Ever since the Royal Society was founded, relating Francis Bacon’s philosophy with the Society has been a commonplace. In the publications of the early Royal Society, the mention of Francis Bacon is inescapable. Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society is ceaselessly complimentary of Bacon as the intellectual source of the Royal Society. Sprat claims that the Society owed its philosophical program in its formative period to its adherence to Bacon and his program of cooperative induction. According to Sprat, Bacon was one “in whose Books there are every where scattered the best Arguments, that can be produc’d for the Defence of experimental Philosophy, and the best directions, that are needful to promote it.” Equally important was the way in which the Society saw itself as an active champion of Baconian principles. Sprat writes of Bacon as “one great Man, who had the true Imagination of the whole extent of this Enterprize, as it is now set on foot.”
This view of Bacon as the exemplar and the inspiration of the Society’s formation and activities has been echoed in the works of many historians, in which the Society continues to be portrayed as a ‘Baconian’ institution. In Margery Purver’s The Royal Society: Concept and Creation, for instance, the Royal Society appears as an institution whose central purpose was to put into action Bacon’s vision of reforming natural philosophy by forming an organised body for creating new knowledge through induction, for the benefit of mankind; while a view of the Society’s incorporation of Bacon’s philosophy of science through its early publications and committee deliberations is to be found in William T. Lynch’s Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London.
Yet, despite the importance granted to Bacon as such scholarly works imply, the Society’s portrayal as a truly Baconian institution is widely debated. Charles Webster argues in The Great Instauration that the Society’s Baconianism was merely a tactical pretence in order to obscure the origins of the Society and make it acceptable in the religious and political context of the Restoration. P.B. Wood also extends this analysis in rereading Sprat’s History of the Royal Society as a method to defend the Society’s activities from criticisms.In addition, Michael Hunter, through his extensive historiographical works on the Royal Society, effectively argues against simple accounts of Baconian influence by demonstrating the Society’s inability to develop its cooperative program due to the varying practices and influences within the Society.
The reason there are a number of debates over this very topic is the different meanings of the term ‘Baconianism’. Antonio Pérez-Ramos adduces that the chief rationale why the term ‘Baconianism’ is open to several different interpretations is the vagaries of Bacon’s own texts. Most of Bacon’s texts were published posthumously, of which many were unnoticed. As a result, Bacon’s contributions to philosophy are restricted to inductivism, experimentation and utilitarianism, resulting in Bacon’s overall idea of science being misunderstood or misinterpreted.
This historiographical analysis will study a body of work regarding Francis Bacon’s influence on the origin and practices of the Royal Society. There are several perspectives that these works offer – religious, social, and philosophical etc. – but they mostly focus on the central question: “Was the Royal Society a Baconian institution?” However, since different historians have interpreted ‘Baconianism’ differently, this essay will first analyse the characteristics of Bacon’s philosophy and what, according to certain historians and philosophers, constitutes Baconianism. The following sections will explore the various interpretations of Baconian philosophy and how historians believe they apply to the intellectual and institutional origins of the Royal Society.
Bacon’s philosophy and the Royal Society
Several scholars have considered Francis Bacon’s philosophical conceptions to be influential in the development of the scientific movement in the seventeenth century. Central to Bacon’s philosophy was his dissatisfaction with the state of learning in his day. Bacon was particularly concerned with the lack of progress in scientific knowledge since antiquity; his philosophy is usually characterised by an emphasis on “an absolute regeneration of science”. In Advancement of Learning, Bacon reveals the deficiencies and inadequacies of natural philosophy, and recommends the need of progress. Perhaps the most significant obstacle to the advancement of natural philosophy was, according to Bacon, the reverence for the knowledge of the ancients. While much medieval natural philosophy was derived from the classical texts of Aristotle and his commentators, Bacon firmly believed that in order to achieve anything new, one must not rely in the methods handed down by the ancients. Furthermore, he stressed that Aristotelian philosophy was a verbal discipline passed down in commentaries and texts, which made it incapable of producing new sciences. Progress in knowledge, in Bacon’s view, was possible only on a new foundation, on the basis of observation and experimentation. Consequently, men must “throw aside all thought of philosophy, or at least to expect but little and poor fruit from it, until an approved and careful natural and Experimental History can be prepared and constructed”.
