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Learning to Read Nature

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Francis Bacon’s Notion of Experiential Literacy (Experientia Literata)

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Francis Bacon’s elusive notion of experience can be better understood when we relate it to his views on matter, motion, appetite and intellect, and bring to the fore its broader philosophical implications. Bacon’s theory of knowledge is embedded in a programme of disciplinary redefinition, outlined in the Advancement of Learning and De augmentis scientiarum. Among all disciplines, prima philosophia (and not metaphysica) plays a key foundational role, based on the idea of both a physical parallelism between the human intellect and nature (psycho-physical parallelism) and a theological parallelism between nature and God (physico-theological parallelism). Failure to assess Bacon’s distinctive position concerning the way in which the mind mirrors both the natural and the divine world, that is to say, the meaning of “reality,” has resulted in notoriously jejune discussions on Baconian empiricism, monotonously driven by epistemological concerns. As a result, the standard view on Bacon’s empiricism is as epistemologically comforting as it is imaginary, an “idol” in a genuinely Baconian sense. In this article, Bacon’s notion of experience will be discussed by examining those steps that he considered to be the crucial initial stages in the formation of human experience, stages described as a process of experiential literacy (experientia literata) or, in emblematic terms, as a hunting expedition led by the mythological figure of Pan (venatio Panis). I argue that a well-rounded analysis of Bacon’s experientia literata needs to take into account the complementary notion of the “spelling-book of nature” (abecedarium naturae), that is, the original code of the primordial motions of matter. By getting acquainted with the first rudiments of experience through its spelling-book (on both an individual and a cosmological level), one learns to read the book of nature and, most of all, to write new pages in it.

Affiliations: 1: The Warburg Institute


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