Reason’s “uneven mirror”: Idols of the Mind and Francis Bacon’s Phantasy
In Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, Bacon claims that four “idols” corrupt the understanding and block science from developing a proper understanding of nature. Bacon offers that “there are four kinds of idols besetting human minds,” and gives them names, saying, “I call the first, Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market Place; and the fourth, the Idols of the Theatre” (Bacon 53). Each “Idol” “besets” the mind and impedes a true understanding of the world, and, Bacon insists, that “true induction is of course the proper remedy for warding off and clearing away these idols” (53). Bacon’s project of “clearing away these idols” reveals the iconoclastic nature of the project of science. While many scholars assume that Bacon’s choice of the word Idola does not relate to the Protestant anxiety over the nature of religious Idols and icons, not only the iconoclastic nature of his project but also his dependence upon the notion of the mind’s species or phantasms reveal how the mind can produce Idols from sensed objects.
The four Idols represent the dangers to the understanding, and include not only a human’s particular nature but also the influence and effects of language. Bacon’s Idols extend from those particular to individual humans to those common to all humans, all of which serve to impede the understanding power and reason. The Idols of the Tribe apply to humans universally and include the Idols imposed by a belief in man’s superiority and an unwarranted faith in the human senses. Rather than thinking the “human sense is the measure of all things,” Bacon applies a visual metaphor to explain the frailty of human sense, “it is rather the case that all our perceptions, both of our sense and of our minds, are reflections of man, not of the universe, and the human understanding is like an uneven mirror that cannot reflect truly the rays from objects, but distorts and corrupts the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it” (54). The problem, for Bacon, is one of mediation through the human senses, both internal and external, that distort a true understanding of things. The visual metaphor links the mediating human mind to improper reflections in an uneven mirror. Behind such a metaphor, however, lies the theory of the species which implied that external objects produced mimetic copies within the external and internal senses, but that the individual senses that received them corrupted or shaped their reception.
While Bacon never deploys the terms “species” or “phantasms,” he does draw on Aristotelean models of the mind and its arrangement of the inner senses. Although anxious about authorities and Aristotelean influences on science in general, Bacon depends upon them (even if Aristotle came to him colored and shaped through intervening commentary and embellishments). While Aristotle referred to the objects of the inner senses as species, Aquinas and others developed the notion of species and phantasms to explain the relationship among external world objects, the objects of the external senses, and the objects of the mind. While never quite as material as the eidolon postulated by the epicureans, popular treatises on the external and internal senses treated them as quasi-material entities. The quasi-material or, as I am calling it, the paramaterial nature of these species and phantasms helped, in some ways, to stabilize epistemology, but also destabilized it. Deception could be generated not only by the external senses but also by the internal senses.
For Bacon, reason and the understanding could correct and amend the deceptions of the senses and determine hidden and invisible causes. Rather than simply amending the deficiencies of the “uneven mirror,” human reason also needed to delve into the invisible and hidden causes behind observed phenomena. Despite his empiricism, seeing and having Othello’s demanded “ocular proof” was not enough, since one additionally needed to develop reasons and causes that remained invisible beyond the sensible. The deficiencies of the senses cause epistemological problems, but, for Bacon, knowledge and contemplation should not end with the sensible. As Bacon says, “by far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from the dullness and inadequacy and deceptions of the senses, in that those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible” (60). Bacon objects to theories that end with the sensible, and valorizes the human reason which, when liberated from its Idols, could determine these individual causes.
These Idols of the Tribe include not only language but also the composition and construction of the body, since these Idols “arise either from the uniformity of substances of the human spirit, or from its attachment to preconceived ideas, or from its narrowness, or its restlessness, or from an infusion of the emotions, or from the inadequacy of the senses, or from the mode of impression” (61). While Bacon includes the “attachment to preconceived ideas” in the list, those attachments extend beyond the linguistic to those factors that depend upon the material nature of the mediation in the external and internal senses. These Idols include those common to all humans, but they also overlap with one another of Bacon’s Idols, the Idols of the Cave. Whereas the Idols of the Tribe include the mediation of sense through their potential limitations of human sense, the Idols of the Cave are more particularly associated with individual perceivers. These Idols of the Cave, too, include the influence of language and culture, but they too extend beyond it, since they “arise from the individual’s particular nature, both of mind and body, but also from education, habits and by chance” (61). Rather than the limitations of the Tribe, broadly including the natural limitations of the human senses, the Idols of the Cave are more individuated, including not only habits of mind and the influence of education, but also the quality and condition of the individual brain. In my last post, I referred to these problems as problems which rise from a private Phantasy.
