“The effecting of all things possible”: Francis Bacon on Forms and Potentiality

Doina-Cristina Rusu

University of Bucharest


Francis Bacon’s natural philosophy was always described as a philosophy of operations, having as its ultimate goal the creation of “all things possible”. Knowledge, defined as the discovery of causes of all phenomena, is not to be sought for itself, but for its use in the production of effects. However, even if this preeminence of production is clearly the aim of science, Baconian scholars mistaken the limits of such enterprise, considering that there are no boundaries for the transmutation of one thing into another or for the creation of new species. The purpose of this paper is to reconsider such a strong interpretation of Bacon’s operative science by looking at his matter theory and especially at his definition of forms. I will show that reshaping the concept of “essence” within the framework of his operative philosophy, Bacon creates a new concept of form that can account for the possibility of transforming nature and give reasons for why certain bodies can exist or can be created and others cannot.

Even if only bodies exist in nature, natural philosophy does not study them, but the hidden schematisms of matter (such as dense, rare, heat, cold, heavy, light etc.), individual bodies being congregations of schematisms. It is through these schematisms that a body can be changed into another, and the change is done once the form of the schematism is discovered. In order to better understand Bacon’s concept of form, I suggest first to make a distinction between natural and artificial potency; and secondly to look at the definition of forms in connection with Bacon’s theory of simple motions. Bacon’s concept of potentiality becomes clear through a comparison of Bacon’s form with the Aristotelian-Scholastic concept of “essence.” Because Bacon is interested in transforming nature, knowledge of a body does not stop at “what it is” (identification of its schematisms), nor at “what it ought to be” if left by itself, but at “what it can be” if manipulated by the natural philosopher. Natural potency is what a body will be in its natural state (a certain seed will become a certain plant), while the artificial comprise all those changes that a natural philosopher can induce upon a body (a certain seed can be transmuted into another species, but not in any other species). This artificial potency is included in the definition of form. Not any schematism can be superinduced upon any body, because it is limited by the already existing schematisms. Following Bacon’s illustration from the Novum organum, I will show that a form is a composed of different simple motions of primary matter and conflicting motions cannot exist in the same body. In this way it becomes clear that existing schematisms sometimes limit the superinduction of others and thus the combination of certain schematisms – new species of things – turns out to be impossible.