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An Intellectual Genealogy of the Revolt against “Esprit de Système”

From the Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment

Jeffrey D. Burson

This article suggests the further resituating of the origins of the early European Enlightenment in what William J. Bouwsma has called the “waning Renaissance.” The waning Renaissance was more than simply a Neoplatonic reaction first against humanism and second against a moribund Aristotelianism. Instead, it bequeathed to the early Enlightenment a chastened, initially less optimistic humanism among scholars whose work prepared the way for the eighteenth-century aversion to system-building, and a greater respect for meticulously circumscribed, useful certainties. This article argues that the “waning Renaissance” derived from the increasingly pervasive perception by writers that eclectic systems fusing Hermeticism, scholasticism, and humanism represented an overweening confidence in the ability of humankind to perfect the natural and human orders. In diverse ways, this article contends that the reactions to such overconfidence by John Calvin, Francis Bacon, the Paduan Aristotelians, and Galileo foreshadowed early Enlightenment skepticism and empiricism.

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Benoît Godin

Our present understanding of innovation is closely linked to science and research on the one hand and economy and industry on the other. It has not always been so. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the concept was mainly used in religious and political discourses. In these contexts, actors used it in a pejorative sense. Innovation, imagined as a radical transformation, was considered a peril to the established social order. Such was natural philosophers’ understanding. This article documents Francis Bacon’s work as an eminent example of such a representation. To Bacon, natural philosophy and innovation are two distinct spheres of activity. It is documented that Bacon’s uses of the concept of innovation are found mainly in political, legal, and moral writings, not natural philosophy, because to Bacon and all others of his time, innovation is poli tical.

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Travel Writing as a Genre

Facts, Fictions and the Invention of a Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe

Joan-Pau Rubiés and Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon’s endorsement of travel for the sake of the universal light of knowledge, in his posthumous scientific utopia New Atlantis (expressing his personal aspiration for the foundation of a scientific institution), identifies well the strategic place that travel literature had come to occupy in the culture of early seventeenth-century Europe. Travel literature is certainly not a unique European creation, but its remarkable development throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was crucial in the formation of a specifically Western discourse on human societies, one increasingly organised around a vision of natural and historical diversity but also tied inextricably to universalist assumptions and aspirations.