Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Normative Science

Most people know that Bacon wrote the goal of science was "the relief of man's estate." Much like Tocqueville, however, FLG thinks Bacon is one of those thinkers whom more people quote than read.

Well, your humble blogger has read Bacon, and he was pondering the entire passage from whence that came:

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been: a conjunction like unto that of the two highest planets, Saturn, the planet of rest and contemplation; and Jupiter, the planet of civil society and action, howbeit, I do not mean, when I speak of use and action, that end before-mentioned of the applying of knowledge to lucre and profession; for I am not ignorant how much that diverteth and interrupteth the prosecution and advancement of knowledge, like unto the golden ball thrown before Atalanta, which, while she goeth aside and stoopeth to take up, the race is hindered,

“Declinat cursus, aurumque volubile tollit.” {1}

Neither is my meaning, as was spoken of Socrates, to call philosophy down from heaven to converse upon the earth - that is, to leave natural philosophy aside, and to apply knowledge only to manners and policy. But as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the use and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations, and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful; that knowledge may not be as a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.

FLG won't offer a full analysis, but a few of quick, superficial thoughts that he's probably written before:
  1. There's this paradox whereby Bacon is trying to overturn the stature of Aristotle as The Philosopher, but simultaneously is drawing upon an explicitly religious and in particular a Christian view toward monetary acquisition, the initial seeds of which can probably be traced back directly to Book I of Aristotle's Politics.
  2. Not to press this into a genetic fallacy, but even at the commencement the scientific project was normative.  It's not about knowledge for knowledge's sake.  It's not about new knowledge for riches or glory.  It's the acquisition of knowledge for the conquest of the material world for the purpose of relieving man's physical suffering.
  3. To return to the Bacon Aristotle connection, Bacon's idea of cojoining contemplation and action sounds a lot like Aristotle's conception of a  spoudaios.

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