Francis Bacon

If we are going to discuss modernism and postmodernism, then we should really also briefly cover pre-modernism. If  the postmodernist looks to their social network for authority, and the modernist looks to the expert, then the pre-modernist looks to the hierarchy.

The dramatic shift from pre-modern to modern thought has it’s roots, I think, in the Enlightenment. Francis Bacon (friend of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, Attorney General, Lord Chancellor, lawyer, philosopher, author, scientist, and all-round overachiever), started his book “Novum Organum” with the following aphorism:

Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.

In other words, we know about stuff we can experience.

Nothing particularly earth-shattering, perhaps, to the modern ear. But this was a terrifyingly subversive claim to make. To start with, he is directly challenging the institutional Church and her claims to divinely revealed truth. To the pre-modern, ‘truth’ is something that is received from the hierarchy. The peasant receives instruction from the priest, who in turn receives instruction from the bishop, who receives his instruction from the Pope, who’s wisdom comes via divine revelation straight from God.

But Bacon is saying “no, the only way we can know things is through empiricism; through direct experience, through our own senses and observations.” And the implications of this are clear. If the hierarchy claims one thing, but we observe a fact that contradicts their claim, then they must be in error.

We’ll see how this conflict between revealed truth and observed truth played out most clearly in my next article, when we turn our attention to Galileo.