Bacon, the new science, and empire
The new science looks away from the past and toward the present utility of knowledge as well as the future possibility of applying science to practical human problems. This all seems really great, no? But what is unmistakable to me is the language of mastery that is all over the text. Here is my favorite quote from the New Organon:
"But any man whose care and concern is not merely to be content with what has been discovered and make use of it, but to penetrate further; and not to defeat an opponent in argument but to conquer nature by action; and not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge; let such men (if they please), as true sons of the sciences, join with me, so that we may pass the antechambers of nature which innumerable others have trod, and eventually open up access to the inner rooms.â€?
Baconâ€™s understanding of nature and the intellect is like an edifice â€“ brick by brick we will build our knowledge of the world. We can master it by strokes. But the method of accumulation must be deliberate and must have a purpose. All sorts of good things can come from this â€“ practical things that can change peopleâ€™s lives even if the common man doesn't understand how we arrived at this knowledge. There is the implication in this that man can shape and exercise his mind to near perfection. Oh, the handle we can get on the world!
But let's situate this within its historical context. First of all, this is a text fitting the context of transcontinental exploration. Bacon is conscious of this when he essentially states: What a shame if we explore the world and fail to expand our intellectual world.
But look, too, at how this intellectual adventure lends itself to the kind of relationships between English people and other peoples of the world and between people and the natural world that will be sadly characteristic of the next few centuries. First of all, a question Bacon doesn't really ask here is where do human beings end and the mystery of nature begin? What is natural and up for mastery and who exactly is the objective agent of science and industry? As the English move about in the world, they are making all sorts of assessments about other people in the world, and many of these are scientifically informed. But the scientific information is already derived from the prejudices the scientist approaches it with, since the notion of the objective observer of nature tends to have hard wired in his mind the mandate of human beings to master nature. It is science, then, that comes up with theories of race that place Africans as natural beings to be numbered, classified, and ultimately mastered. Remember, this is also the era, well almost, that the English acquire Jamaica (a Cromwellian expedition) and deprive many Irish of their homes and offer them up to Presbyterian collaborators in their Civil War â€“ later the best science will confirm that the Irish are a different and inferior race than the English (which makes them great servants but bad politicians) and that the Finns are really descendents of the Mongoloid race (asiatic people) and donâ€™t deserve the same treatment as whites. Really, the English are becoming Masters at the same time they are becoming scientists. What does this tell us about the potential of boundless progress for science and civilization that Bacon seems to be anticipating? Do scientists have to be masters? What about social scientists? What about historians?