Descartes, Bacon, and Self-Directed Learning
In the seventeenth century, two men published works that declared war on the intellectual stagnation of their era. Francis Bacon put forth a new scientific method in The New Organon, while René Descartes sets up the modern idea of rational skepticism in the Discourse. Bacon and Descartes embrace methods and philosophies rooted in personal observation, experimentation, and introspection because both men agree upon the sovereignty of the individual learner.
Before construction new vehicles by which they may cross the murky river of ignorance, both men express their desire to avoid becoming the same kinds of authority against which they struggle. Bacon clearly asserts his wish to not coerce others into leaning his new method by saying, “I have not sought (I say) nor do I seek to force or ensnare men’s judgments, but I lead them to things themselves” (14). It is not Bacon’s objective to replace an old and useless form of learning with a newer but equally useless form. Instead, Bacon desires to lead people to the correct path, and let them walk it for themselves. He has no wish to be to future generations the same way Aristotle was for his, an intellectual club used to beat learners into submitting to educational authority.
Similarly, Descartes claims, “my intention is not to teach here the method which everyone must follow if he is to conduct his reason correctly, but only to demonstrate how I have tried to conduct my own” (28). He says he is unwilling to let his method become the same form of forced learning that Descartes calls into question.
Bacon and Descartes set about promoting intellectual autonomy by rejecting learning based only of authority and majority. For Bacon, it is a nostalgic view of Aristotle and philosophers of old that atrophied the state of learning (80-2, LXXXIV-LXXXV). In rejecting the archaic methods of learning, Bacon hopes to remedy this illness infecting education (46, 47, XXXI). There is but one cure: “to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations” (4). These “proper foundations” do not include knowledge held dear by the majority.
Bacon claims many elements creating the recession in learning are caused by external sources. He dispatches with the old methods early on by saying, “It is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon the old. We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve in a circle with mean and contemptible progress” (46, XXXI). Simply by looking at the world around him, Bacon sees the old ways of education have failed, and learning has come to a standstill. Since these older methods are still embraced by many who are in authority, Bacon rejects majority and common consensus as valid proof. As Bacon says, “even if men went mad after the same fashion, they might agree with one another well enough” (45, XXVII). Simply because many authorities agree, it does not mean they are right.
Descartes is equally suspicious of the opinions of his day. He compares the danger of accepting other people’s opinions to villages that haphazardly combine many styles of architecture from many different eras (35-8). Descartes sees the inherent danger of such a method of building.
So it is that one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more beautiful and better ordered than those that several architects have tried to put into shape, making use of old walls which were built for other purposes. (35)
If one should not construct a building from many older structures, neither should someone build his or her understanding upon the opinions and observations of others. Thinking upon this idea, Descartes became “convinced that out beliefs are based upon much more upon custom and example than on any certain knowledge, and nevertheless that the assent of many voices is not valid proof of truths” (39). Much like Bacon, Descartes refuses to accept any supposed truth because many people agree with it.
With the notion of proof resting with the majority firmly rebuked, attention must be turned to the individual. Bacon sees himself as a guide, but the true salvation of knowledge rests with people willing to study the facts for themselves (47, XXXVI). There are clear examples of how Bacon hopes his process will work.
Moreover, whenever I come to a new experiment of any subtlety (though it may be in my own opinion certain and approved), I nevertheless subjoin a clear account of the manner in which it was made, that men, knowing exactly how each point was made out, may see whether there be any error connected with it any may arouse themselves to devise proofs more trustworthy and exquisite, if such can be found. (26)
It is Bacon’s wish that people may look to him as a rough blueprint and accept his method but will determine for themselves what is true or not. The focus of Bacon’s method balances upon individuals willing to clear their minds and observe facts on their own.
The way of Descartes is every bit as individualistic as Bacon’s. After doubting the value of his education, Descartes devises a set of four rules that believes will lead an individual to a rational train of thought. These rules boil down to doubting everything, dividing everything into its component parts, conducting one’s thoughts in an orderly manner, and carefully reviewing what one thinks and why (41). It is with these principles Descartes, “urge[s] good minds to try to go beyond this little contributing, each according to his inclination and capacity, to the experiments which must be made, and communicating also to the public everything they learned” (79). It is Descartes’ method, and not the man himself, that he wishes to be the leaping-off point of future learning.
For Bacon and Descartes, the future of human learning rested with individuals questioning and examining their own experiences and not relying on the opinions and models of the past to form their judgments.
Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1960.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and The Meditations. London: Penguin, 1968.
© 2014 Seth Tomko