Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Thus, since knowledge and power acquire a single identity in Bacon's perception, he does not see that the commandment - that knowledge be exclusively directed towards gaining power - imputes a new value to knowledge. And so he confidently asserts that he is advocating a knowledge free of all 'idols of the understanding' - a value-free knowledge, in more modern terminology. Yet, this assertion of the identity of knowledge and power is quite obviously a new idol. We do not see the change envisaged by Bacon as a split between facts and values, opening the way to value-free factual knowledge. We only see the older values of 'good' and 'evil' being replaced by the new values of 'useful' and 'useless'.

Using Bacon's own categorization of the idols that beset human understanding, we are tempted to call this new idol of power/utility an idol of Bacon's Den; seeing that it had taken hold of him rather early in life.17 But this idol of his den was also fast becoming the idol of the western world. Bacon was formulating his thesis of the identity of knowledge and power and of the freedom of knowledge from all ethics, when Christian monasteries - the custodians of the prevalent ethics - had already lost out to the new temporal powers. It was also a time when, as Farrington says, Christian ideas of mercy and love had to take a back seat in the face of the lucrative possibilities of plunder and slave-trade made possible by 'little vessels, like the celestial bodies', that sailed around the whole world, and by the power of gunpowder. And 'all the wealth, from whatever source it came - distribution of monastic lands, plunder of the treasure ships of Spain, or the new and lucrative trade in black slaves - was being invested in industry' to further increase the hold of the temporal power.18 It was only a matter of time before the intellect would align itself with these new powers, before new idols of the tribe and the theatre emerged. It is no exaggeration to say, as Will Durant does, that 'the real nurse of Bacon's greatness was Elizabethan England....19

Although Bacon only gave expression to an idea which was already in the air, an idea whose time had come, the formulation was his own. He offered a justification for the drive for power by declaring that truth is power; and he sanctioned all the misery being inflicted upon whole continents - Africa and the Americas - by declaring that the truth which was power had no business to bother itself about what was good and what was evil.

Going further, he sought to cement the union of knowledge and temporal power by asserting that knowledge in the pursuit of power ought to be organized by the King. All his books are addressed to the King. But in the second book of The Advancement of Learning we find him making specific recommendations to King James I to organize knowledge for the sake of power. The opening words of this appeal to the King are interesting, particularly in the context of Bacon's concept of knowledge as a handmaiden of power:

It is befitting, excellent King, that those who are blessed with a numerous offspring, and who have a pledge in their descendants that their name will be carried down to posterity, should be keenly alive to the welfare of future times, in which their children are to perpetuate their power and empire. Queen Elizabeth, with respect to her celibacy, was rather a sojourner than an inhabitant of the present world, yet she was an ornament to her age and prosperous in many of her undertakings. But to your Majesty, whom God has blessed with much royal issue, worthy to immortalize your name, it particularly appertains to extend your cares beyond the present age, which is already illuminated with your wisdom, and extend your thoughts to those works which will interest remotest posterity.20

Bacon then gives a blueprint of an organization of knowledge which sounds like a description of a modern educational system. He advises the establishment of schools and universities; of endowments, privileges and charters; of libraries, professorships, etc. He recommends improvement in the salaries of lecturers and professors. He advises establishing contact between European universities. And he advises generous grants for laboratories: 'And if Alexander placed so large a treasure at Aristotle's command, for the support of hunters, fowlers, fishers, and the like, in much more need do they stand of this beneficence who unfold the labyrinths of nature.' And 'therefore as the secretaries and spies of princes and states bring in bills for intelligence, so you must allow the spies and intelligences of nature to bring in their bills, or else you will be ignorant of many things worthy to be known.'

Bacon's advice to the temporal powers to take knowledge under their wings was heeded. The Royal Society was founded in 1662, and its founders named Bacon as their model and inspiration. Soon knowledge began to be organized all over Europe on the Baconian model. The separation of knowledge from ethics and its custodians, the monasteries, was thus complemented by the marriage of knowledge with power and its nascent repository, the secular state.

In sum, then, the new ideal that makes Bacon the prophet of the scientific revolution was that knowledge ought to be organized under the tutelage of the temporal authority for the exclusive purpose of gaining power without regard to the questions of good and evil.

To complete the picture, however, we must also answer the question: power for whom and over what? Theoretically Bacon's answer to this question is that knowledge is power over nature for the benefit of mankind. Thus in a much quoted passage of Novum Organum Bacon states:

It will, perhaps, be as well to distinguish three species and degrees of ambition. First, that of men who are anxious to enlarge their own power in their country, which is vulgar and degenerate kind; next, that of men who strive to enlarge the power and empire of their country over mankind, which is more dignified but not less covetous; but if one were to endeavour to renew and enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe such ambition (if it may be so termed) is both sound and more noble than the other two. (I. 129)

It is this 'universal' aspect of Bacon's ethics that has made him the prophet of almost all mankind since the scientific revolution. It is this aspect which prompted Rammohun Roy to advocate Baconian ethics for his people, even when the latter were being immiserized by Bacon's compatriots armed with power acquired through the Baconian sciences. The statement that power should be exercised over nature for the benefit of all mankind - this crucial assumption, which alone can make Baconian ethics a universal ethics as distinct from the ethics of a plundering nation - this statement was not supported either by the general tenor of Baconian philosophy or by Bacon's own life. Let us take these two aspects separately and see how far we can find support for them in Bacon.

First, the statement that Baconian science is a search for power over nature, not over man: it is true that in Baconian philosophy the major attack is aimed at nature. In Bacon's writings, nature appears almost as an enemy, to be dissected and tortured to make it yield its secrets. 'For as a man's temper is never well-known until he is crossed; in like manner the turns and changes of nature cannot appear so fully, when she is left at her liberty, as in the trials and tortures of art.'21 And this is the source of that much-vaunted Baconian stress on unbridled experimentation.