Both the Idols of the Theatre and the Idols of the Market-Place expand upon the special ability of language to manipulate perception since both depend upon habits of thought as well as upon education and authority of others. The manipulation of sense, however, is not limited to the influence of language, and instead both the sensible and the verbal help account for the shaping and deluding of sense. For Bacon, however, reason can correct these errors, and while Bacon underscores the importance of reason, he also notes the importance and power of the imagination in perception and cognition.
The objects of the mind that Bacon wants to strip of unnecessary or fallacious “Idols,” arise either from perception or from language. Both manipulations of the objects of the mind converge in the Phantasy which can pervert the proper functioning of a reason or understanding power that depends upon its products. What Bacon proposes is that a clearer understanding can be achieved by stripping the phantasms from the unnecessary accretions of the Phantasy since the Phantasy mediated the objects of perception and the objects of the reason, altering and perverting them in the process of that mediation. Both the failures and limitations of the external sense and the influence of culture and language produce false “Idols” rather than certain objects of sense, and Bacon encourages an iconoclasm with regards to these objects of the internal senses.
The desire to strip the mental objects of their false values is not, however, removed from the discourses on Icons found in Protestant polemics since there, the objects equally depend upon the powers of the Phantasy to shape and manipulate perception and subsequent cognition. The Protestant objections to the idols erected by the Catholic Church constitute a form of what Bacon calls the Idols of the Theater which pervert reason through language and through rituals that shape the objects of sense in a perceiver’s Phantasy.
The iconoclasm of the mind Bacon proposes amounts to a censoring of the Phantasy as argued by Ioan Couliano. In Couliano’s account, the Protestant tendency to censor the Phantasy and the phantasms permeated their culture, informing their responses to fashion and clothing, adornments in churches, theater and thoughts on the erotic. At the same time, while Protestants became increasingly concerned with censoring the Phantasmic and of removing the false idols erected by the Catholic Church, their stance towards the sensory and the Phantasy exaggerated their importance in ordinary life. Bacon would valorize this empirical stance and proclaim the importance of stripping the false mediating influences of the Phantasy from scientific observation, but, in so doing, he limits the known and the knowable to the immediately perceptible. Bacon implies that once the images in the mind have been stripped of their false idols and once one has meticulously detailed the minutiae of perceptible experience, truth and knowledge will emerge from the observable facts of nature once properly detailed and recorded. The censorship extended not only to external icons or “artificial” images, but also extended to the “icons” of the mind and “natural” images.
In this respect, Bacon serves as the inverse of Sidney who argues that the power of fiction can manipulate the phantasms and images of a reader’s mind towards positive and productive ends. For Bacon, such fictions do not lead to a greater understanding of nature and of the world, but, instead, impede knowledge of them. Both, however, depend upon an understanding of the Phantasy that is not wholly reducible to language, but instead contain images that mediate the production of knowledge and mediate thought. At the same time, both reveal the power of language to manipulate the reception of those images, but, at the same time, represent the mind as depending upon the images acquired, retained, manipulated, and produced by the Phantasy.
Bacon aligns the projects of fiction and the projects of religion in his discussion of the Idols of the Theatre which “are not innate, nor are they secretly insinuated into the understanding, but are imposed and received entirely from the fictitious tales in theories, and from wrong-headed laws of demonstration” (66). Bacon details that had there not been censorship over the Phantasies and theories imposed by both religion and civil authorities would have been even more problematic, and that without such censorship, “many more sects and schools of philosophy would have sprung up” (67). Bacon acknowledges that the various theories which result from phenomena can build from perception, and compares the difference to the difference between stage plays and history: “And fictitious tales of this kind have this in common with those of poetic drama, that narratives written for the stage are neater and more elegant and more as one would wish them to be than true accounts drawn from history” (67).
It was precisely this power for which Sidney proclaimed the superiority of poesy over history, since the poet’s wit could shape the events of history into an idealized image of human nature and history than the historian who was subjected to the actual events of history. Whereas Sidney encourages the liberation of the Phantasy, Bacon supports its censorship. Some of the Idols that Bacon wants to eliminate from his new science have developed through the type of poesy Sidney valorizes. Both however, proclaim and reveal the power the Phantasy has over perception and cognition, and grant fiction the power to manipulate the objects of perception and thought.