In 1620, Bacon published in the Novum Organum a detailed account of a new method for studying nature, using experiments. This new ‘inductive’ method involved collecting materials, carrying out experiments, and finding the results from the evidences obtained. However, Bacon’s induction is minor compared to his vision in the posthumous New Atlantis (1627) of an institution of natural philosophers for the comprehensive study of nature by experiments. This so-called “Solomon’s House” was the most distinctive feature of Bacon’s scientific program, which urged the necessity for experimenters to congregate because, according to Bacon, the advancement of knowledge was beyond the capacity of one man or one age. Several historians argue that this vision of Solomon’s House was finally realised in the Royal Society. According to J.D Bernal, “Bacon’s concept of organisation led directly to the formation of the first effective scientific society, the Royal Society.”
However, contemporaries and scholars have repeatedly interpreted this seemingly simple relation between Bacon’s writings, especially Novum Organum and New Atlantis, and the practices of the members of the Royal Society in radically different ways. The major reason why Bacon’s influence on the Royal Society is so debatable is the different meanings and interpretations that the term ‘Baconianism’ entails. Pérez-Ramos writes: “Baconianism, as a historiographic category, shares the fate of Aristotelianism, Platonism, or even Marxism: it is unavoidable, but too polysemic and diffuse.”
Baconianism cannot be considered a scientific theory; it can, in some ways, be thought of as a vulgarisation of Bacon’s thoughts and theories about science. Baconianism is usually characterised by an emphasis on “an absolute regeneration of science”, and opposition to Aristotle, Plato and the Neo-Platonists. Nonetheless, these very characteristics of Bacon’s philosophy have been interpreted differently in different contexts when studying their influences on the Royal Society.
Purver re-examines the intellectual and institutional origins of the Royal Society. She argues that at the time of the foundation of the Royal Society, natural sciences were still dominated by Aristotelian philosophy and experimental investigations, wherever undertaken, lacked organisation and a sense of direction. Purver’s main point on Baconian influence on the Royal Society is that the Society was formed exclusively to carry out the programs of scientific investigation outlined by Bacon and deliberately begin the creation of new sciences in an organised manner. Purver writes: “Bacon had advocated new sciences, not as an end, but as a means. The Royal Society, putting his vision into practice, consciously began to lay the foundations of new sciences.” In Purver’s view, the Society’s Baconian orthodoxy assured progress in natural knowledge as compared to other less organised attempts to do so. She adds that “the internal history of the early Royal Society is the story of the Novum Organum in action for the first time.”
Purver’s views, however, have been severely criticised. Hunter views the Society’s use of Baconianism as an ideology. The Society’s single-minded devotion to the Baconian aim of reforming knowledge by experiment “to the glory of God and the good of mankind”was, according to Hunter, a kind of public position statement to imply that the Society worked towards the benefit of mankind through the use of the reformed knowledge.  He sets forth several reasons as to why the Society needed to elucidate the non-scientific implications of their intended aims. Firstly, the granting of the charter made the Society a constitutional organisation, different from any other group involved in the study of natural philosophy. The charter made the Society publicly visible, which raised questions about the Society’s contribution to public affairs. As a result, the position statement was used as a reply to the numerous critics of the early Royal Society. Subsequently, the position statement was to overcome peoples’ suspicions of the Society’s activities and also be a means to enroll members.
Critics of Purver’s views have also asserted that Bacon’s influence on the Royal Society’s works has been interpreted too literally. The emphasis on experiment and observation, considered to be characteristically Baconian, had varied precedents. Empiricism, as outlined by Bacon, was pioneered by Vesalius and Kepler in the sixteenth century, while Bacon’s challenge to Aristotelian philosophy was preceded by Paracelsus, also in the sixteenth century. William Harvey’s independent investigations were also inductive in nature, even before Bacon provided his systematic method for reforming knowledge.  Hunter writes that “at best Bacon only gave a systematic statement of an approach that already existed.”
