Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Bacon: Big, Bad, and…Derivative

In the fictional story of the Fall into Modernity (coming soon as a Netflix Original Series), Sir Francis Bacon sometimes plays the role of a big baddie for banishing formal and final causality from natural philosophy (i.e. science; what he calls “physic”). Never mind the benefits this has for, you know, the progress1 of ACTUAL SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY.

Thus in The Advancement of Learning 2.7.3 Bacon notes that physic “inquireth and handleth the material and efficient causes.” To treat of this is to handle phenomena from a physical or material point of view, the study of bodies as bodies: “Fire is the cause of induration, but respective to clay; fire is the cause of colliquation, but respective to wax. But fire is no constant cause either of induration or colliquation; so then the physical causes are but the efficient and the matter” (2.7.4). Again, physic considers natures “[o]nly as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms” (2.7.5). The efficient cause is the “vehiculum formae” (the “vehicle of the form”), but the form itself falls outside of scientific inquiry. 

But note that he does not banish formal and final causality altogether; he rather makes them part of “metaphysic,” and if in “modernity” we have given these matters short shrift, it is a quarrel to be taken up with the metaphysicians and not with Bacon. Hence Bacon writes:

For as we divided natural philosophy in general into the inquiry of causes and productions of effects, so that part which concerneth the inquiry of causes we do subdivide according to the received and sound division of causes. The one part, which is physic, inquireth and handleth the material and efficient causes; and the other, which is metaphysic, handleth the formal and final causes. (2.7.3)

Catch that? We are to make use of “the received and sound division of causes”; we simply divide them between natural science and metaphysics. Teamwork! Again:

For metaphysic, we have assigned unto it the inquiry of formal and final causes; which assignation, as to the former of them, may seem to be nugatory and void, because of the received and inveterate opinion, that the inquisition of man is not competent to find out essential forms or true differences; of which opinion we will take this hold, that the invention of forms is of all other parts of knowledge the worthiest to be sought, if it be possible to be found. As for the possibility, they are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea. (2.7.5)

Does Bacon think about formal and final causality in the same way as the ancients themselves? No; but that isn’t the point (and “the ancients” didn’t all think think about them in the same way anyway). That’s life. As Bacon notes, Aristotle himself was happy to update or modify terminology and meaning when he thought the case required it. The point is that he maintained a place for these kinds of causality.

Actually, though, that wasn’t the point I wanted to make when I started writing this post. The point I wanted to make, which doesn’t seem to me to be sufficiently acknowledged, was that what Bacon says about science vis-a-vis material and efficient causality is actually quite old. Cicero says it in On Moral Ends 1.18:

Now Epicurus does not go greatly astray in those areas where he follows Democritus. But there is much in both that I do not agree with, and especially the following: in natural science, there are two questions to be asked, firstly what is the matter out of which each thing is made, and secondly what is the power which brings a thing into being. Epicurus and Democritus discuss matter, but neglect the power or efficient cause. This is a defect common to both men. (tr. Raphael Woolf)

See what he did there? In “natural science,” there are two questions (not three or four) to be asked: one is about the material cause and the other is about the efficient cause. Turns out that on this question Bacon was just a hidebound traditionalist. Who knew? The only conclusion to be drawn, of course, is that if anyone is responsible for Walmart, McDonald’s, the extinction of faeries, and the precipitous drop in attendance at those magical abandoned dinosaur parks on the side of old pre-interstate US highways, it’s Cicero.2

  1. I know some people will be triggered by the use of that word; sorry, it’s true.
  2. And Luther, but you knew that already.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

One reply on “Bacon: Big, Bad, and…Derivative”

Sure, it’s not the Baconator’s fault but inquiring minds still want to know what happened to formal and final causes. Where, O where, did metaphysics go?

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