By contrast, Bacon would ask: “What is the underlying nature of whiteness, or of heat? What is their cause?”

Bacon’s focus is on the predicate: Mute, Coscoroba, and Tundra swans are white; flames from explosions and forest fires are hot.

He proposes that if we can determine the cause of the predicate, of whiteness or of heat for instance, then we can form clear and valid concepts of such predicates, posit universal principles, and reach definite inductive conclusions, such as whether or not all swans are white.

His method is essentially the following, using his own example of “heat” for illustration:
(1) Collect observations.

(2) Arrange them in a way that facilitates comparing and contrasting:
Positive premises [this is hot, this too is hot, etc.], Contrary instances [this is not hot, neither is this, etc.], and Varying instances [This is seldom hot. This is sometimes hot.]

(3) Identify the formal cause of the nature under investigation.
(a) By comparing, contrasting, suggesting, and excluding,
(b) identify the genus.
Heat is motion . . .
(c) By comparing, contrasting, suggesting, and excluding,
(d) identify the differentia.
. . . of a certain type.

(4) Draw the universal conclusion.
Heat is a certain type of motion.
by conversion (justified because the essence has been identified):
[1]Anything with this certain type of motion is hot.
[2]All bodies of a certain kind have this certain type of motion.
[By conversion of [1] and [2]: [3] Therefore, all bodies of this kind are hot. [McCaskey, “Regula Socratis,” 269. Words in brackets are mine.]
In this manner, we can form correct predicate concepts, and reach sound inductive conclusions.

Concepts and Implications for Logic

Bacon’s belief is that an inference is only as good as the concepts that compose it. (Recall his criticism of the syllogism.) Of more significance is his belief that an inference is as good as its constituent concepts. If you possess a well-formed concept of “heat,” then you can make inductive inferences regarding heat with certainty.

The reason for this is that induction, as Bacon saw it, was not primarily about propositions: it was about concepts. Bacon doesn’t focus on propositions--for example, a person trying to determine if the proposition “all flames are hot” is true by relying on several propositions about various kinds of flames being hot. Focusing on propositions is a hopeless endeavor if one’s very ideas are not clearly defined and formed, Bacon insists. Inductions are not made valid by stacking more and more propositions on top of each other, or enumerating more and more cases; rather, they are made valid by identifying the formal causes of the constituent concepts.

This has an important application to current issues in logic.

In contemporary philosophy, induction is referred to as “ampliative,” and deduction “non-ampliative.” In a deductive argument, nothing new or unknown in the initial premises is later stated in the conclusion: the conclusion “Socrates is mortal” is contained in the premises that “All men are mortal” and that “Socrates is a man,” for example. An inductive argument, by contrast, extends ("ampliates") beyond its particular premises: starting from the mortality of particular individuals, and resulting in the universal conclusion that all men are mortal. What could justify this ampliation?

As identified by McCaskey, Bacon’s approach to induction implies that ampliation happens at the conceptual level, not at the propositional level as presumed by current logic textbooks and philosophers. If mortality is “being subject to the cessation of life,” then the concept “mortality” applies to all men because the concept applies to more individuals than those presented in the premises, and that is what justifies the universal conclusion.

Perhaps most important for the study of inductive arguments is what Bacon has said about concepts and their relation to propositions and induction. There are proper and improper methods for forming concepts, and in turn, there are proper and improper ways of coming to inductive generalizations and conclusions. Inductive arguments and conclusions are themselves propositions, and “propositions consist of words, words are symbols of notions.” Determining whether an inductive conclusion is true or false has little to do with how many particular cases have been enumerated, or if there should be a worry concerning unobserved, possibly contradicting instances (the “black swan”). Rather, it essentially is a matter of determining whether the concepts used in the argument are correctly defined.

McCaskey offers a telling example:
Consider the canonical story about swans. You observe an extended series of white swans and, with inductive confidence, conclude that all swans are white. Someone shows you a black swan and says, ‘Look! Not all swans are white. No matter how many white swans you see, you cannot be sure there is not a black one. Induction is inherently unreliable.’ To avoid conceding, you could simply reply, ‘That black thing is not a swan.’ [McCaskey, “Induction and Concept-Formation in Francis Bacon and William Whewell,” 1-2]
The issue of whether or not all swans are white cannot be resolved unless what “black,” “white,” “all,” and “swan” mean are directly addressed. In general, no inductive conclusion can be considered certain or false without understanding the conclusion’s constituent concepts.


Bacon's interest in concepts and in expanding human power took him far, leading to a new philosophy, in particular a novel theory of induction and of how to gain knowledge (epistemology) and what exists in the world (metaphysics). In addition, he described what science--and all knowledge--should be concerned with, and the goal he identified was the betterment of human life.

The importance of concepts for Bacon is that we need properly formed ones to think, act, and ultimately, to live.


  1. A real pleasure to read. I'm eager to see what else you come up with here.

    If you need a good source for Novum Organum, see the entry in Wikisource. I've posted three different translations there.

  2. Let me add my voice to those saying thank you for sharing your explorations of such an important subject as induction.

    I have a couple of questions:

    1) What do you mean by "identify the formal cause"? Explicitly identify the primary cause?

    2)Are Bacon's "bodies" the same as Rand's "entities"?

  3. Roderick,

    Thank you! You have augmented the scope of my appreciation of Bacon by at least two or three orders of magnitude...

  4. Hey William. I've been meaning to get back to you on your question, but I've had other things to do.

    Answer 1: The "formal cause" could be any number of attributes or causes, whatever amounts to the nature in question, not just the "primary" one. I'll note that Bacon doesn't spend too much time discussing what he thinks "formal cause" means: he assumes the reader knows of Aristotle's four causes and knows therefore what a "formal cause" is, and lightly discusses the four causes in relation to his view of induction.

    Answer 2: I'm pretty sure they are. Bodies for Bacon seem to be anything composed of natures. Bacon thought his method of induction could be applied to all fields of study, not only those involving physical objects (not that I'm suggesting you're saying that). I think he would call the mind a "body" too, in the sense that it too is composed of various natures, and "human Power" may be applied to it to give it new natures.