Solomon’s House and the Royal Society
The Society followed Bacon’s proposal that sciences were the collective efforts of men to understand nature, with a potential greater than that of any individual experimenter. Moreover, certain theories also might be erroneous, which can be corrected with the cumulative evidence of inductive sciences. Sprat explains how the Royal Society put into action Bacon’s belief that the minds and the hands of many men should work together. He also added that although the works of individual experimenters in making certain discoveries were highly commendable: “they must pardon us, if we still prefer the joynt force of many men.”
In Solomon’s Child, Lynch also attempts to analyse the formative years of the Royal Society as a truly Baconian institution. Lynch argues that the Society’s self-conscious Baconianism can be traced in the writings of a few prominent figures in the early years of the Society, especially in the works of Robert Hooke, John Wilkins and Thomas Sprat. In Lynch’s view, Sprat’s History of the Royal Society advocated Baconianism as an English philosophy in order to garner consensus in the early years of Reformation. Robert Hooke also, according to Lynch, insisted on confirming conjectures through experimentation, thereby resulting in ensuring that the study of nature by the Royal Society was credible. Lynch is also mainly concerned in proving the case for a Baconian Royal Society and assumes that the Society was unanimous in its aims towards creating Bacon’s “Solomon’s House”. Hunter, however, argues that the workings of the Royal Society were more complicated and the belief that members of the Royal Society were unanimous in their works and understanding of Bacon is inapt. Firstly, founding members with different religious and political views had contrasting and conflicting methods of following Baconian principles to transcend such differences. Also, the fact that there were diverse opinions on the best ways of achieving the aims of the Society through formal organisation cannot be neglected. Hunter cites the widely disparate attitudes of the Society’s members on matters such as magical phenomena as an example of the different views within the Society on the correct method of studying nature. Disagreement can also be seen in relation to the Society having a purpose-built facility for its meetings and experiments, and in the Society’s views on technological improvement. Hunter argues that members of the Society lacked consensus over the Society’s priorities; while some members argued for utility and public benefit through the technological products of the new science, others wished the Society’s main focus to be towards pure science. As a consequence, in Hunter’s view, the Society’s commitment to Baconianism served as a medium to bring together these disparate views under a common range of sophistication. Baconianism thus defined all the different methods of studying nature in a cooperative enterprise, ranging from random accumulation of data to the need for a clear theoretical orientation.
Purver and Lynch also argue that since Sprat’s History of the Royal Society was both official and Baconian in nature, the Royal Society was therefore a Baconian institution. However, P.B. Wood contends that Sprat’s History did not accurately represent the ideologies of all the members of the Society. The History was, in Wood’s view, just an apologetic outlining the direct connections between the Society’s aims and activities and the Restoration society’s need for stability. Moreover, due to the diverse philosophical, political and religious commitments of the founding members of the Society, the Society’s ideology could only be vaguely generalised. Baconianism was, therefore, used to portray an ideological unity within the activities of the Society, and present a valid argument against the critics of the institution.
The reformation of language
The Royal Society, in Purver’s view, also followed Bacon’s recommendations on the language of the new sciences. The new, ‘universal’ language was based on rational principles and rejected the verbose academic language, the overly rhetorical language of the commonwealth, and the ornamental and poetical language of the courts because they were unsuitable for the purposes of science. The Baconian idea behind the reformation of language was to supersede the verbose Aristotelian style with a direct and functional language for the attainment of real knowledge. John Wilkins’s book, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) proposed a systematic and clear language that could be used widely to define and classify ideas and information about natural phenomena. This concern for directness and uniformity may have been partly inspired by Baconian doctrines but, according to Steven Shapin, it was just one of the solutions to problems of producing knowledge in early Restoration England. In Shapin’s view, the early Royal Society, in addition to founding the new knowledge, also had to instantiate it and defend it from criticism. Robert Boyle and the experimentalists proposed the matter of fact as an absolute and certain foundation of proper science; matters of fact were items of natural knowledge about which one could be highly certain. The goal of the experimentalists was to seek universal assent to the production and understanding of these matters of fact. It was widely realised that for experimental experiences to lay the foundations of natural philosophy and be considered as producing matters of fact, authenticity of the experiments as actually occurring had to be confirmed through multiplicity of witnesses. One person alone witnessing an experiment did not constitute the production of a matter of fact. Boyle believed that experimental philosophy had to be founded on certain social forms that enabled communication of knowledge. As a result, Boyle proposed three technologies to establish matters of fact: a material technology, a literary technology, and a social technology.
Of the three proposed technologies, Boyle’s literary technology was crucial in assuring his readers that his experimental work should be believed. The literary technology consisted of scientific texts in order to allow distant readers to act as virtual witnesses to his experiments. The success of virtual witnessing also depended on the readers’ acceptance of the texts as being reliable and true. Boyle, in order to display his modesty and be accepted as a man that should be believed, used a plain and functional style of writing. According to Shapin, the use of such a style served to provide the virtual witnesses a clear picture of experimental practices. Although the Royal Society advertised itself as a “union of eyes, and hands” and its experimental space as a public space, the Society policed its experimental space: not everyone could witness experiments and voice their opinions on the workings of the Society. Hence, Boyle’s recommendations of virtual witnessing were a crucial move towards the Society’s endorsements of public validation of knowledge. Boyle also avoided using his knowledge of the philosophies of René Descartes and Francis Bacon in his scientific texts in order to seem a person uninfluenced by any particular theory or principle. Thus, it can be argued that the Royal Society’s use of Boyle’s literary technology was not an instance of it yielding to Baconian ideas. On the contrary, the Society modified the use of language only in order to win the trust of the public. Shapin writes that “the use of this public language was, in Boyle’s work, vital to the creation of both the knowledge and the social solidarity of the experimental community. Trust and assent had to be won from a public that might deny trust and assent.”
Baconian policies on religion
The Royal Society was founded in the early years of the Restoration, just a few years after civil war had intensified religious divisions and resulted in a very volatile society. The Royal Society followed Bacon again in forming its religious policies in such a complicated situation. In order to not be portrayed as an institution that was either completely Anglican or truly Protestant, the Society declared its position rather strongly:
As for what belongs to the Members themselves, that are to constitute the Society: It is to be noted that they have freely admitted Men of different Religions, Countries, and Professions of Life. This they were oblig’d to do, or else they would come far short of the largeness of their own Declarations. For they openly profess, not to lay the Foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, Popish, or Protestant Philosophy; but a Philosophy of Mankind.
In Purver’s view, the Society’s religious policy, derived from Baconian philosophy, was revolutionary in that period. She asserts that while non-Anglicans were discriminated against and barred from public office in the early years of the Restoration, the Society upheld Christian principles and allowed men of all religious practice to join the Society. According to Purver, “in thus dissociating itself, as a body, from the religious policy then practiced by the Establishment, the Royal Society represented a highly-civilised advance towards the full liberty of the subject.”
Webster, in The Great Instauration, on the other hand, perceives the intellectual revolution established by Bacon, and later followed by the Royal Society, within a framework of deeply rooted and idealistic Puritanism. Webster contends that “Bacon’s philosophy was explicitly conceived in the biblical and millenarian framework which was so congenial to the Puritans.”
The centre of Webster’s book is the Hartlib circle, which was closely allied to the puritan cause in the revolution. Samuel Hartlib and his associates were Baconians, and were strongly committed to the advancement of learning and the reformation of public life; such aspirations underpinned the Puritan Revolution. Webster writes that “Bacon’s writings came to have almost canonical authority, and they were used to induce all sections of the population to join together to exploit the potentialities of experimental philosophy. The revolutionaries felt that they were in a position to reap the reward of a national greatness based on the revival of learning, which had been spurred by the corrupt Stuart kings.”
Hartlib encouraged several young intellectuals including Sir William Petty, John Wilkins and Robert Boyle. Webster further contends that Hartlib also contributed to the scientific knowledge of the day, and since the concern with the advancement of knowledge of the natural world grew directly out of the Hartlib circle’s Baconian programme, the Royal Society’s Baconian affiliation was a manifestation of the Puritan ethic.
