Baconian and Cartesian Philosophy

Baconian and Cartesian Philosophy

Much like a politician is described as being either Republican or Democratic, many scientists are viewed as being either philosophically Baconian or Cartesian. Each “party” has its own distinctive characteristics. These characteristics dictate the processes in which a scientist conducts their work.

The Cartesian philosophy is reliant upon two things, deduction and intuition. Deduction, as Descrates defines it in The Discourse on the Method of Proceeding Rightly in the Sciences, is the acquiring of knowledge by building on the foundations of past truths. The intuition aspect of Descrates’s philosophy is not so straightforward.  Descrates describes intuition “not as the wavering assurance of the senses… but [as] a conception formed by an unclouded intellect… one that originates solely from the light of reason… and is even more certain then deduction” (L 211). These two operations are the basis of the Cartesian philosophy.

The Baconian philosophy, on the other hand, is highly based on the tendencies of humans. In the Novum Organum, Bacon explains his theories by presenting idols.  He explains how “the idols… which have already preoccupied human nature… will thwart the establishment of the sciences” (L 62), meaning that human temperament will in fact be the downfall not the source of scientific progress.  Bacon proceeds to categorize these idols into four groups: the tribe, den, market, and theatre. The idols articulate that human perception is deceiving and that humans inherently cater things to their own dispositions. From this, the Baconian philosophy can be derived to basic idea that when a person is presented a problem, that it is not enough to rely solely on prior knowledge. Furthermore, that a person should not go into a problem with preconceptions, that it is necessary to keep all options open, because as Bacon states “human understanding… rejects instances the may exist to the contrary, rather than sacrifice the authority of the first conclusions” (L 92).

Knowing these rudimentary descriptions of the philosophies you can label just about any scientist. In reading an excerpt of Micrographia, Robert Hooke’s displays highly Cartesian behaviors. In his experimentation, he intuitively deduces the Moon’s cratery surface to be similar to those he’d seen in the hills of England. He further elaborates on this assumption by stating that though the tobacco clay had but an instance resembling the craters of the Moon, “[that] this analogy will seem the more probable if we suppose the moon like our Earth” (L 29). However when read in context Hooke comes off to be apprehensive to state this as fact, a very Baconian thing to do. On a second look Hooke has many other aspects of Baconism, such as the means in which he observes and/or how he acknowledges all the different substances that resemble these craters. And when comes to it if you really get down to the nitty gritty, Hooke isn’t very partial to either philosophy.

As it turns out the majority of scientist do not fall under a single faction, rather somewhere in between.  But that’s the beauty in all of it, by not choosing a side science has progressed immensely. It’s true that both sides present some very valid points, it’s correct that sometimes if you going into an experiment expecting something you can pass over things and can sub-consciously alter results to appease your expectations, but if you don’t have any expectations then what are you looking for. It seems as though this holds true for both philosophies, to where if there is a hole in either philosophy it can most likely be filled by an aspect of the other.  Rather than being opposing forces to each other, Baconian and Cartesian philosophies are quite complimentary, making sure that Science has all its bases covered.

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