Words in both Sidney and Bacon inform and influence the reception of perceptible reality, and shape the mental objects through their mediating influence. Words, for Bacon, insinuate themselves in the objects of the mind and cloud reason or the understanding. Bacon proclaims that under the Idols of the Market-place which “are the most troublesome of all; these are idols that have crept into the understanding through the alliance of words and names. For while men believe their reason governs words, in fact, words turn back and reflect their power upon the understanding, and so render philosophy and science sophistical and inactive” (64). Words and the power of fiction can create illusions of knowledge, resulting in sophistical disagreements over words themselves.
The images within the Phantasy, however, are not wholly reducible to linguistic constructs or concepts, and retain along with them a connection to their extra-mental originals that served as their originals. What Bacon proposes is a wide ranging censorship of the phantasms to strip of any “Idols” that the Phantasy uses to shape them. To do so, however, also entails separating or bracketing the phantasms from their relation to areas beyond the sensible in the spiritual realm; a realm accessible through but not inherent in the sensible.
Viewing Sidney in relation to Bacon exposes the dangerous game Sidney was playing with his defense of poetry since his An Apology’s justification was that universals could be better grasped by a reader by concretizing them in the singularities of characters and in fiction. In comparison, while Bacon’s method constitutes a type of iconoclasm of mental images, Sidney defends the construction of false idols of the mind. While within the reader’s mind those products might be “natural images” the source of their inspiration was through the affective power and potential of fiction and fiction making.
While Bacon wants to strip his new science of the errors of the past and appears to have a strain against fiction making or sense shaping that Sidney promotes, it should be remembered that his last work, the New Atlantis is explicitly a sense shaping fiction. In his utopian fiction of the 1620s, Bacon describes a scientific utopia through fiction, creating a mythology rather than condemning one. Despite his aversion to the mythologies that distract from scientific discovery, Bacon’s final work deploys one to help explain the need for a scientifically minded society. As William Rawley explains Bacon’s project, “this fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvelous works for the benefit of men” (544). It seems that for all of Bacon’s claims against the way fictions produced obstacles for science, they could also be deployed in the service of it.
Rather than sticking to reality, Bacon develops a “model” of a scientifically structured society, but in order to develop this model, Bacon must craft a “fable.” The utopian narrative allows Bacon to propose a “golden world” and to craft a society which was never yet in human nature. By the New Atlantis, Bacon seems to have reconciled himself to the productive nature of fables and their power over the human imagination. In order to propose his new societal order, Bacon taps into the power fiction has over the human imagination and Phantasy, providing a fictional and mental model from which to work and plan a new society.
While the New Atlantis takes a new stance toward fiction and sense shaping, Bacon utilizes the power of fables already revealed in his earlier work. In the Novum Organon, for example, fictions are so troubling because of their power to shape sense and become Idols of the mind that prevent science. In combating those “Idols,” Bacon reveals their affective power and potential to shape perception and minds. What better way to remove the Idols impeding scientific progress than to shape new ones to replace the old.
In his earlier work from around 1607, Of the Wisdom of the Ancients, Bacon reveals yet another potential for poesy and fiction that reveals the value of ancient poetry to reveal what otherwise might remain “buried in oblivion and silence” (403). Bacon uses the image of the veil to describe the revelations concealed in poesy, stating, “thus between the hidden depths of antiquity and the days of tradition and evidence that followed there is drawn a veil, as it were, of fables, which come in and occupy the middle region that separates what has perished from what survives” (403). The poesy of the ancients conceals and reveals the wisdom concealed and revealed through its veil.
Bacon details the problems with engaging with the veil of fables in this way, since their meaning can be shaped rather than revealed in the process of interpretation. He cautions, “Not but that I know very well what pliant stuff fable is made of, how freely it will follow any way you please to draw it, and how easily with a little dexterity and discourse of wit meanings which it was never meant to bear may be plausibly put upon it” (404). Bacon also notes the tendency to “twist the fables of poets into that sense” to “sanction” their own projects, but even with these caveats, acknowledging that “the levity and looseness with which people indulge their fancy in the matter of allegories; yet for all this [he] cannot change [his] mind” (404). Not only, it seems, can allegories shape the Phantasy, but the Phantasy can shape allegories.
In addition to revealing the otherwise hidden knowledge of the ancients, Bacon also alludes to a secondary reason for the necessity of the Phantasy and its products in that for humans to commune with the divine, fables are not only important but necessary, for “seeing that religion delights in such veils and shadows, and to take them away would be almost to interdict all communion between divinity and humanity” (404). Bacon not only claims that humans need fables to access the realm of the divine, but, in the narrative of his utopian society to follow, Bacon includes a narrative of the island’s inhabitants’ conversion to Christianity through a divinely inspired vision.
