Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Scientific Conquest

Sir Francis Bacon is the father of modern philosophy. He has been described as the “greatest philosopher” by John Dewey and was considered one of the three greatest men by Thomas Jefferson (alongside Newton and Locke). Bacon’s Novum Organum (or Instrument of the New Science, or just New Science) was a momentous change in the history of philosophy of the philosophy of nature (and human nature). His main arguments were that scientific knowledge is reducible to matter (reductionist materialism), rejection of a priori knowledge or reasoning (thus promoting a posteriori empiricism), and his separation of man from nature. It is the latter of these three key arguments which I am going to cover in this overview of Bacon’s influential text.

The Ancient View

The classical and biblical view of man was that man was in an organic relationship with the natural (or created) world. While man was special insofar of being the greatest animal of nature (at the top of the natural hierarchy), the major theme of classical and biblical anthropology was that man was not separated from, or separate from, nature. There are distinctions, as Aristotle explains, between man and the rest of nature, but man is equally part of this web of nature which he exists in.

Another important conception of man and nature in the ancient view was the “dominion” or stewardship ethos found in Genesis. Man ought to take care of the garden he is in and the flourishing garden will also lead to the flourishing of all: creation and creature alike.  Thus, the ancient view does not regard nature as something hostile but as something that man has power over but with that power comes responsibility. Namely the responsibility of stewardship.

Bacon’s “Empire of Man”

Although Bacon was a materialist and monist, meaning that all existence could be reduced to matter as the singular substance of reality (which is logically necessitated from his reductionism), his philosophy produces a functional dualism – something that is a common feature of modern philosophy especially after Descartes. This functional dualism within Bacon’s philosophy is because of his “empire of man” and how Bacon separates man from nature.

For Bacon, man is superior to nature. But man is also alienated from nature. Nature is harsh and unforgiving and something that needs to be conquered. Rather than seeing man as part of the web of nature, Bacon sees man as existing in a natural empire. His domain is nature itself which he has the power to instrumental transform and know, “Man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to things or the mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.”

While much of the Novum Organum deals with aphorisms which merit Bacon’s analysis, the impetus of Bacon’s first part of the book is dealing with how man can come to know and conquer nature. Man’s empire lay at his feet. It is a nature that needs man to tame it, conquer it, and subdue it. The subjugation of nature occurs through industry and man’s pursuit of knowledge. According to Bacon the two go together. The conquest of nature and the acquisition of knowledge is what help leads to “the relief of man’s estate” which makes him prosperous, strong, and happy.

In order for man to know nature he must conquer nature through industry, “Man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to things or the mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.” Moreover, this conquest of nature through industry and scientific discovery also leads to man’s material improvement (e.g. through wealth):

For whoever passes in review the variety of subjects, and the beautiful apparatus collected and introduced by the mechanical arts for the service of mankind, will certainly be rather inclined to admire our wealth than to perceive our poverty: not considering that the observations of man and operations of nature (which are the souls and first movers of that variety) are few, and not of deep research; the rest must be attributed merely to man’s patience, and the delicate and well-regulated motion of the hand or of instruments.

Thus, for man to gain knowledge of the world, build his empire of knowledge and wealth, and propel himself out of poverty, man must conquer nature. To reduce nature and strip it bare is the best way to gain knowledge of nature’s secrets, “so the secrets of nature betray themselves more readily when tormented by art than when left to their own course. We must begin, therefore, to entertain hopes of natural philosophy then only, when we have a better compilation of natural history, its real basis and support.” Subjecting the natural world to torment is what is necessary for us to know it and the benefit from it.

The consequential ramification of Bacon’s outlook is well known to modernity. Industry, technology, and wealth are utilized to conquer nature, to study nature, and to torment nature (deforestation and animal experimentation, etc.). Through this conquest and torment of nature our wealth and comfort is found. As such man creates a more artificial environment and becomes, himself, an instrument of artificiality.

Artificiality is the ultimate reduction of Bacon’s outlook. Nature is nothing but a clump of mindless and unintelligible matter that is to be instrumentally utilized for man’s benefit. This is a complete 180 from the Platonic and Augustinian (Catholic) disposition of an intelligible nature that is able to, in the words described in the Book of Genesis, “bring forth life after its own kind.” So the world is an artificial clump of matter meant for man’s instrumental use, so too does this reduce man to an artificial clump of matter for instrumental use. (This is logically necessitated from Bacon’s own reductionist materialism.) Man is used by other men to torment nature to gain her secrets! Thus we can see why Bacon is not just the father of modernity but also the father of disenchantment and utilitarianism and becomes the chief antagonist to the later romantics and idealists who rebelled against the Baconian ideology of reductionist materialism and the industrial conquest of the natural world.

