Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Idols of the Mind: Modern Variations on a Baconian Theme, 1800-2000

Drawing on a broad array of sources, this project examines modern retrievals of Bacon’s idols, thereby testing Justus von Liebig’s intriguing observation, back in 1863, that Bacon’s name lived on mainly in mottos or stereotypical phrases. More importantly, it examines the rhetorical purposes served by these phrases. To what extent did the classic status of Bacon’s idola add rhetorical power to epistemological criticism of “flawed,” “biased,” or “impure” scholarship?

Duration
2019  -   2023
Contact
Edurne De Wilde
Funding
NWO Vici NWO Vici

Although “Baconianism” was initially synonymous with inductive methods of a kind regarded as constitutive of British empiricism, Bacon’s idola mentis – idols of the tribe, cave, marketplace, and theater – began to attract major attention only when inductivism lost its epistemic authority under the influence of, mainly, Hume and Stuart Mill. They were picked up by a broad range of 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers, including Alexander Herzen, Thomas Huxley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, John Dewey, and Max Scheler.

Why did these mostly anti-positivist critics hark back to Bacon’s idols, despite “Baconianism” increasingly being associated with epistemic naivety? From where did they derive this commonplace and why was it attractive to them? Drawing on a broad array of sources, this project examines modern retrievals of Bacon’s idols, thereby testing Justus von Liebig’s intriguing observation, back in 1863, that Bacon’s name lived on mainly in mottos or stereotypical phrases. More importantly, it examines the rhetorical purposes served by these phrases. To what extent did the classic status of Bacon’s idola add rhetorical power to epistemological criticism of “flawed,” “biased,” or “impure” scholarship?

Connection with other research

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