Representation of Innovation in Seventeenth-Century England

A View from Natural Philosophy

in Contributions to the History of Concepts


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. Th is 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 political.

To scholars, the concept of innovation is intimately linked to science and industry. But this is a very recent story. Before the twentieth century, the concept was mainly used in religious and political affairs. The concept had a pejorative meaning. Innovation was subversive, and the concept had the connotation of revolution. Very few artisans and inventors spoke of their invention in terms of innovation. At the same time, natural philosophers never referred to innovation as what was certainly one of the most innovative projects of the time: the experimental method.

This article is part of a larger project on the conceptual history of innovation.1 The project explores the diverse meanings of innovation over the centuries, the uses made of the concept, and the contexts that explain these uses. This article extends and refines the analysis made of an eminent example of the early modern representation of innovation: Francis Bacon (1561–1626). To Bacon, innovation is pejorative, as it is to most people of his time. The concept of innovation has no place in natural philosophy. Natural philosophy and innovation are two distinct spheres of activity.

The first part of the article presents the meaning of the concept of innovation from its very early usages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The second part documents Bacon’s novelty (innovation, we would say today) in matters of natural philosophy in his own terms, and the vocabulary he uses to talk of his originality. The third part turns to Bacon’s use of the concept of innovation. Such uses are found mainly in political, legal, and moral writings, not natural philosophy. To Bacon and his contemporaries, innovation is political.

Meaning in Context

From its very emergence in ancient Greece, the concept of innovation (kainotomia) had a political connotation. As “introducing change into the established order,” innovation was subversive, or revolutionary, as we say today. The concept made its entry into Latin vocabulary around the fourth century. Latin writers, first of all Christian writers and poets, coined innovo, which means renewing (return to the original or pure soul), in line with other Christian terms of the time—rebirth, regeneration, reformation—and according to the message of the New Testament (God sent his son, Jesus, to redeem humans from sin). Innovo has no future connotation as such, although it brings a “new order.” Innovo refers to the past: going back to purity or the original soul. The Vulgate was influential here. In 382 CE, Pope Damasus I commissioned Saint Jerome to produce a “standard” version of the Vetus Latina, which he did using original Greek and Hebrew texts. Four books in the Vulgate make use of innovo in a spiritual context (Job, Lamentations, Psalms, and Wisdom).

Innovation thus began with both a positive and negative meaning, but subsequently lost this valence when it moved to the politicoreligious sphere of the Reformation. From the very beginning of the Reformation, royal and ecclesiastical authorities started using innovation in discourse. In 1548, Edward VI, King of England and successor to Henry VIII, issued a Proclamation Against Those That Doeth Innouate. The proclamation places innovation in context, constitutes an admonition not to innovate, and imposes punishments on offenders:

Considering nothing so muche, to tende to the disquieting of his realme, as diversitie of opinions, and varietie of Rites and Ceremonies, concerning Religion and worshippyng of almightie God … ; [considering] certain private Curates, Preachers, and other laye men, contrary to their bounden duties of obedience, both rashely attempte of their owne and singulet witte and mynde, in some Parishe Churches not onely to persuade the people, from the olde and customed Rites and Ceremonies, but also bryngeth in newe and strange orders … according to their fantasies … is an evident token of pride and arrogance, so it tendeth bothe to confusion and disorder … : Where-fore his Majestie straightly chargeth and commandeth, that no maner persone, of what estate, order, or degree soever he be, of his private mynde, will or phantasie, do omitte, leave doune, change, alter or innovate any order, Rite or Ceremonie, commonly used and frequented in the Church of Englande … Whosoever shall offende, contrary to this Proclamation, shall incure his highness indignation, and suffer imprisonment, and other grievous punishementes.2

The proclamation was followed by the Book of Common Prayer, whose preface enjoins people not to meddle with the “folly” and “innovations and new-fangledness” of some men. A hundred years later, King Charles prohibited innovation again, and the church produced lists of forbidden innovations, required bishops to visit parishes to enforce the ban, instructed bishops and archbishops as well as doctors (in universities) and schoolmasters to take an oath against innovations, and ordered trials to prosecute the “innovators.” Advice books and treatises for princes and courtiers supported this understanding, and included instructions not to innovate. Books of manners urged people not to meddle with innovation. Speeches and sermons spoke against innovation, religious and political. Every opponent to innovation—puritans, ecclesiasts, royalists, and pamphleteers—regularly repeated the admonitions of monarchs in support of their own case against innovators (until the second half of the nineteenth century in the case of religion).

The Reformation was a key moment in the history of the concept of innovation. At a time when the Reformation was incomplete and still in the making, the Catholics accused the reformers of innovating. The Puritans served the same argument to the Protestant Church, accused of bringing the church back to Catholicism. The word served both sides of the debate: reformers and counter-reformers. It was precisely in the context of the Reformation that the concept entered everyday discourse.