In the first part it is also interesting to make known that Bacon attacks tribalism which he calls “the idol of the tribe.” Of course, if all humans are just clumps of matter then what is the importance of blood, family, and tribe? Not only does Bacon offer the muscular industrialist vision of science peddled by everyone from Richard Dawkins to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but he is also one of the first modern universalists who eschews the prejudices of tribalism and localism.

The “Reign of Man”

The second part of Bacon’s book concerns itself with what he calls the “reign of man.” The reign of man commences after the establishment of the “empire of man.” Once the empire of man is established, the empire of industry, science, and affluence, then man has supreme control over his domain. Thus, the “reign of man.” As Bacon famously opens the second part of his most consequential work:

To generate and superinduce a new nature or new natures, upon a given body, is the labor and aim of human power: while to discover the form or true difference of a given nature, or the nature to which such nature is owing, or source from which it emanates (for these terms approach nearest to an explanation of our meaning), is the labor and discovery of human knowledge; and subordinate to these primary labors are two others of a secondary nature and inferior stamp.

The first aphorism that opens the second part continues to build from what we have already established.  In order to generate knowledge we labor and with our power of labor and industry we come to have knowledge. Knowledge, as mentioned, consummates the reign of man because man is able to utilize, control, and re-shape nature (this randomized collection of matter) to our instrumental benefit.

Scholars have observed that the logic within Bacon’s understanding of instrumental discovery and utilization (use), as well as re-shaping nature to our benefit, exhausts itself into transhumanism. Furthermore, from Bacon’s reductionist view of nature (including human nature since humans are just a randomized clump of matter held together by this material construct called the body), there is no such thing as human nature. Since man is, like the rest of nature, just a collection of matter ready to be tormented and re-shaped for our instrumental use, then man can be remolded into whatever bests achieves utilization for pleasure and affluence. Man can literally be molded into whatever is required for the creation of an efficient and wealth-producing empire. This is why John Dewey, the greatest of America’s progressive philosophers in the early 20th century, called Bacon “the greatest philosopher.”

To reiterate, the reign of man consummates through man’s knowledge of nature which permits him to utilize nature for his benefit. Nature is inferior to powerPower can transform anything. This is the real original discovery of Bacon, or at least the novel view offered by Bacon and those who accept the Baconian worldview.

Bacon’s Functional Dualism

Returning to Bacon’s functional dualism, despite reducing everything to a materialist monism wherein man is indistinguishable from the rest of the world (thus leading to the death of vitalism), Bacon’s dualism results in his pitting man’s power vs. the natural world in order to gain understanding from exploitation. Nature is fundamentally alien and unknowable to man’s reasoning power and capacity. Only through utilization and observation (a posteriori empiricism) can man come to know anything about the world which he exists in.

Thus, Bacon also overthrew the union of a priori (or transcendental reasoning) and a posteriori that was common in post-Aristotelian and Christian epistemology which held that reason was sufficient to know the world but to ensure “hitting the mark” so to speak, observational empiricism or experience (a posteriori) can confirm our reasoning. Thus our intuitive ideas can be confirmed by experience. This is something that the German Romantics and idealists, most notably with Kant, attempt to restore.

The functional dualism within the Baconian system is the ethos of conquest rather than stewardship. Because man is estranged from nature and must torment nature to know it, and therefore use it for his own benefit, man comes to see the natural world as something foreign and hostile that needs to be tamed or conquered by the energies of labor, industry, and science. Thus, man’s industry, science, and work, is primarily one that advances conquest.

Without power and without this conquest of nature man remains ignorant and destitute.  Thus, for man to have knowledge and live in affluence he must conquer nature. Therefore man is pitted against nature and this is the germ of the functional dualism within Bacon’s outlook despite him being a materialist-monist. Bacon is the father of the Enlightenment, the father of modernity, and the father of liberalism. His reach is exhaustive and extensive. But not without its critics.

This was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 11 July 2018.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: