Baconian method

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The 17th century English philosopher was among the first detail an epistemological approach to science and scientific investigation. The Baconian method as it came to be called laid the groundwork for today's scientific method, established inductive reasoning as the basis of much Western philosophy and science, and accounted for the possibility of pre-existing biases tainting the ideal objectivity of a scientist. The Baconian method, described in Bacon's Novum Organum (a highly critical update of Aristotle's Organum), was endorsed by Isaac Newton and expanded by Sir Thomas Browne and later John Stuart Mill.

Three steps

  • The first step in any investigation was seen as a description of the phenomenon to be observed. This really was a description only, and did not posit possible reasons or causes or causal connections with other phenomena, what today might be called a hypothesis. In addition, description and the following data gathering were to be done free of preconceptions about the nature and truth of phenomena.
  • Second was observation and tabulation into three categories: all instances of a particular phenomenon or characteristic, all instances of its absence, all instances of its presence in varying degress.
  • Analysis and examination of commonalities in all categories, narrowing down the commonalities between the first and third category, and degrees of any commonality within the third category. This would lead, finally, to positing a causal relationship between the occurrence or characteristic and other conditions.

Bacon therefore laid the groundwork for Mill's methods – the method of agreement, the method of difference, and the method of concomitant variation – all aimed at identifying the pattern or form that underlies behind a phenomenon.


While Newton credited much of his work in Principia to the Baconian method, a century-and-a-half, Charles Darwin, who followed some parts of the method, totally dismissed the possibility of scientific investigation without hypothesizing. He wrote: '...There was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not to theorise…at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours... All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!’

The scientific method is considered superior to Bacon's on consequences stemming from the proscription on theorizing. With a hypothesis, the volume of data to be collected drops dramatically, but can be used ore fruitfully, in order to either reach a satisfactory conclusion, or delimit a problem.

False idols and preconceptions

Bacon suggested that many ideas – sometimes false or seriously limiting – were so ingrained in people's minds and sedimented in culture, religion, and education, that it was easy to forget that they were only hypothesis, or abstract suppositions, and not the truth. They thus weakened any foundation of scientific investigation and multiplied the tendencies to error. His four False Idols were:

  • Idols of the Tribe: Common to the human race and stemming from human nature, these are the result of distortion and exaggeration applied to natural phenomena which then gain dignity and are therefore set forth as facts.
  • Idols of the Cave: 'Cave' refers to the human mind, and all the missteps it makes as a result of a person's experience, education, surroundings and temperament.
  • Idols of the Marketplace: These are the fallacies that result from language. Words, which represent thoughts and objects, take on a life of their own and start to be used by people instead of language, stunting thought and cauing misinformation and miseducation.
  • Idols of the Theatre: This is the result of false philosophy, theology and science, which according to Bacon exert too much influence on the structures of people's thoughts. Sophistry and repetitiveness become endemic due to them. In particular Bacon criticized the signficance of Aristotle, which he believed had held back scientific inquiry.