This was only the beginning. Soon the meaning of innovation was to be enlarged. First, to the political; the monarchists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries accused the republicans of being “innovators.” Innovation in Seventeenth-Century England is revolutionary and violent. No republican—no citizen, in fact, not even the most famous Protestant reformers or French revolutionaries—thought of applying the concept to their own project. Innovation is too bad a word for this. In contrast, and precisely because the word is morally connoted, the monarchists used and abused the word and labeled the republican as an innovator. This linguistic practice continued until the French Revolution—and later—and cast general disrepute on the idea of innovation: “Un préjugé général, produit par la haine de la révolution, a établi, avec des apparences assez favorables, que tout ce qui l’a immédiatement précédé, est excellent: c’est comme innovation qu’on la dénigre principalement; et par là même un discrédit général a dû s’attacher à toutes sortes d’innovations” (A general bias, arising from the hatred toward the revolution, established, with apparently considerable support, that everything immediately preceding it was excellent: it is as an innovation that is denigrated; and as a result every innovation has come to be discredited).3

Second, innovation widened its meaning to the social. The social reformer or socialist of the nineteenth century is called a “social innovator,” as William Sargant puts it in Social Innovators and Their Schemes (1858).4 His aim was to overthrow the social order, namely, private property. Innovation is a scheme or design in a pejorative sense—as it is a conspiracy in political literature (words used are “project” or “plan” or “plot” or “machination”). This connotation remained in vocabulary until late in the nineteenth century—although some writers discuss social innovation using the positive idea of (social) reform. For example, in 1888, a popular edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica included a long article on communism, which begins as follows: “Communism is the name given to the schemes of social innovation which have for their starting point the attempted overthrow of the institution of private property.”5

Innovation in Disguise

Continuing a tradition of thought originating during the Reformation, natural philosophers of the seventeenth century understood innovation as political. Bacon discusses his project of a new scientific method in terms of novelty and originality, but explicitly avoids using the concept of innovation. What is Bacon’s novelty and why is his novelty not an innovation?

Bacon’s project aimed at a “restoration” (restauratio) of the sciences and their alignment to the benefit of humanity’s well-being. Bacon believed that the “operative” or practical “works and fruits” of science are and should be the aims of learning. “Natural philosophy shall not vanish in the fumes of subtle or sublime speculations, but shall be operative to relieve the inconveniences of man’s estate.”6 Yet “it is esteemed a kind of dishonour upon learning for learned men to descend to inquiry or mediation upon matters mechanical.”7 In contrast, to Bacon, both the natural and the artificial are on a par:

An opinion has long been prevalent that art is something different from nature, and things artificial different from things natural … Most writers of Natural History think they have done enough when they have given an account of animals or plants or minerals, omitting all mention of the experiments of mechanical arts … considering art as merely an assistant to nature, having the power indeed to finish what nature has begun, to correct her when lapsing into error, or to set free when in bondage, but by no means to change, transmute, or fundamentally alter nature … This has bred a premature despair in human enterprises … The artificial does not differ from the natural in form or essence, but only in the efficient.8

It is unanimously acknowledged today that Bacon is an innovator (in the modern sense)—although defending experimentalism did not prevent Bacon from holding traditional views on many other matters. His restoration contributed to science as we know it today.9 Two things deserve mention in this article. First, Bacon is conscious of innovating against the established philosophy. In all his works, Bacon never refrained from qualifying his ideas on experimentalism as “new.” Second, Bacon is conscious of resistance to innovation. In a context of order, authority, and customs, innovation is forbidden. At the same time that he stresses his novelty, Bacon argues for a middle ground. As Charles Whitney puts it, Bacon uses traditional language to advance novel ideas.10 “From the fourteenth through the sixteenth century,” states Erwin Panofsky:

and from one end of Europe to the other, the men of the Renaissance were convinced that the period in which they lived was a “new age” as sharply different from the medieval past as the medieval past had been from classical antiquity and marked by a concerted effort to revive the culture of the latter … [But] they experienced a sense of regeneration too radical and intense to be expressed in any other language than that of Scripture.11

Writers drew on theology, precedents, and existing institutions and norms to justify radical changes. As Kari Palonen puts it while summarizing Quentin Skinner’s work, “The situation of the humanists was that of innovating ideologists. They had to face the novelty of their situation but made use of it by appealing to the ancient world as something that was more easily acceptable in their context than openly declaring that they were entering into a new world, for which there were as yet no conceptual tools.”12

What Bacon proposes as new method has been much studied in the literature, and will not be discussed here.13 The language that Bacon uses has also been studied by Whitney14 and some others.15 Yet Whitney does not study innovation—although he has a few words to say on Bacon’s essay Of Innovation. This section concentrates on Bacon’s novelty and his use (or rather nonuse) of the concept of innovation. The section discusses in turn (1) Bacon’s novelty or innovation, in his own terms; (2) Bacon’s consciousness of innovating; and (3) Bacon’s analysis of resistance to innovation, which led to his refusal to use the concept of innovation in his writings on knowledge and experimental method.

In the present section, I use innovation as a synonym for novelty and originality, as we moderns understand it. As the article progresses the reader will learn that this is only one of the meanings of the concept, and that, for reasons explained in the latter part of this section, it is not Bacon’s meaning. To Bacon, innovation and innovativeness (the propensity to innovate first) are two different things.

Bacon’s Innovation

Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605) is a survey of present knowledge (updated in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum, published in Latin in 1623) and also a plea for the development or reformation and application of knowledge. According to Bacon, from the creation of the world God has promoted knowledge. Bacon’s reading of the scriptures and the history of the church suggest to him that, together with the Reformation, “it was ordained by the Divine Providence that there should attend withal a renovation and new spring of all other [secular] knowledges.”16 Bacon invites the king to a reformation of learning and the endowment of the sciences: Your Majesty “whose youthful and fruitful bed doth yet promise many the like [previous learned kings] renovations.”17

To this end, Bacon produced Instauratio Magna (1620), of which the part titled Novum Organum develops a new method. Knowledge is actually “false, confused, and overhastily abstracted from the facts.”18 To Bacon, science is “endless repetition of the same thing … not new in substance”; it “cannot generate for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.”19 Bacon wishes “that commerce between the mind and the nature of things … be restored to its perfect and original condition.”20

