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Denis Diderot: the last true Baconian?

Peter Anstey writes…

There were many types of Baconianism in the eighteenth century and many philosophers and natural philosophers traced their lineage from Bacon or regarded Bacon as the progenitor of views that they espoused. And yet most of these self-proclaimed ‘Baconians’ held views that Bacon himself would hardly recognize or they adhered to what, at best, could be described as a truncated form of Baconianism. A nice example is George Adams Jr whose views on the method of reasoning in natural philosophy in his Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1794) (discussed previously on this blog) amount to little more than a summary of the first book of Bacon’s Novum organum (1620).

What would it take then for someone to be a true Baconian? Of course, the question itself is problematic because there is no principled way of determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that would settle the issue. But let us run with the question nonetheless.

Given the prominence of Bacon’s method of natural history in his conception of how we are to acquire knowledge of nature – that is, given the quality and quantity of writings that he devoted to natural history and the efforts he expended in assembling his own exemplar histories in the last years of his life – I suggest that to be a true Baconian one must (at least) be an advocate of the Baconian method of natural history. If this is right, then as far as I am aware, the last true Baconian was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784).

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)

Diderot’s ‘Prospectus’ for the Encyclopédie, was first published in 1750 and then appended in a modified form to the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ of the first volume of the Encyclopédie itself in 1751. It presents an overtly Baconian scheme of the sciences set within a tripartite faculty psychology à la Bacon, but more importantly, it shows a clear understanding and acceptance of the structure and content of Bacon’s account of the overall project of natural history. Drawing heavily on Bacon’s De augmentis scientiarum he tells us that:

The history of uniform nature is divided, following its principal objects, into: celestial history or history of the stars, of their movements, sensible appearances, etc., without explaining their cause by systems, hypotheses, etc. (It is a matter here only of pure phenomena.) Into meteorological history such as winds, rains, tempests, thunder, aurora borealis, etc. Into the history of the earth and the sea, or of mountains, rivers, streams, currents, tides, sands, soils, forests, islands, configurations of the earth, continents, etc. Into history of minerals, into history of vegetables, into history of animals. Whence results a history of the elements, of the apparent nature, sensible effects, movements, etc., of fire, air, earth, and water. (Preliminary Discourse, Chicago, 1995, 147)

(Regular readers of this blog will note the decrying of systems and hypotheses as hallmarks of a commitment to the experimental philosophy.)

Yet Diderot does not merely reproduce the structure and content of Bacon’s method of natural history, he also appreciated the heuristic structure of these histories and the fact that they needed to be subject to what Bacon called interpretatio naturae, the interpretation of nature. For, in 1754 Diderot published a work entitled On the Interpretation of Nature which, as many scholars have recognized, is very Baconian in character. It is, in effect, Diderot’s own version of Book Two of Bacon’s Novum organum. To be sure it lacks any extended discussion of Baconian induction and prerogative instances, but it is written in aphoristic form and contains many Baconian themes including advice on experimenting, the use of queries and conjectures and concrete natural philosophical examples. Surely on this evidence Diderot must qualify as a true Baconian. Was he the last?

6 thoughts on “Denis Diderot: the last true Baconian?

  1. I think of a Baconian natural history as a systematic empirical examination of an object or phenomenon for the sake of generating and testing intermediate explanatory principles. On that account, there are Baconians all around us.

    As a more tractable suggestion, have you considered Whewell? He wrote a volume entitled Novum Organon Renovatum in his big Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Snyder’s SEP entry on Whewell points us to her “Renovating the Novum Organum: Bacon, Whewell and Induction,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 30:531–557.

  2. Thanks Mike. I agree that Snyder shows that there are important parallels between Bacon’s views and those of Whewell, particularly on induction. However, I disagree that a Baconian natural history is merely as systematic empirical examination of an object or phenomenon. Bacon had very clear views about the structure, content and style of a natural history. He sets these out in the Parasceve and the Descriptio. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no parallel of this natural historical method in Whewell. But it is found in Diderot!

  3. I think there’s an argument for John Herschel carrying on the Baconian torch. Herschel speaks very highly of Bacon in the Preliminary Discourse and often appeals to Bacon’s instances both there and in his scientific lectures.

  4. Thanks Brandon. There’s no doubt that Herschel regarded Bacon as a founding figure of natural philosophy, but it’s not clear to me that he refers to let alone understood Bacon’s method of natural history. I’ve done a quick search of the Preliminary Discourse and have found nothing on the structure, content and style of natural histories that resembles Bacon’s method. Have I missed something?

  5. I suppose I could be misunderstanding what you are asking for. Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse is a general methodological treatise that in parts draws heavily on Bacon (although at times qualifying him); I had taken you to be asking for discussion of Baconian method conceived of as applying to natural history. But I take it that you’re actually asking for something more specific like actual natural history done pretty much as Bacon would have done it — more along the lines of the Sylva Sylvarum, perhaps, than (as I had been taking you to mean) like Baconian discussion of instances in Nov. Org.? That would require looking at Herschel’s scientific lectures instead, and I’m not really familiar enough with their details to say more than that he occasionally appeals to Bacon — so it’s possible that he would count as ‘truncated’ in your sense. (If any of those works would turn up anything of the right sort, my guess is that it would be Physical Geography, but I haven’t looked at it in a long time.) Or is it something else that you have in mind?

  6. Thanks again Brandon. Yes, I’m defining ‘true Baconian’ pretty strictly to include only those who understood and accepted Bacon’s detailed method of natural history. Lots of thinkers accepted his scheme of the sciences or his views on the idols of the mind or his views on induction, etc. But I’m of the view that his approach to natural history was so important and so integrated with the account of induction, etc. that without it a philosopher is cannot really be a ‘true Baconian’. In the final analysis, it’s not really very important, but asking the question in this way is helpful for shedding light on the sort of Baconianism that Herschel and Whewell espoused and it might flush out someone else like Diderot.