4. understanding is a complex arrangement which is comparable

4. What
did Bacon mean by ‘the idols of the mind’? How could they be overcome?



In Francis
Bacons discourse ‘The Great Instauration’, it is suggested that man’s primary
source of knowledge of the natural world can be credited to experiences of
sense. Bacon believes, however, that human beings are incapable of seeing the
objective truths of the world due the presence of what Bacon refers to as ‘Idols of the mind.’ His allegation is
this: that our perception of nature is somewhat fundamentally obscured by falsehoods
(idols) which hinder the acquisition of valuable human knowledge, inciting us
to perceive a distorted sense of reality, similar but unparalleled to the real
world. In order for us to obtain truth, we must find a way to overcome these
idols. He declares: “The information given by then sense itself I also examine
in many ways. For the senses are certainly fallible, but they also indicate their
errors; yet while the errors are right before us, the indications of how to
cure them are remote and have to be looked for.” 1

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 Bacon believes that which is responsible for
this fallacy can be categorized into four ‘Idols’: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of
the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace and Idols of the Theatre.


The first
of the Idols, the Idols of the Tribe, makes the incorrect assumption that our
immediate senses are legitimate ones. Human understanding is a complex
arrangement which is comparable to a broken mirror; In which, the reflections
of objects of the natural world are somewhat of a distortion of actual reality.
“All perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the
measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe.”2
In other words, what we perceive in the irregular rays of the mirror are not a
reflection of actuality, but are otherwise warped by our failing discernment of


The idols of the cave embody the illusion within the mind of the individual
man. Everyone has a ‘cave’ of their own which ‘refracts and discolours the
light of nature’3 i.e.
alters their understandings differently dependent on variables such as their
temperament, education, conversation with peers, acquaintance with certain literature,
habit, idols and environment. Any individual who’s acquisition of knowledge has
thus far adopted and been dedicated to any particular style of learning
(governed by any random collaboration of these variables) will surely interpret
all other information in a manner synonymous and complimentary to the walls of
their cave.


The Idols of the Marketplace are constructed via the
use of certain language in order to mislead or fabricate false perceptions by
placing emphasis on particular wording, or using alternative language to
equivocate and throw men to perplexity. “For it is by discourse that men
associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar.
And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the
understanding.”4 This idol is in some
respect a problem of political discourse, it is not challenging to find a correlative
ideology of Bacons idea of the third Idol to techniques used by political
parties today. It is important to note however that the Idols of the
Marketplace are not always used intentionally, these idols can simply be misapplication
of vague terms or jargon.


The final idol, or the Idol of Theatre, refers to the use of
clever or false arguments with the aim of deception. These idols are manufactured
in the ancient history of philosophies, theologies and sciences, and dogmatically
inherited without question by proletariats blindly accepting the “truth” of
their ancestors whom they speculate were the masses intellectual superiors. The
widespread attainment of these false philosophies give rise to false representation
of worlds of ancestral making, which by tradition, credulity and negligence
have come to be received.5
Without ridding our minds of these old axioms, there can be no progression
towards correct reasoning and truth.


The characterisation and exploration of the four Idols of the Mind brings
to attention that these idols are either
adventitious (i.e. coming from without) or innate.6 The adventitious work
their way into the minds of men through teaching, tradition and false demonstration,
i.e. through sense experience. The innate Idols stem from an inherent flaw in
perceptive ability. In order for the human mind to reason correctly, we must
transcend the idols that pertain dominion over our minds.


 As with every question of nature/nurture
(innate/adventitious idols) only with great difficulty can the environmentally
induced idols be eradicated, also, it appears, and one would assume, that
inherent idols cannot be eradicated at all. In which case Bacon concludes that
all that can be done is to identify the presence of such idols and ‘convict
that insidious power of the mind, lest from the destruction of the old errors,
shoots of new may perhaps spring up at once like blemishes out of that same ill
complexion of the mind, and the end result will be that errors will not be
extinguished, but only interchanged. This doctrine, then, of the purging of the
understanding so as to adapt it to the truth, is accomplished by three
refutations: the refutations respectively of philosophies, of demonstrations,
and of native human reason.

Francis bacon , the great , 22


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bacon the great, 23