The sciences are without “foundation” (fundamento). This is Bacon’s keyword, together with reconstruction (instauratio) and renovation. “The entire fabric of human reason which we employ in the inquisition of nature, is badly put together and built up, and like some magnificent structure without any foundation.” There is “one course left,” suggests Bacon, to “try the whole thing anew upon a better plan, and to commence a total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge raised upon the proper foundation,” namely, natural science (the compilation of facts and experiments).21 “The only hope therefore of any greater increase or progress lies in a reconstruction of the sciences” and “of this reconstruction the foundation must be laid in natural history.”22

To Bacon, a reconstruction is a re-edification upon proper, solid, and firmer foundations. The reconstruction that Bacon introduces is “a kind of logic” that differs from ordinary logic in three aspects: “invention not of arguments but of arts”; induction, not syllogism; and facts and experiments.23 “It is useless to expect great growth in the sciences from the superinduction and graft ing of new things on old; instead the instauration must be built up from the deepest foundations.”24 It is not a matter of setting up a new philosophical sect, but of building “firmer foundations … for the generations to come.”25

Bacon’s Originality

“Not setting up a new sect,” says Bacon, because he is aware that novelty is oft en ephemeral, a fashion and a frivolity: “Many things are new in the manner, which are not new in the kind.”26 Bacon is conscious of the originality of his project and claims it explicitly. His keywords are “new,” “difference,” and “hitherto” (adhuc). Bacon compares his project to what has been done until then. “No man hitherto has applied his mind to the like.”27 This is “quite new, totally new.”28 Whitney and others have called this the pathos of novelty:29 “The almost violent insistence of all the great authors, scientists, and philosophers since the seventeenth century that they saw things never seen before, thought thoughts never thought before.”30

Bacon makes three kinds of comparisons to distinguish himself. First, he compares his method to that of existing philosophy. The latter is composed of schools,31 books,32 and idols,33 and is not “fruitful” (productive) of useful arts.34 “A way must be opened for the human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known.”35 The second comparison Bacon makes is with antiquity. Certainly, “we have no reason to be ashamed of the discoveries which have been made [by] the ancients,” claims Bacon, “but before we can reach the remoter and more hidden parts of nature, it is necessary that a more perfect use and application of the human mind and intellect be introduced.”36

Finally, Bacon compares himself to great statesmen and politicians. On the one hand, he compares himself to rulers in a positive sense. Famous rulers like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great “did greater things in fact than those shadowy heroes [the ‘projectors,’ that is, the technological innovators of the time] did in fiction.”37 “I promise myself the fortune of Alexander the Great.”38 On the other hand, Bacon stresses the difficulty of innovating—because of politics specifically—as compared to the benefits that accrue from invention (that is, practical arts). Inventions “can reach out to the whole human race, whereas political improvements affect men in particular localities only, and while the latter last for but a few generations, the former as good as last forever. Moreover improvements of political conditions seldom proceed without violence and disorder, whereas inventions enrich and spread their blessings without causing hurt or grief to anybody.”39

Resistance to Innovation

Bacon admits that innovating is not an easy affair. Civil governments (monarchies in particular) are “hostile to suchlike novelties, even the contemplative ones, so that men dealing in them risk harm to their fortunes and not only go unrewarded but are open to contempt and spite.”40 In politics and religion things are worse. “Political novelty is riskier than intellectual. In affairs of state, even change for the better brings fears of disorder since civil government rests not on demonstrations but on authority, consent, reputation, and opinion.”41

Customs and preconceptions form Bacon’s second argument explaining resistance to innovation. “Nothing finds favour with the many unless it appeals to the imagination or ties the intellect up in the knots of common notions.”42

Discovery of the new is “rejected at first.”43 To Bacon, people “anticipate the new from what they know of the old.” Bacon gives examples of new inventions and their reception: artillery (“dismissed out of hand”), silk (“the last thing to have entered their heads,” “laught at,” a “dream”), compass (“fancy,” “beyond belief”), and printing.44 “In a new enterprise it is not only strong attachment to received wisdom that contributes to prejudice but also a mistaken preconception or advance view of the enterprise in question.”45

But why, in spite of the resistance, does Bacon innovate (without using the word) or make a plea for novelty? Because of its effects on progress. “Studies are kept imprisoned in some few authors’ writings, and he who quarrels with them is instantly attacked as a troublemaker thirsting for novelty … But in the arts and sciences, as in mines, all ought to echo the sound of new works and further advancement.”46 And he continues as follows:47

Consider (if you will) the difference between the life of men in any of the most civilized provinces of Europe and in one of the most savage and barbarous regions of the New Indies … This difference does not spring from soil, climate, or bodily constitution but from the arts … [the art of printing, gunpowder, and the compass] have altered the whole face and state of things right across the globe … No empire, no sect, and no star seem to have exerted a greater effect and influence on human affairs than these machines.48

Minimizing Innovation

Resistance to innovation brings Bacon to a middle ground. “Some intellects are captivated by admiration of antiquity, some by love and infatuation for novelty; but few are judicious enough to steer a middle ground, neither ruining what the ancients rightly laid down nor despising what the new men rightly put forward.”49 To be sure, “knowledge which is new and foreign from opinions received is to be delivered in another form than that which is agreeable and familiar.”50 But this has to be done with “a mind of amendment [improvement] and proficience [progress], and not of change and difference [dispute].”51 To this end, Bacon stresses that he uses old terms for novel conceptions.

Bacon also uses both antiquity and nature to legitimize his innovation. We have seen above that he contrasts his project to antiquity. But he also makes analogies with the ancients at the same time. Bacon does not launch an attack on the ancients nor present philosophy: “the honour and reverence due to the ancients remains intact and inviolate.” Bacon’s project is also “copied from a very ancient model,” that of “the world itself and the nature of things and of the mind.”52 Bacon uses nature (time) as his model. In the essay Of Innovation (more on this below), Bacon suggests “men in their innovations follow the example of time which innovates greatly, but quietly and by degrees scarce to be perceived.”

