Article ID: CBB132619209

Francis Bacon's Doctrine of Idols: A Diagnosis of ‘Universal Madness’ (2019)


The doctrine of idols is one of the most famous aspects of Bacon's thought. Yet his claim that the idols lead to madness has gone almost entirely unnoticed. This paper argues that Bacon's theory of idols underlies his diagnosis of the contemporary condition as one of ‘universal madness’. In contrast to interpretations that locate his doctrine of error and recovery within the biblical narrative of the Fall, the present analysis focuses on the material and cultural sources of the mind's tendency towards error. It explains the idols in terms of Bacon's materialist psychology and his exposé of the debilitating effects of language and traditional learning. In so doing, it highlights the truly radical nature of the idols. For Bacon, the first step towards sanity was to alert people to the prevailing madness. The doctrine of idols was intended as a wake-up call, preparing the way for a remedy in the form of his new method of inquiry. The paper concludes by indicating how Bacon's method aimed to treat ‘universal madness’, and it suggests that his diagnosis influenced John Locke.

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Authors & Contributors
Biener, Zvi
Sodano, Joel P.
Schliesser, Eric
Williams, Grant
Tabb, Kathryn
Schnell, Lisa J.
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
History of Psychiatry
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
University of Chicago Press
Palgrave Macmillan
Oxford University Press
Mental disorders and diseases
Science and culture
Methodology of science; scientific method
Natural philosophy
Locke, John
Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam
Boyle, Robert
Newton, Isaac
Hume, David
Willis, Thomas
Time Periods
17th century
16th century
18th century
Early modern
15th century
United States
British Isles
Royal Society of London

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