Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Aristotle the Innovator?

In The Advancement of Learning 2.7.2, Sir Francis Bacon acknowledges that he’s using old terms in new ways (e.g., “physic” and “metaphysic”). He claims that this is part of an effort to remain as close to tradition and antiquity as he can, even when he must depart from it in substance (at least in certain respects), because it can no longer be held as true, in his view. (Incidentally, this may sound like a premonition of Protestant liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–though, in contrast, Bacon is clear and explicit about what he is doing; he is open and forthright about his innovations and does not try to disguise them. In addition, he notes that, whenever possible, he wants to stick to ancient opinions as well as terms, though of course he will depart from them often enough, for all opinions–all tradition–must be judged at the bar of truth. That was a long parenthesis.)

But even in departing from his predecessors, Bacon notes that he has precedents–Aristotle, in particular. And in fact, he asserts that he is more conservative than Aristotle. Aristotle, he says, couldn’t help constantly correcting his forerunners, while he also developed new terms (and, one might add, new meanings for old terms). And, hey, I mean it is true that Aristotle begins nearly every work with an account of how all previous philosophers were WRONGITYWRONGWRONG. Such a spirit of contradiction, Bacon says (in a way that is both salty and delicious, as salty things usually are), Aristotle learned from his pupil Alexander the Great.

In any event, the passage is below for your Friday enjoyment.

Natural science or theory is divided into physic and metaphysic; wherein I desire it may be conceived that I use the word metaphysic in a differing sense from that that is received.  And in like manner, I doubt not but it will easily appear to men of judgment, that in this and other particulars, wheresoever my conception and notion may differ from the ancient, yet I am studious to keep the ancient terms.  For hoping well to deliver myself from mistaking, by the order and perspicuous expressing of that I do propound, I am otherwise zealous and affectionate to recede as little from antiquity, either in terms or opinions, as may stand with truth and the proficience of knowledge.  And herein I cannot a little marvel at the philosopher Aristotle, that did proceed in such a spirit of difference and contradiction towards all antiquity; undertaking not only to frame new words of science at pleasure, but to confound and extinguish all ancient wisdom; insomuch as he never nameth or mentioneth an ancient author or opinion, but to confute and reprove; wherein for glory, and drawing followers and disciples, he took the right course.  For certainly there cometh to pass, and hath place in human truth, that which was noted and pronounced in the highest truth:—Veni in nomine Patrisnec recipitis mesi quis venerit in nomine suo, eum recipietis.  But in this divine aphorism (considering to whom it was applied, namely, to antichrist, the highest deceiver), we may discern well that the coming in a man’s own name, without regard of antiquity or paternity, is no good sign of truth, although it be joined with the fortune and success of an eum recipietisBut for this excellent person Aristotle, I will think of him that he learned that humour of his scholar, with whom it seemeth he did emulate; the one to conquer all opinions, as the other to conquer all nations.  

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.