For our purpose, it must be stressed that Bacon never discusses his experimental project in terms of innovation. No innovator of the time did. Bacon’s vocabulary is rather composed of “new” and “reconstruction” and the like (restoration, regeneration, renovation, instauration, foundation) and terms for what today is called originality. Bacon has learned Machiavelli’s lesson:53 he chooses to keep old words for new ideas and he uses similitudes to communicate the new. This has already been studied by Whitney.54 Yet Whitney has not studied innovation, perhaps because Bacon very rarely uses the word, at least in his writings on knowledge and the experimental method. The word “innovation” appears only once in The Advancement of Learning.55 There is no use of the term in Instauratio Magna (including Novum Organum). De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum uses it twice,56 plus as an example of commonplaces or views on innovation, discussed utramque partem.57

Nevertheless, there are works in which Bacon uses the word “innovation” regularly: his moral and philosophical essays and other works. Bacon’s essays (1625) cover many things, some of them already touched on above. Three essays discuss innovation using the word as such. In Of Youth and Age, Bacon discusses how young men, although inventive, commit the “error to innovate,” which draws inconveniences or damages.58 In Of Seditions and Troubles, a Machiavellian text, Bacon suggests that “the Causes and Motives of seditions [against the State] are innovation in religion, taxes, alteration of laws and customs, breaking of privileges, general oppression, advancement of unworthy persons, strangers, dearths, disbanded soldiers, fractions grown desperate, and whatsoever in offending people joineth and knitteth them in a common cause.”59

The third essay is Of Innovation, an essay produced some years before the controversy on innovation in the English Parliament in 1628–1629 and among clerics in the late 1630s and early 1640s.60 This essay and the date of its writing say much about a concept that had already been contested for some time. The essay was first put into a series of commonplaces on (for and against) innovation in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum.

This essay is the key to understanding Bacon’s representation of innovation. To Bacon, innovations “at first are ill-shapen.” They “are like strangers” because “what is settled by custom … is fit … whereas new things piece not so well … They trouble [sic] by their inconformity.” Yet, “he that will not apply new remedies, must expect new evils”: “A forward retention of custom, is as turbulent a thing as an innovation.” Bacon’s proposal is “that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself; which indeed innovateth greatly [‘time is the greatest innovator’], but quietly, by degrees scarce to be perceived.” “It is good also, not to try experiments in states, except the necessity be urgent, or the utility evident; and well to beware, that it be the reformation that draweth on the change, and not the desire of change, that pretendeth the reformation. And lastly, that the novelty, though it be not rejected, yet be held for a suspect.”61

Such gradualism is precisely what Bacon does in his writings on knowledge and the experimental method: (1) not completely rejecting the ancients (there is “no reason to be ashamed of the discoveries which have been made … by the ancients”),62 being critical of both the ancients and moderns (“let not anyone be dazzled either by the great names of ancient philosophers or the great volumes of modern”);63 and (2) not rejecting religion completely (“in respect of things Divine,”64 learning performs two duties and services to faith and religion: “exaltation of the glory of God” and “help and preservative against unbelief and error”).65

Many other texts from Bacon also make use of innovation, in the context of religion and politics. For example, Bacon reminds his readers of both Queen Elizabeth66 and King James’s admonition not to innovate in matters of religion,67 and he advises kings, prime ministers, and statesmen not to innovate.68 He also discusses the difficulty of innovating in laws.69 In two of these texts, Bacon denies innovating himself. He admits innovating only in the sense of restoration:70 because time corrupts institutions, there is a necessity to “restore” the state.71

Bacon’s idea of innovation did not change over the years. His very first uses of the word were in 158972 and 159473 in a political context. The writings produced in the following two decades—professional writings, correspondence, as well as philosophical, political, and moral essays—carry the same connotation. Among the latter is Of Innovation. This essay continues to discuss innovation as a political concept. In fact, the essay borrows ideas suggested in previous writings: time74 and medicine75 as innovators; innovation and the risk of chain reaction (innovating in one thing changes the whole);76 and gradualism. Let us conclude this section with an early use of gradualism, for gradualism is a perfect example of Bacon’s representation of innovation and of how he defends his own innovation.

To Bacon, laws are “acts of perpetuity” and it would be a “pitty that the fruit of that Vertue, should dye with you[r Majesty].” In A proposition to His Majesty on amending the Laws of England from 1616, Bacon suggests “reducing and recompiling the laws of England.” How should this be done? “I speak,” writes Bacon, “only by way of perfitting them … What I shall propound is not to the Matter of the Lawes, but to the Manner” or giving “light” to laws rather than “any new Nature.” Then Bacon discusses the “objections or scruples” that may arise against his work. First “the Law, as it is now is in good Estate.” To Bacon, the laws are rather “subject to uncertainties and variety of opinion, delayes, and evasions.” Also, “there is such an Accumulation of Statutes … and they do crosse and intricate as the Certainty of Law is lost.” The second objection Bacon addresses is: “That is a great Innovation. And Innovations are dangerous, beyond foresight.” To this objection Bacon replies:

All purgings and Medecines, either in the Civile or Naturall Body are Innovations. So as that Argument is a Commonplace against all Noble Reformations. But the truth is that this work is not to be termed or held for any Innovation in the suspected sense. For those are the Innovations which are quarelled and spoken against … But this of General Ordinance pricketh not particulars … Besides, it is on the favourable part: For it easeth, it presseth not. And lastly it is rather matter of Order and explanation then of Alteration. Neither is this without President [precedent], in former Governments.

As examples, Bacon cites the Romans, Athens, Louis XI (France), the emperor Justinian, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lycurgus, Solon, Ninos, and others. And he concludes as follows: “I dare not advise to cast the Law into a new Mould. The work which I propound tendeth to proyning and Graft ing the Law; and not to plow up and Planting it again: for such a Remove, I should hold indeed for a perillous Innovation.”77


In seventeenth-century philosophers’ writings, the “new” is everywhere, as Lynn Thorndike has documented from a study of titles, and Bacon is no exception (Novum Organum; New Atlantis).78 But not innovation. Innovation is too radical. As “conservative reformers,” philosophers dissociated their projects “from any radical reform of church, state, the economy of society … and couched their reforming sentiments in vague terms of improving man’s health and estate through science.”79 Given the risky nature of the enterprise, philosophers needed to distance themselves from radicalism and write in line with restoration values.80 As Christopher Hill puts it, in a world “where innovation, novelty were dirty words traditional authorities had to be found for the untraditional.”81 From Isaac Newton82 and Thomas Reid83 to the opponents of the Royal Society and philosophers like Meric Casaubon84 and Henry Stubbe,85 from satirist Jonathan Swift86 to political philosophers like Edmund Burke,87 innovation is a word of accusation, used by critics against those “hunting aft er novelties,” as Casaubon puts it.88 The superficie l’éclat (superficial glamour) of innovation is contrasted to the principles of the ancients.89 Descartes and Voltaire are regularly accused of being “novateurs,”90 of “vain desire of Innovation.”91

But above all innovation is revolutionary and destructive of the established order, in a pejorative sense:92

They [the “mysterious Society of wise and renowned Philosophers”] who bend their thoughts to change Commonwealths, to alter Religion, to innovate the Arts make use of very oft en most despicable instruments to doe their business … Such causes (I say) have produced many tumults and confusions … where men have been acted by vain thoughts and foolish dreames … Instead of Reformation, they have disturbed all order, and law … In all these things they were belyed and abused.

Bacon had a similar representation of innovation. He makes no use of “innovation” in his writings on knowledge and the experimental method, despite his consciousness of innovating and his use of “new” everywhere. This is not a semantic issue. Rather, it has to do with the fact that at the time, innovation has a very specific meaning, not appropriate to science. Innovation is political change. In this sense, it is pejorative. It has nothing to do with originality—not yet—but is rather destructive of the established order. Certainly, there exist (a few) positive thoughts on innovation and natural philosophy during the seventeenth century, but they are the exception.93 The political and religious aspects were interwoven with the emergence of the new sciences (experimental natural philosophy and natural history).94 Struggling with quarrels over political power and religious schisms, Bacon and his contemporaries sought to utilize science to restore the social order. But this had to be cast in a different vocabulary—with denials of innovating; for example, Thomas Sprat, historian of the Royal Society, had to defend the new experiments as follows: “Aft er all the Innovation, of which they [new experiments] can be suspected, we find nothing will be indanger’d, but only the Physics of Antiquity.”95

Bacon’s representation of innovation continued to be that of “men of science” until late in the nineteenth century. There are very few titles on innovation in the “pure” sciences, like physics, mathematics, or astronomy.96 Many also continue pejoratively to call the introduction of science in education innovation—a kind of continuation of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.97

Ironically, part of the rehabilitation of the concept of innovation is due to science. In the nineteenth century, inventors and encyclopedists appropriated the word “innovation” in order to stress the revolutionary or scientific character of invention in the useful arts.98 Two elements characterize innovation. First, utility as opposed to theory. Second, the practical rests, or should rest, on scientific principles or positive science. To inventors, innovation is the “introduction of the scientific method” into the useful arts. Yet at that time innovation was different from today’s definition of artifacts or goods for the market (technological innovation). There is a relative absence of discussion on innovation and industry in the nineteenth century—in contrast to the discourses on the mechanical arts or technology and applied science99—as well as explicit reference to manufacturing. At the time, the concept had little to do with market issues. To be sure, there exist dozens of documents in the nineteenth century in which innovation is used, in a positive sense, to talk about what we call “technology” today. Yet, technology is only one of the many connotations of innovation. Innovation had not yet acquired a restricted and dominant connotation (industrial). A different but then newly coined term serves to speak of technological innovation: technology. Jacob Bigelow, Jacob Beckman, and Charles Babbage—to name just the most-studied writers of the nineteenth century on technology—and dictionaries of techniques, arts, and manufacture make no use of innovation in the positive sense.

A similar conceptual shift happened to “invention” in Bacon’s time. Invention got technological. In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon distinguishes two kinds of invention: invention in sciences and arts, and invention in rhetoric.100 Up until then, the latter was the common meaning of what invention is: a step to bringing forth good arguments. As Bacon put it, invention “draw[s] forth or call[s] before us that which may be pertinent to the purpose which we take into our consideration.” However, to Bacon such invention “is not properly an invention for to invent is to discover that which we know not, and not to recover or resummon that which we already know.” Although it may serve to “direct inquiry” and for “wise interrogating,” it is not invention but memory.101

To Bacon, real invention is invention relative to the useful art. To Lord Verulam we owe this new definition of invention, or rather its later diffusion. (In fact, Bacon was taking note of an increasing use of the term “invention” in “technological” or arts matters.) This kind of invention is actually “deficient” according to Bacon. It relies on chance rather than reason, and on a form of induction that is “vicious and incompetent.” Novum Organum is entirely concerned with this kind of invention and its division between experience literara and interpretatio naturae.