Hunter argues against Webster’s claims of a completely Puritan influence. The founders of the Royal Society had different political affiliations and, Hunter stresses, both Royalists and Puritans were active and instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Society as a means to advance knowledge. Purver also writes that the theory of Puritan ethic was untenable. Purver believes that while Puritanism may have led to more secular beliefs, it still controlled the religious and political liberties of non-Puritans. Also, during the tenure of the Puritan government Puritans such as John Wilkins did not subscribe to many of its beliefs. The Royal Society, according to Purver, both in its initial stages in Oxford and in its later stages after being officially established in London, was opposed to the problems engendered by political and religious divisions. The Society, Purver writes, was not Puritan even in its experimental science and scientific exchanges. Purver cites the Society’s connections with Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, the Catholic founder of the Florentine academy, the Cimento, as an instance of the Society’s secular beliefs.
Along with Purver and Hunter, Hall also believes that Hartlib and his colleagues did not have proper understanding of Bacon’s philosophy and were only looking “to pick out the adepts, the inventors, to have rewards offered to them, to assist in perfecting their secrets, and above all to publicise them.”
As can be seen, historians have different views of the Royal Society’s Baconian roots. The differing views suggest some of the social, religious and institutional factors that defined the varied interpretations of Bacon’s philosophy. Many historians have seen Baconianism as a solution to the problems of knowledge that the Royal Society sought to rectify, while several historians see the Society’s use of Baconianism as a tactic to be accepted in the volatile Restoration society. As of yet, there is no consensus amongst historians and philosophers about the early Royal Society’s true understanding of Bacon’s philosophy, though much more can be expected in the future as Bacon’s writings are interpreted and understood in the context of the seventeenth century.
 Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (1667), p. 35
 ibid, p. 437
 Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 235
William T. Lynch, Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 202
 Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975) pp. 106-128
 P.B. Wood, ‘Methodology and Apologetics: Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 13:01 (March 1980), pp. 1-26
 Michael Hunter, Science and Society in Restoration England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 11-21
Michael Hunter, Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press), p. 6 and pp. 11-12
 Antonio Pérez-Ramos, Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 7-31
 Hugh Kearney, Origins of the Scientific Revolution (London: Longmans, 1964), p. 34
 Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis: Washington University, 1961), pp. 41-43
 Brian Vickers, English Science, Bacon to Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 2
 J.D. Bernal quoted in Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300 – 1800 (London: Bell, 1949), p. 85
 Douglas McKie, ‘The Origins and Foundation of the Royal Society of London’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 15 (July 1960), pp. 1-37 (p. 8)
 John Desmond Bernal, Science in History (London: Watts, 1954), p. 305
 Pérez-Ramos, Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science, p. 7
 Kearney, Origins of the Scientific Revolution, p. 34
 Purver, The Royal Society, p. 93
 ibid, p.75
 Quote from Sprat, History, p. 134
 Hunter, Establishing the New Science, pp. 47-48
 Hunter, Science and Society, pp. 8-33
 ibid, p. 15
 Purver, The Royal Society, p. 52
 Sprat, History, pp. 38-39
 Webster, The Great Instauration, pp. 495-496
 Hunter, Establishing the New Science, pp. 28-31 and Science and Society, pp. 1-33
 Wood, Methodology and Apologetics, pp. 4-5
 Purver, The Royal Society, p. 237
 Hunter, Science and Society, pp. 118-119
 Steven Shapin, Never Pure (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), pp. 89-92,
 ibid, pp. 101-103 and pp. 113-116
 ibid, p. 103
 ibid p. 116
 Sprat, History, pp. 62-63
 Purver, The Royal Society, pp. 237-238
 Webster, The Great Instauration, p. 514
 ibid, p. 514
 Hunter, Establishing the New Science, pp. 7-8
 Purver, The Royal Society, pp. 153-154, p. 238 and p. 153
 A.R. Hall, ‘Science, technology and Utopia in the seventeenth century’, in Science and Society 1600-1900, ed. by P. Mathias (Cambridge, 1972), p. 42
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