Kelsey Denham on Sir Francis Bacon's Novum Organum

Published by admin_main on Mon 18 Oct, 2010

5. On 1566-67, what are the Idols of the Marketplace, and what is their source? What might Bacon say is the proper relationship between words and things? Which kinds of terms are least faulty, and why?

Sir Francis Bacon has very particular beliefs regarding language and the process of learning. Novum Organum, or "New Instrument of Learning," contains his teachings about many of the issues with language and learning, such as his concept of idols and the problems they cause. Idols, he claims, are "false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding and have taken deep root therein" (38). He states that when people retain idols, truth cannot enter the mind. Even if it manages to, they continue to cause further harm. The only way to avoid this harm is to understand the danger of idols in the first place, and to avoid them at all costs.

As seen in Novum Organum numbers 43 and 59 (pages 1566 and 1567), Bacon describes the third type of idol, which he considers to be the most dangerous of the four types of idols. These are the Idols of the Marketplace. He names these due to the location they arise in- the Marketplace. They are errors regarding incorrect usage of or definitions given to words. These errors thrive and are worsened in the marketplace, as people spread them by conversing. People speak in order to convey their opinions or to debate matters, and according to Bacon, improper usage of words is the worst mistake one can make when it comes to learning. It is especially worrisome considering people tend to regularly use words without fully knowing them, and thus exchange these mistakes with others. Bacon claims in 59 that "men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding." By this he implies that people are too hasty to apply meaning to words, even if it is done so incorrectly. These incorrect usages are strengthened by others, and thus the meaning of the word is essentially altered into something much less informative and specific. Instead, Bacon promotes the inductive method of learning: that people must learn to observe carefully and be as specific as possible. Failing to do so poses a major threat to language.

Bacon might say the proper relationship between words and things are those words which most specifically describe the things they are associated with. When a word is proper, it leaves very little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. He cites examples at the end of section 60, on page 1568. The least faulty words are those which refer to the names of substances. He uses "chalk" and "mud" as these examples. When someone says the word "chalk" it describes a very specific substance that is not quite like anything else. This is also true for "mud." So these types of words cannot be easily mistaken, and do not pose a threat to language. Words that refer to actions are slightly more dangerous, he says, such as "generate," "corrupt," and "alter." Though these seem to carry specific meanings, they can be used in different ways. You can corrupt a person with bribery, corrupt a text by changing its meaning, or corrupt a well by poisoning the water. These "action" words are all used in varying ways, which he considers a danger to language. Lastly, the most faulty types of words are those referring to qualities. Words such as "heavy," "light," "rare," and "dense" are actually very general. "Heavy" can refer to an objects weight or to the importance of something. "Light" can likewise refer to an objects weight, but can also describe the presence or lack of sunlight, candlelight, lamplight, etc. or an object's color. These words most closely portray Bacon's concept of Idols of the Marketplace, as they would not be effective in a discussion or argument, and are likely to obstruct truth and knowledge. Ultimately, Bacon would recommend acknowledging the fact that words themselves refer to nothing. No word has an inherent meaning, they are assigned by humans to describe something. Because of this, we should become accustomed to abandoning the usage of abstract terms such as "fate." Fate is a word which does not clearly describe a concept. Realistically, the concept of fate itself is not straightforward. So to Bacon, using such terms implies uncertainty and imprecise thinking. According to him, language should avoid abstractions and generalities- anything that alters true meaning. We should instead speak and write as precisely as possible, and avoid letting these idols interfere with our