In New Atlantis, the description of the conversion contrasts starkly with the later dry descriptions of Salomon’s House where Bacon lists the accomplishments and studies of his learned inhabitants of Bensalem. While Bacon uses fiction to promote a new utopia of learning, his fiction itself remains less interesting than the more imaginative utopias of More or Cavendish. In this, I suggest that Bacon, while deploying fiction to promote a new scientific society, still had reservations about the practice and production of fiction.
His reservations about fiction making extend to the reservations he has about the sensitive soul, and although Bacon is uneasy with the Aristotelian model, he deploys the sensitive soul to explain perception and simple cognition. In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon deploys the model with some reservation. In The Advancement of Science, Bacon continually charges the powers of the Phantasy with the ability to access the divine while also noting its impediment to knowledge. Bacon says, “in matters of Faith and Religion we raise our Imagination above our Reason; which is the cause why Religion sought ever access to the mind by similitudes, types, parables, visions, dreams. And again in all persuasions that are wrought by eloquence and other impression of like nature, which do paint and disguise the true appearance of things, the chief recommendation unto Reason is from the Imagination” (284). The power of poesy, he argues, is that it strengthens the imagination, and suggests that it could be deployed in the service of religion and false religion alike.
Bacon makes the tenor of his anti-Catholic tendencies clearer when he associates the power of the Phantasy to magic and the church. Bacon aligns Catholicism to magic in his discussion of “Ceremonial Magic,” which “comes in crookedly and dangerously,” “for it may be pretended that Ceremonies, Characters, and Charms, do work not by any tacit or sacramental contract with evil spirits, but serve only to strengthen the imagination of him that useth it; as images are said by the Roman church to fix the cogitations and raise the devotions of them that pray before them” (283). Like Reginald Scot, Bacon associates the practice of the Catholic church with the practices of witchcraft, and both witchcraft and the Catholic church use “Ceremonies, Characters, and Charms” to fortify the Phantasy.
At the same time, Bacon proclaims that matters of religion require the strengthening of the imagination, and that religion requires that the imagination overtake reason. It is probably for this reason that the New Atlantis includes the description of a miraculous event and an internal vision to account for Bensalem’s Christian society. The pillar of fire leads to a vision of Christ and this true miracle reportedly becomes the basis for the society’s lasting Christianity. It seems that hearing about Christianity through the tales of other travelers and strangers wouldn’t be enough for a full-scale conversion. Instead, Bacon includes a true miracle and an event that fortified the imagination to explain the conversion.
Though Bacon expresses some anxiety over Aristotelian
inheritances, he continues to position the Imagination between perception and the understanding powers, representing it as a site and agent of mediation. Rather than simply mediating between the matter of the body and the soul and between perception and cognition, Bacon adds that it mediates between the “Understanding and Reason” and the “Will, Appetite, and Affection; whereof the former produceth Position or Decree, the later Action or Execution” (283). Included under the second category would be what I am more broadly referring to as paramaterial which also includes its possible connection to the realm of the divine.
The Phantasy’s mediation, for Bacon, produces its own errors, in terms of both perception and reason. Bacon sets up the imagination as an agent or messenger, for “it is true that the imagination is an agent or nuncius [*messenger] in both provinces, both the judicial and the ministerial. For Sense sendeth over to Imagination before Reason have judged: and Reason sendeth over to Imaginaiton before the Decree can be acted; for Imagination ever preceedeth Voluntary Motion: saving that this Janus of Imagination hath differing faces; for the face towards Reason hath the print of Truth, but the face towards Action hath the print of Good” (283). Positioned between Reason and Action, Truth and the Good, the Phantasy serves as the mediating faculty between sense and the mind and between thought and action, but, as Bacon goes on to argue, the mediation can be corrupted or perverted.
The Phantasy, for Bacon, is a dangerous faculty precisely because of its ability to delude through the process of mediation. This is because it is not only a messenger, but also an agent of judgment, since “neither is the Imagination simply and only a messenger; but it is invested with or at leastwise usurpeth no small authority in itself, besides the duty of the message. For it was well said by Aristotle, That the mind hath over the body that commandment, which the lord hath over a bondman; but that reason hath over the imagination that commandment which a magistrate hath over a free citizen” (283-284). Bacon shifts from the type of hierarchical control the mind has over the body as slavery to an order of the sensitive soul that remains more equal in terms of agency. While reason has the power to judge and condemn the products and judgments of the Phantasy, it does not exert the same level of power over the imagination.