One may ask to what extent Bacon’s view of invention as a practical art has contributed to the modern representation of invention as solely technological invention. In Bacon’s time, invention meant discovering something that already existed as well as making something new, and was applied, generally with few qualifications, to both activities. Later, a distinction was made between two concepts: discovery refers to facts or things that already exist out there and that one finds out, while invention combines and makes new things.102 Discovery is reserved for science and invention for the useful arts. Today, to many people, invention relates to technology, as the dominant ideology. The twentieth century is witness to a similar change in the meaning of innovation, in the present case from the political to the technological.


Benoît Godin, Innovation Contested: Th e Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries (London: Routledge, 2015).


England and Wales, Sovereign (Edward VI), A proclamation against those that doeth innouate, alter or leaue doune any rite or ceremonie in the Church, of their priuate aucthoritie: and against them which preacheth without licence, set furth the .vj. daie of Februarij, in the seconde yere of the Kynges Maiesties most gracious reigne (Excusum Londini: In aedibus Richardi Graft oni regij impressoris. Cum priuilegio ad imprimendum solum, 1548).


François Dominique de Reynaud de Montlosier, De la monarchie française, depuis son établissement jusqu’à nos jours; ou recherches sur les anciennes institutions françaises, leur progrès, leur décadence, et sur les causes qui ont amené la révolution et ses diverses phases jusqu’à la déclaration d’empire; avec un supplément sur le gouvernement de Buonaparte, depuis ses comencemens jusqu’à sa chute; et sur le retour de la maison de Bourbon, vol. 3 (Paris: H. Nicolle/A. Édron/Gide fils, 1814), 137.


William L. Sargant, Social Innovators and Their Schemes (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1858).


“Communism,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, T. S. Baynes, ed., 3rd ed., vol. 6 (New York: Henry G. Allen, 1888), 211–219., 1986).


Francis Bacon, De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), in Th e Works of Francis Bacon, J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, eds., 15 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1887), 8:383.


Ibid., 413.


Ibid., 410.


Paolo Rossi, “Baconianism,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas 1 (1973–1974): 173–180.


Charles Whitney, Francis Bacon and Modernity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986).


Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksells, 1960), 36–37.


Kari Palonen, Quentin Skinner: History, Politics, Rhetoric (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 76–77.


Some notable books on Bacon are, to name just a few: Benjamin Farrington, Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science (New York: Collier Books, 1961); Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); Antonio Pérez-Ramos, Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Markku Peltonen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Peter Zagorin, Francis Bacon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).


Whitney, Francis Bacon and Modernity.


Michel Malherbe, “L’idée de nouveauté et ses points d’application dans le Novum Organum de Bacon,” in Francis Bacon, science et méthode, Actes du colloque de Nantes (Paris: J. Vrin, 1985), 11–36.


Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), in Francis Bacon: The Major Works, Brian Vickers, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 153.


Ibid., 169.


Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna (1620), in Spedding, Ellis, and Heath, The Works of Francis Bacon, 8:18.


Ibid., 26.


Ibid., 17.


Ibid., 18.


Ibid., 47.


Ibid., 40–47.


Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), in The Instauratio Magna Part II: Novum Organum and Associated Texts, G. Rees and M. Wakely, eds. (London: Clarendon Press, 2004), 31.


Ibid., 116.


Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 211.


Bacon, Instauratio, 19.


Ibid., 23.


Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Burgay, UK: Penguin Books, 1963); Whitney, Francis Bacon and Modernity.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1958), 226.


Bacon, Instauratio, 27, 30.


Bacon, Novum Organum, 85.


Ibid., 43–44, 61–65.


Bacon, Instauratio, 33; Bacon, Novum Organum, 85.


Bacon, Instauratio, 25.


Ibid., 32–33.


Bacon, Novum Organum, 87.


Ibid., 97.


Ibid., 129.


Ibid., 62.


Ibid., 90.


Ibid., 77.


Ibid., 92.


Ibid., 109.


Ibid., 115.


Ibid., 90.


Ibid., 129.


Rees and Wakely translate machines (mechanica) as innovations.


Bacon, Novum Organum, 56.


Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 235.


Ibid., 299.


Instauratio, 23.


Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 25.


Regeneration has a Christian overtone. It has the sense of rebuilding and replacement (Whitney, Francis Bacon and Modernity, 91). Restoration is back to the original. Instauration is renewal. Whitney argues, following Erwin Panofsky, that Bacon does not use “renovation” because of a pejorative meaning. This is a mistake.


On forms (laws), Bacon writes that “there can hardly be discovered any radical or fundamental alterations and innovations of nature either by accidents or essays of experiments, or from the light and direction of physical causes; but only by the discovery of forms,” namely, the study of causes. Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 201.


De Dignitate includes two variants of the word. The first is novandi. On retaining ancient terms, Bacon writes: “I oft en alter their sense and definitions; according to the moderate and approved course of innovation in civil matters, by which, when the state of things is changed, yet the forms of words are kept.” Bacon, De Dignitate, 483–484. The second is innovari (this is Bacon’s translation of The Advancement of Learning, 201; see above). Bacon, De Dignitate, 513.


Bacon, De Dignitate, 178–179.


Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 424.




Godin, Innovation Contested.


Spedding, Ellis, and Heath, The Works of Francis Bacon, 6:433.


Bacon, Instauratio, 248.


Bacon, De Dignitate, 385.


Bacon, Instauratio, 251.


Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 222.


Francis Bacon, The felicity of Queen Elizabeth: and her times, with other things; by the Right Honorable Francis Ld Bacon Viscount St Alban (1608) (London: Printed by T. New-comb, for George Latham at the Bishops Head in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651).


Francis Bacon, A letter of advice written by Sr. Francis Bacon to the Duke of Buckingham [George Villiers], when he became favourite to King James [posthumous] (London: Printed for R. H. and H. B., 1661).


Francis Bacon, A Letter, to the King, concerning the Premunire, in the Kings Bench, against the Chancery (1615), in Resuscitatio, or, Bringing into publick light severall pieces of the works, civil, historical, philosophical, & theological, hitherto sleeping, of the Right Honourable Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount Saint Alban according to the best corrected coppies: together with His Lordships life, William Rawley, ed. (London: Printed by Sarah Griffin, for William Lee, and to be sold at his shop in Fleetstreet, 1657).


“For the Lawes, to make an entire, and perfect, Union, it is a Matter of great Difficulty, and Length … How harsh, Changes, and Innovations are. And we see, likewise, what Disputation, and Argument, the Alteration, of someone Law doth cause, and bring forth; How much more, the Alteration, of the whole corps, of the Laws.” Francis Bacon, Certain Articles, or Considerations, touching the Union of the Kingdomes, of England and Scotland (1603), in Rawley, Resuscitatio.


In A Proposal for a New Digest of the Laws of England (1623), Bacon discusses “Objections and Scruples, that may arise, or be made against” his proposal on the collection of laws. Bacon claims that his proposal “ought not to be termed, or held, an Innovation in the suspected Sense … ’tis rather Matter of Order and Explanation, than of Alteration.” Francis Bacon, A Proposal for a New Digest of the Laws of England (1623), in The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, Peter Shaw, ed. (London: J. J. and P. Knapton, 1733). The same argument is offered in A Proposition, to His Majesty, by Sir Francis Bacon, Knight, His Majesties Atturney General … touching the compiling, and amendment, of the lawes, of England (1616), in Rawley, Resuscitatio.


On imitating foreign churches: “Perhaps in civil States, a Republic is more political than Monarchy; yet God forbid that all lawful Kingdoms should be bound to innovate, and make Alterations” because “it would make a Breach.” “Laws, unrefreshed with new ones, grow sour. And without changing what is bad, the Good cannot be continued … A contentious Retaining of Custom, is as turbulent a thing, as Innovation [novitas].” There are “two Opinions, which directly confront and oppose all Reformation in Religion … The first asserts it to be against good Policy to innovate anything in Church Matters.” Yet to Bacon, “custom and usage … are no Warrant to guide and conduct.” “All Institutions and Ordinances … corrupt and degenerate.” Like time (a “Stream, which carries down fresh and pure Waters into that Dead-Sea of Corruption”), “the Civil State should be purged, and restored, by good and wholesome Laws, made every Session of Parliament, devising Remedies … Yet the Ecclesiastical State continues … and receives no Alteration at all.” Francis Bacon, An Attempt to Promote the Peace of the Church (1589), in Peter Shaw, The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon; emphasis in original. Another phrasing appears in Francis Bacon, Certain Considerations, touching the better, pacification and edification, of the Church of England (1603), in Rawley, Resuscitatio.


“Our Church is not now to plant; it is setled, and established. It may be in Civill States, a Republic, is a better Policy, then a Kingdom; Yet God forbid, that lawfull Kingdomes should tyed to innovate, and make Alterations … To be innovated … would make a Breach, upon the Rest.” Francis Bacon, An Advertisement, touching the controversies, of the Church, of England (1589), in Rawley, Resuscitatio, 171; emphasis in original.


On the physician Roderigo Lopez’s treason against her Majesty “to move some Innovation in Scotland,” namely, to make a party against the Queen, raise arms, and levy war. Francis Bacon, A TRUE REPORT, of the Detestable TREASON, INTENDED, by Doctor RODERIGO LOPEZ, a Physician, attending upon the Person of the QUEENES MAJESTY … (1594), in Rawley, Resuscitatio, 151–161; emphasis in original. On the “intention of Spain to conquer this Kingdom” by “stir[ring] up by all means a Party … and desirous of innovation, that might adhere to the Forrainer … For this, they had no other Hopes, then the Difference in Religion … Priest were sent into England to plant and disperse a Love to the Romish Religion.” Francis Bacon, In Happy memory, of Elizabeth, Queen of England, or, a Collection of the Felicities of Queen Elizabeth (1606), in Rawley, Resuscitatio; emphasis in original.


“Two opinions, which do directly confront, and oppose, to Reformation: The one, bringing it to a Nullity; And the other, to an impossibility. The first is; That it is against good Policy, to innovate any Thing, in Church matters … But … who knoweth not, that Time, is truly compared, to a Stream, that carrieth down, fresh, and pure Waters, into that salt Sea of Corruption.” Bacon, Certain Articles, or Considerations, 235.


“All purgings and Medecines, either in the Civile or Naturall Body are Innovations. So as that Argument is a Commonplace against all Noble Reformations.” Francis Bacon, A proposition to His Majesty, in Rawley, Resuscitatio, 275.


That the Church of England be “innovated … would make a Breach, upon the Rest.” Francis Bacon, An Advertisement, touching the controversies. “For the Lawes, to make an entire, and perfect, Union, it is a Matter of great Difficulty, and Length … How harsh, Changes and Innovations are. And we see, likewise, what Disputation, and Argument, the Alteration of some one Law doth cause, and bring forth; How much more the Alteration of the whole Corps of the Laws.” Bacon, Certain Articles, or, Considerations, 217.


Bacon, A proposition to His Majesty, 276.


Lynn Thorndike, “Newness and Novelty in Seventeenth-Century Science and Medicine,” in Roots of Scientific Thought: A Cultural Perspective, Philip. P. Wiener and Aaron Naland, eds. (New York: Basic Books, 1957), 443–457.


