Philosophy and the intellectual sciences are, like statues, admired and venerated but not improved. Moreover they are sometimes at their best in their earliest author and then decline. For after men have joined a sect and committed themselves (like obsequious courtiers) to one man’s opinion, they add no distinction to the sciences themselves, but act like servants in courting and adorning their authors. Let no one maintain that the sciences have grown little by little and now have reached a certain condition, and now at last (like runners who have ?nished the race) have found their ?nal homes in the works of a few authors, and now that nothing better can be discovered, it remains only to adorn and cultivate what has already been discovered. We could wish that it were so. But a more correct and truthful account of the matter is that these appropriations of the sciences are simply a result of the con?dence of a few men and the idleness and inertia of the rest. For after the sciences had been perhaps carefully cultivated and developed in some areas, by chance there arose a person, daring in character, who was accepted and followed because he had a summary kind of method; in appearance he gave the art a form, but in reality he corrupted the labours of the older investigators. Yet it is a delight to posterity, because of the handy usefulness of his work and their disgust and impatience with new inquiry. And if anyone is attracted by ancient consensus and the judgement of time (so to speak), he should realise that he is relying on a very deceptive and feeble method. For we are mostly ignorant of what has become known and been published in the sciences and arts in different centuries and other places, and much more ignorant of what has been tried by individuals and discussed in private. So neither the births nor the abortions of time are extant in the public record. Nor should we attach much value to consensus itself and its longevity. There may be many kinds of political state, but there is only one state of the sciences, and it is a popular state and always will be. And among the people the kinds of learning which are most popular are those which are either controversial and combative or attractive and empty, that is, those which ensnare and those which seduce assent. This is surely why the greatest geniuses in every age have su?ered violence; while men of uncommon intellect and understanding, simply to preserve their reputation, have submitted themselves to the judgement of time and the multitude. For this reason, if profound thoughts have occasionally ?ared up, they have soon been blown on by the winds of common opinion and put out. The result is that Time like a river has brought down to us the light things that ?oat on the surface, and has sunk what is weighty and solid. Even those authors who have assumed a kind of dictatorship in the sciences and make pronouncements about things with so much con?dence, take to complaining when they recover their senses from time to time about the subtlety of nature, the depths of truth, the obscurity of things, the complexity of causes, and the weakness of human understanding; yet they are no more modest in this, since they prefer to blame the common condition of man and nature rather than admit their own incapacity. In fact their usual habit, when some art fails to deliver something, is to declare the thing impossible on the basis of the same art. An art cannot be condemned when it is itself both the advocate and the judge; and so the issue is to save ignorance from disgrace.
Francis Bacon, The New Organon (1620)
2 May 2008 at 11:25