The result of such a shift means that the Phantasy has more power over its objects and more agency than if it were simply the “bondman” to its “lord” reason. At the same time, Bacon proclaims the need for the imagination to overtake reason in matters of faith and religion since without the Phantasy and its products, man might never come to know of God. In this respect, Bacon suggests that the paramaterial relationship between the Phantasy and the world of the divine remain intact, and Bacon says those connections occur through “similitudes, types, parables, and dreams” (284). By including dreams, Bacon holds out the possibility for “true” visions of the divine influenced by God’s agency that do not simply emerge from the Phantasy but instead are impressed upon it by a higher power. The dreams, like the “true miracle” of Bensalem’s vision of the pillar of fire, open the possibility of true and false visions offered to the Phantasy.
While Bacon continually tries to reassert a separation between his own project and that of religion, he leaves the possibility open for a real interaction between a perceiver and the divine, and that point of connection occurs in the potentially dangerous and rebellious Phantasy. The problem for a person experiencing a divine vision or revelation is in distinguishing a false vision or dream from a true one. While such visions can lead to a revelation of the otherwise invisible world of the divine, that connection comes through the potentially problematic faculty of the Phantasy.
It is precisely the dangerous influence of the imagination and the Phantasy that Bacon’s project wants to censor by liberating the mind from the Idols which confuse and deceive it. Despite the power of the Phantasy to craft and maintain idols of the mind, matters of religion require the Phantasy’s capacity to overpower reason. In the later sections of The Advancement of Learning’s Book II, Bacon underscores the limitations of reason with respect to religion and faith. Religion and faith require the liberty of the imagination to overpower the reason Bacon elsewhere valorizes.
In order to free the mind of man from the cave that produces perceptual and cognitive errors, Bacon feels he must also leave room for the positive potential of a revelatory imagination that exceeds or surpasses reason, but in other matters, he hopes his program will help censor the potentially deceptive imagination by stripping it of the idols he sees as potentially impeding the progress of science and knowledge. For Bacon, matters of religion and faith help to control the imagination and keep it under a proper subjection to God, but Bacon reiterates the importance of the Phantasy in both connecting to the realm of the divine and in the perversion of knowledge through the idols to which the imagination was prone.
Bacon notes that culture and words help shape sense, potentially confining the mind of man within a cave that perverts the knowledge attained through the senses or creates mental idols that misinform reason. Bacon explicitly draws the parallels between his own project and Plato’s allegory of the cave, saying, “let us consider again the false appearances imposed upon us by every man’s own individual nature and custom, in that feigned supposition that Plato maketh of the cave: for certainly if a child were continued in a grot or cave under the earth until maturity of age, and came suddenly abroad, he would have strange and absurd imaginations” (297). Bacon suggests that the imaginations of the child grown to maturity would be “strange and absurd,” but through them, the child’s reason would also be corrupted and manipulated.
Bacon makes this clear in his explication of Plato’s allegory, continuing, “so in like manner, although our persons live in the view of heaven, yet our spirits are included in the caves of our own complexions and customs; which minister unto us infinite errors and vain opinions, if they be not recalled to examination” (297). For Bacon, reason can counteract the idols imposed by the cave of “complexions and customs,” but, in so doing, Bacon reveals the extent to which a perceiver depends upon the imagination and the ways in which not only the body itself but also customs and language can help shape or pervert perception.
The application of Plato’s allegory of the cave reveals the Phantasy can be corrupted through what I am calling its paramateriality. The Phantasy’s connection to the body makes it susceptible to the undue influence of the body which depends upon the material condition and complexion of that body. Bacon leaves open the possibility that the Phantasy can access true visions of the divine, and emphasizes the potential of the Phantasy to receive the impressions prompted by the divine, but he also exposes the dangerous nature of the Phantasy through its connection to the body and the ways in which culture, language and habit can pervert or corrupt the information it passes along to reason.
Despite Bacon’s anxiety over Aristotelian legacies and Idols, Bacon continues to position the Phantasy in an important mediating position among a variety of other faculties and powers. While noting the positive potential of the imagination to reach beyond reason in religious matters, his comments elsewhere are directed against the excesses of the faculty that pervert sense through its shaping.
Bacon, Francis. Selected Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 1955.
Couliano, Ioan P. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.