Nature as the Unfamiliar: Bacon, Serendipity, and Scientific Innovation

Instauratio Magna

Having read this interview with Sean Silver, the author of an Isis article on the prehistory of serendipity in Bacon, I realized that I could get something out of this that I had not been looking for. (This will be the one and only lazy self-referential joke on the subject.)

The article conceptualizes serendipity as denoting “the way concepts emerge from the unexpected bumps and nudges of the material world” (236). The term for this has been traced back to one Horace Walpole, but Silver notes that Walpole “repeats a formulation of invention mooted by Francis Bacon in an allegorical exegesis entitled ‘The Fable of Pan’.” (241)

When Ceres was hiding herself from her fellow Olympian gods, grieving over the capture of her daughter Proserpina by Pluto (and, more urgently, failing to care for the crops), Pan was the only one who didn’t go looking for her, but also the one who happened to find her when he went out to hunt. Bacon uses this myth to illustrate that useful discovery requires knowledge and attention, but it doesn’t require a systematic search for precisely this object.

This makes for an interesting relation of Bacon to the classical rhetorical notion of invention. In Silver’s words, “the rhetor ranges over the memories he has treasured up, locating examples and images that will fit his present purpose.” (246) This is precisely not what Bacon understands by genuine invention, “for to invent is to discover that we know not, not to recover or resummon that which we already know” (cited by Silver, p. 83-84 of the translation of De augmentis)

This is very much in line with Bacon’s agenda of going beyond what is already known – in the Novum Organum he argues that there should be “one method for the cultivation, another for the invention, of knowledge” (63) – a rhetorical distinction made primarily so that those who want to find out something new can safely and respectfully part company from the complacent lot who don’t.

Invention, then, “is of two kinds, very different; the one of arts and sciences, and the other of speech and arguments.” (translation of De augmentis, 64). The first one is what Bacon wants to encourage us to do. Silver adds that there is also a “sometimes blurry internal distinction between invention of arts and invention of sciences” (246), where discoveries in the mechanical arts are made serendipitously and discoveries in the sciences deliberately. (‘Arts’ here means something more like ‘crafts’ than like the modern counterpart to the sciences.) Thus, Bacon gets entangled in the tensions between his view of scientific discovery as simultaneously methodical and serendipitous, held together by the metaphor of the hunt.

This results in part from the paradox of “looking for something you don’t know”. Discovering a new continent seems different from discovering where I left my keys, in a sense covered by the notion of serendipity: my memory does not prepare me for the discovery of a new continent, but at the same time I do need to be prepared in some way: I need to have the right knowledge to realize that I have found something new, and the right attitude to find new things. In the myth, Pan has this lucky combination.

In the interview mentioned above, Silver deconstructs the distinction between finding what you are looking for and finding something new to some extent, to the benefit of a more ‘networky’ view of the relation between scientific knowledge and its objects; but Bacon needs to capitalize on a strong divide between the mentality of sticking to what you already have and the spirit of discovery.

This polarity between a taste for the familiar and the alien seems to coincide, for Bacon, with a divide between the sciences and the arts on the one hand, and letters and “the philosophy which now flourishes” (Novum organum, 63) on the other, and with a division between knowledge of the mind and knowledge of nature. In support of this, I continue the quote from the end of the Novum Organum where Bacon distinguishes between the cultivation and the invention of knowledge (63-64):

And for those who prefer the former, either from hurry or from considerations of business or for want of mental power to take in and embrace the other (which must needs be most men’s case), I wish that they may succeed to their desire in what they are about, and obtain what they are pursuing. But if any man there be who, not content to rest in and use the knowledge which has already been discovered, aspires to penetrate further; to overcome, not an adversary in argument, but nature in action; to seek, not pretty and probable conjectures, but certain and demonstrable knowledge; I invite all such to join themselves, as true sons of knowledge, with me, that passing by the outer courts of nature, which numbers have trodden, we may find a way at length into her inner chambers. And to make my meaning clearer and to familiarise the thing by giving it a name, I have chosen to call one of these methods or ways Anticipation of the Mind, the other Interpretation of Nature.

This is a distinction with strongly moral overtones: if you don’t want to dig deeper, you are lacking in willpower, resting content with what you expect rather than preparing yourself to be surprised.

Later attempts to carve out a legitimate space for the humanities beside the sciences would argue that knowledge by the mind of the mind is privileged over knowledge by the mind of something alien to it; the mind already, in some sense, knows itself in a way that it doesn’t know nature. Bacon, on the other hand, draws the opposite lesson: a dialogue between minds, or the overcoming of adversaries in arguments, does not bring us any further, while we ought to go further. When we probe into our own memories, what we will in all likelihood encounter are the idols of the tribe and of the theater. Truth comes rather from without, from nature, and attuning oneself to external rather than internal discovery requires a specific attitude: patiently, and open to the subtlety of experience, we need to correct “the depraved and deep-rooted habits” of our mind (transl. Novum organum, 64). We transcend sin not by introspection, but by mastering ourselves in the same movement in which we master nature.

A variety of largely overlapping polarities arises: nature and our own selves, without and within, experience and abstract thought, induction and deduction, the unknown and the familiar. I do not wish to argue that these polarities add up to a conscious distinction between sciences and humanities. (Bacon did make a classification of the sciences, with which I may deal some other time.) However, they do deliver many of the ingredients of such a distinction; and the idea that serendipity – or chance discovery and painstaking methodicity folded up together in the notion of the “hunt of Pan” – is exclusive to the programme of genuine knowledge of nature that Bacon sought to inaugurate, is at least an interesting intervention in the conceptualization of different kinds of intellectual activity, where looking things up in individual or cultural memory can never be true invention because it never brings you beyond the bounds of the already-known. This it has in common with aprioristic philosophy, and therefore, both get to be contrasted with scientific innovation.

As for the tale that the discovery of Ceres was reserved for this god, and that while he was hunting, and denied to the rest of the gods, though diligently and specially engaged in seeking her, it contains a very true and wise admonition ; which is, not to look for the invention of things useful for life and civilisation from abstract philosophies, which are as it were the ‘greater gods, even though they devote all their strength to the purpose ; but only from Pan, that is from sagacious experience and the universal knowledge of nature ; which oftentimes, by a kind of chance, and while engaged as it were in hunting, stumbles upon such discoveries.

Featured image: frontispiece Instauratio Magna (1620), wikipedia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *