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Historia and Materia: The Philosophical Implications of Francis Bacon's Natural History

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This article examines the philosophical implications underlying Bacon's views on historical knowledge, paying special attention to that variety of historical knowledge described by Bacon as “natural.” More specifically, this article explores the interplay of history (historia) and fable (fabula). In the sphere of thought, fabula is the equivalent to materia in nature. Both are described by Bacon as being “versatile” and “pliant.” In Bacon's system of knowledge, philosophy, as the domain of reason, starts from historiae and fabulae, once memory and the imagination have fulfilled their cognitive tasks. This means that, for Bacon, there is no such thing as a pure use of reason. He advocates a kind of reason that, precisely because it is involved with matter's inner motions (its “appetites,” in Bacon's characteristic language), is constitutively 'impure'. The article shows how the terms historia and fabula cover key semantic areas in defining Bacon's philosophy: historia may mean “history” as well as “story,” fabula “myth” as well “story.” In both cases, we can see significant oscillations from a stronger meaning (close to those of matter and nature) to a weaker one (connected to wit and imagination), as if the power of nature decreases moving from histories and myths to stories. On the other hand, there are cases in which Bacon seems to stick to a diachronic view of the meaning of fables and histories, such that the transition from myths to history, especially natural history, is described as a collective effort towards reality and enlightenment.

Affiliations: 1: The Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study, University of London, Woburn Square, London WC1H 0AB;, Email:


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