Disciplining experience: Francis Bacon’s experimental series and the Baconian art of experimenting

Dana Jalobeanu

University of Bucharest

Francis Bacon’s main contribution to the emergence of experimental philosophy was a new way of thinking about the serial character of experimental practices. He criticized the “blind and stupid” experimental practices of the empirics for the endless repetition of particular experiments, and for the random accumulation of experiments obtained “by slightly changing experiments already known.” On the other hand, Bacon was also very critical of the theory-driven exemplifications called “experiments” by the proponents of various forms of more traditional natural philosophy. To all these bad forms of experimentation, Bacon opposed a carefully methodized art of experimenting, an instrument directing the “legitimate and constant work” of the mind. He called it experientia literata; experience disciplined, educated, put into writing. Scholars have long-time been rather puzzled by the ambiguous and seemingly contradictory aspects of experientia literata. On the one hand, Bacon gives his literate experience an indicative role; a role in guiding the mind on its way to discovery. On the other hand, experientia literata is said to be procedure of recording, of putting experience into writing. Last but not least, experientia literata has a heuristic role in the investigation of nature. In fact, these apparently divergent functions of literate experience need not be mutually exclusive if we read experientia literata as a methodology, i.e. as an attempt to formalize and organize the experimental practices of the natural philosopher. Although this suggestion has been repeatedly made, no scholar has worked its details so far. Little has been done to clarify and exemplify the ways in which Bacon’s “ways of experimenting” [modo experimentandi] can be translated into methodological rules guiding his own experimental practices. The purpose of this paper is to further substantiate this reading of Bacon’s experientia literata as a form of “scientific methodology,” i.e. a set of directions and procedures regulating experimental practices. In Bacon’s terms, experientia literata contains the “good” “ways of experimenting,” that have to guide the experimental practice and direct the mind towards discovery. In more contemporary terms, these “modes of experimenting” [modos experimentandi] contain the elements characteristic of any experimental methodology: set-questions and problems any researcher has to learn as parts of his trade, models of problem-solving, heuristic procedures, heuristic rules, instruments and technologies and rules for the proper recording of experimental results. Using a Kuhnian terminology, I call all these elements the exemplar of Bacon’s natural philosophical inquiry. In the first part of the paper, I discuss some of the methodological elements of Bacon’s exemplar, showing how they are explicitly used to give structure to a natural historical inquiry. The second section is a reconstruction of some of Bacon’s particular experimental series, so characteristic for his attempts to discipline experience. The third section of the paper shows in what way the “modes” or “ways” of literate experience can function as methodological instructions for the production of such experimental series.