that of the skeptics, elements that undermine the proximity reappear. Especially in the
passage quoted above, they are projected in the form of a more general opposition
between his philosophy and that of the Ancients. In fact, Bacon frequently stresses how
the forms of human knowledge are related, amongst other aspects, to their time and
place of origin, and to the society that produced them, and in general tends to condemn
the wisdom of the Greeks by ascribing to it a rather professorial and rhetorical
approach, which prevented it from going deeper in the quest for truth.
In a passage of
with those who, in his view, with more or less dignity, were all Sophists.
reveal an agreement with the skeptics — that is to say, the philosophers with whom they
were most connected, despite their antiquity? Moreover, he offers us details about the
points on which he was in agreement with them, namely about their “wise sayings”
concerning the precariousness of the senses and human intellect, as well as the
suspension of assent.
However peculiar the way in which these themes are dealt with
theories and their methods up to that time.
See N.O., I §32, 34, 61.
N.O. I, §71
This is why it does not seem to us quite exact to affirm that Bacon makes “non-explicit use” of “skeptical
him “skeptical”, even though “mitigated” or “constructive”. Bacon stresses that it is not possible for there to be a
society between his philosophy and that of the Ancients, a remark that has a conceptual range which has to be
taken into account if we want to understand how he reconciles his avowed proximity to this philosophy with his
of “purifying the understanding” with a view to obtaining the truth, it could be thought
that this doctrine already overcomes the skeptical point of view. But things are not that
simple. However different the Baconian idols may be from skeptical modes of
suspension, and although its exposition aims at surmounting them (and not at repeating
them indefinitely), Bacon never stops stressing the difficulty and limits of this task
before the power of such impediments. He qualifies two types of idols as being “innate”
(namely the idola tribus, regarding our cognitive faculties, and the idola specus,
regarding our individual differences), as opposed to those which, although
“adventitious” (the idola fori and the idola theatri), maintain close relations with the
former idols. And whereas the adventitious idols, as he says, are quite difficult to root
out, the innate ones are described as impossible to eradicate:
All that can be done is to point them out, so that the insidious action of the mind may be
of the ill complexion of the mind itself, and so we shall have but a change of errors, not a
Thus, it is not just a question of neutralizing the idols that block access to truth,
like a fortuitous refutation of skepticism. Even if there are, according to Bacon,
effective measures to consistently face them before going down the path of research —
such as what he presents as signs (signa) of the sad state of current philosophy, as well
as the causes of this phenomenon
— the only proper cure would, in his view, lie in the
As he says
Distributio operis, Sp. I, 139; IV, 27
N.O. I, §70. These signs and causes are effectively discussed near the exposition of the idols, in N.O. I, §§71-91
See N.O., I §40. In I § 36, Bacon says that the only way to transmit the method is to carry men to the particular
new on tablets before having erased the earlier inscriptions, it will be hard to erase the
earlier inscriptions in the spirit without having written something new.
Far from being
of knowledge of nature is, to some extent, a condition of its self-overcoming. But the
access to such knowledge, although restricted, does not necessarily imply the total
extinction of those impediments. One of the ways to comprehend the tortuous situation
that seems to be brought about here consists in accepting that we still have, to some
degree, the same cognitive impediments, as, by the same token, the method still
operates according to an incomplete formulation, based on insufficient experimental
material or provisional conclusions.
But if this is indeed the case, the same agreement
temporary. For if a type of methodical incorporation of skepticism does correspond to
the initial affinity that Bacon acknowledged between his philosophy and that of the
skeptics, although it eventually reveals itself as a complete opposition, everything looks
as if the progression towards the knowledge of things could be understood as the
continuous overcoming of this partial agreement.
This being so, the problem of determining how and at what moment in this
progression the overcoming would take place turns out to be a relevant one. Indeed, the
reservations expressed by Bacon in the manifestations of his affinity with the skeptics
offer a strong indication that it is worth searching for “preparatory” elements of that
Sp. III, p. 557-558
According to Oliveira, “Bacon’s method of science is not... the harbor that, maybe as it is to Descartes, would
assure the access to certainty...” (OLIVEIRA, 2002, p. 77) But we should not infer from the recognition of such
difficulties that Bacon gave up hope of attaining certitude through his method. Since for Bacon the object of
knowledge is reality, even though we cannot gain a perfect knowledge, universal and necessary, of it before the
final step of the Instauratio, the intermediate steps will carry some definite degrees of certainty (see MALHERBE,
1996, pp. 80, 85, 90, 93-94). This distinction seems relevant if we wish to see better how Bacon understood his
position with regard to skepticism.