James R. Jacob and Margaret C. Jacob, “The Anglican Origins of Modern Science: The Metaphysical Foundations of the Whig Constitution,” Isis 71 (1980): 253.


Michael Hunter, Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 1995), 95.


Christopher Hill, “Reason and Reasonableness in Seventeenth-Century England,” British Journal of Sociology 20 (1969): 243.


Jean-François Baillon, “Isaac Newton, adversaire des innovateurs et des enthousiastes,” in Innovation et tradition de la renaissance aux Lumières, F. Larocque and F. Lessay, eds. (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002), 185–194.


Thomas Reid, “On the Danger of Political Innovation,” The Glasgow Courier, 1796.


Meric Casaubon, Of credulity and incredulity in things natural, civil, and divine wherein, among other things, the sadducism of these times, in denying spirits, witches, and supernatural operations, by pregnant instances and evidences, is fully confuted: Epicurus his cause discussed, and the jugling and false dealing, lately used to bring him and atheism into credit, clearly discovered the use and necessity of ancient learning, against the Innovating humour, all along proved and asserted (London: Printed for T. Garthwait, 1668); Meric Casaubon, A letter of Meric Casaubon D.D. &c to Peter du Moulin D.D. and prebendarie of the same church concerning natural experimental philosophie, and some books lately set out about it (Cambridge: Printed for William Mordgen, 1669).


Henry Stubbe, Campanella revived, or, An enquiry into the history of the Royal Society, whether the virtuosi there do not pursue the projects of Campanella for the reducing England unto Popery being the extract of a letter to a person of honour from H.S. with another letter to Sir N.N. relating the cause of the quarrel betwixt H.S. and the R.S. and an apology against some of their cavils: with a postscript concerning the quarrel depending betwixt H.S. and Dr. Merrett (London: Printed for the author, 1670); Henry Stubbe, Legends not histories, or, A specimen of some animadversions upon The history of the Royal Society wherein, besides the several errors against common literature, sundry mistakes about the making of salt-petre and gun-powder are detected and rectified: whereunto are added two discourses, one of Pietro Sardi and another of Nicolas Tartaglia relating to that subject, translated out of Italian: with a brief account of those passages of the authors life … together with the Plus ultra of Mr. Joseph Glanvill reduced to a non-plus, &c. (London: no publisher, 1670).


Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, Angus Ross and David Woolley, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).


Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York: Dover, 2006).


Casaubon, A letter of Meric Casaubon D.D. &c to Peter du Moulin D.D., 22.


Jean Maurin, Lettre de Mr Maurin, docteur en médecine, à son ami: Par laquelle on connoit les raisons qui ont engagé les Anciens à n’admettre point de Circulation du sang, & celles des Novateurs à se détacher des sentimens des Anciens (Paris: no publisher, 1696), 24.


Edouard Bardagé, Mandement de Monseigneur L’Illustrissime et Revendissime Evêque de Nevers, conseiller du Roy en ses conseils, contre les novateurs, les livres jancénistes et la philosophie de Descartes (Nevers: Philippe Ignace Chaillot, 1707), 4.


Thomas Bancroft, The Danger of Political Innovation and the Evil of Anarchy (Chester: Printed and sold by the Booksellers, 1792), 10.


Michael Maier, Themis avrea the laws of the fraternity of the Rosie Crosse / written in Latin by Count Michael Maierus, and now in English for the information of those who seek aft er the knowledge of that honourable and mysterious society of wise and renowned philosophers; whereto is annexed an epistle to the fraternity in Latine, from some here in England (London: Printed for N. Brooke, 1656), 133–134.


Using Early English Books Online (EEBO), I could find only two titles from the seventeenth century that use the concept in a positive way: Walter Charleton, The immortality of the human soul, demonstrated by the light of nature in two dialogues (London: Printed by William Wilson, for Henry Herringman, 1657); Simon Patrick, A brief account of the new sect of latitude-men together with some reflections upon the new philosophy, in answer to a letter from his friend at Oxford (London: no publisher, 1662).


Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).


Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London: Printed by T. R., for J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1667); emphasis in original.


Over the years, I identified more than six hundred documents from the Reformation onward with innovation in their titles using a diversity of archival sources. Only a couple of these documents concern science.


Hubbard Winslow, On the Dangerous Tendency to Innovations and Extremes in Education (Boston: Tuttle and Weeks, 1835).


Benoît Godin, “Technological Innovation: On the Emergence and Development of an Inclusive Concept,” Technology & Culture 57, no. 3 (2016): 527–556.


Robert Bud, “Applied Science: A Phrase in Search of a Meaning,” ISIS 103 (2002): 555–563; Eric Schatzberg, “Technik Comes to America: Changing Meanings of Technology Before 1930,” Technology and Culture 47 (2006): 486–512; Eric Schatzberg, “From Art to Applied Science,” Isis 103 (2012): 537–545.


Bacon, Th e Advancement of Learning, 219.


Ibid., 222–224.


Franklin A. Seely, “An Inquiry into the Origin of Invention,” Transactions of the Anthropological Society of Washington 2 (1883): 70–90; Otis T. Mason, Th e Origins of Invention: A Study of Industry Among Primitive Peoples (London: Walter Scott, 1895); William I. Wyman, “Patents for Scientific Discoveries,” Journal of the Patent Office Society 11 (1929): 533–557; Herbert S. Harrison, “Evolution in Material Culture,” Nature 126 (8 November 1930): 726–729; Herbert S. Harrison, “Opportunism and the Factors of Invention,” American Anthropologist 32 (1930): 106–125; Ralph Linton, Th e Study of Man (New York: Appleton Century Croft s, 1936); William C. Kneale, “Th e Idea of Invention,” Proceedings of the British Academy 41 (1955): 85–108.

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