Such explicit formulations as these support the view that the Baconian search for power is directed against nature. However, it is interesting to note that Bacon's 'nature' includes man - not only his body but also a large part of his soul. Thus, while talking about the human soul in Book IV, ch. III of The Advancement of Learning, he divides the doctrine of the human soul into two parts: the doctrine of the inspired substance (proceeding from the breath of God), and the doctrine of the produced or the sensitive soul. He then generously grants, though still with some reservations, that the former may be turned over to religion, leaving it beyond the range of experiments for subjugation. The other part, however, must be fully subjected to human intervention. It may, like the rest of nature, be coaxed, vexed, and tortured to extract its secrets. This part of the soul and its substance may be justly enquired into.

What does this part of the soul contain? 'The faculties of the soul are known, viz. the understanding, reason, imagination, memory, appetite, will, and all those wherewith ethics and logic are concerned. In the doctrine of the soul the origin of these faculties must be physically treated.' One wonders what Bacon has left so magnanimously for religion!

For all practical purposes, man for Bacon, we can see, is a part of nature over whom power must be acquired through knowledge. Novum Organum clearly states that most of the mental and social faculties come into the realm of the Baconian method.

Again, some may raise this question rather than objection, whether we talk of perfecting natural philosophy alone according to our method or the other sciences also, such as logic, ethics, politics. We certainly intend to comprehend them all.... For we form a history and tables of invention for anger, fear, shame, and the like, and also for examples in the civil life, and the mental operations of memory, composition, division, judgement, and the rest, as well as for heat and cold, light, vegetation and the like.... (I. 127)

Thus, the search for knowledge as power is extended to all aspects of human life. In The Advancement of Learning (Book VIII, ch. I1) Bacon gives a long prescription for the 'art of rising in life'. He tells us how one could acquire power over others by 'knowing' them: 'Men may be known six different ways, viz., (1) by their countenances; (2) their words; (3) their actions; (4) their tempera; (5) their ends; (6) by their relation of others.' In the chapter on 'The Military Statesman, Or a Specimen of the Doctrine of Enlarging the Boundaries of Empire', we find him exhorting the state to war: 'No state [may] expect any greatness of empire, unless it be immediately ready to seize any just occasion for war.' The conclusion is clear: Bacon's nature includes man; and when he talks of knowledge as power over nature, power over man and other nations is also implied.

The second assertion, that power is for the benefit of mankind in general, seems as nominal as the first. In Bacon's scheme of things the world is to be ruled by a small Úlite which has power and knowledge, and which is in the service of temporal powers, preferably the king. The common man has no place in this dispensation except as a hewer of wood and drawer of water. This was the existing social structure in Bacon's society, and the structure he envisaged for the scientific utopia sketched in the New Atlantis: A King, a scientific Úlite in the service of King and the people.22 It is not obvious how the benefits of power acquired by this Úlite over man and nature would benefit mankind. In practice, in Bacon's time, as now, the benefits always went to the Úlite at the cost of mankind. Bacon never thought there was anything wrong in this dispensation. On the contrary.

Again, let anyone but consider the immense difference between men's lives in the most polished countries of Europe, and in any wild and barbarous region of the new Indies, he will think it so great, that man may be said to be a god unto man, not only on account of mutual aid and benefits, but from their comparative states - the results of arts, and not of the soil or climate. (I. 129)

The arts, in his time at least, were of course the 'true' arts of gaining power over man and nature, mostly over the former. Two of the three discoveries he chooses for reference in the aphorism (I. 129) where he declares that power over nature is better than that over man, are gunpowder and the compass - the two objects which served no conceivable purpose of gaining power over nature in his time, but indeed vastly increased man's power over man. Bacon anticipated this objection against his ethics:

Lastly, let none be alarmed at the objection of the arts and sciences becoming depraved to malevolent and luxurious purposes and the like, for the same can be said of every worldly good, talent, courage, strength, beauty, riches, right itself, and the rest. Only let mankind regain their rights over nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion. (I. 129)

It is curious that Bacon should at this point refer to 'right reason' and 'true religion' while he himself tried so hard to hound out all religions (except the study of the inspired substance, which is to have no social or psychological reality) and almost all reasons except the reason of power.

In fact, it seems that the idea of Baconian science generating benefits for all mankind is a misreading of the idiom of his time. For Bacon, mankind meant the gentry of Britain and aristocratic groups in other societies. This was the accepted usage of the term mankind in his time. The Oxford Dictionary in its earlier editions defined gentlemen as those who were entitled to have a coat of arms, and, according to one contemporary source, there were 12,000 gentlemen in the England of 1696.23 It is for these gentlemen that the Baconian discoveries were intended.

To summarize, the new ethics called for an unbridled search for power over man and nature and equated truth with power; they promoted infinite intervention in nature (and man as part of nature) in the search for truth that is power; they envisaged that a small group of Úlite scientists would acquire this power in collaboration with the ruling Úlite. And mankind at large was offered a vague hope that at some point in the future they would share the benefits of this power.


We have seen that the Baconian conception of the new knowledge, which was to develop into modern science, had two aspects. Firstly, it was to be the study of nature, and of man as a component of nature, so as to reduce both to controllable and 'usable' entities. Secondly, this knowledge of control was to be regarded not merely as a human acquisition but as the absolute truth about nature and man, in fact as a transcript of the mind of the creator of the universe. Bacon in his Advancement of Learning laid down detailed plans for the orientation of learning towards knowledge that would be sheer power. And in his Novum Organum he constructed an epistemology to indicate how this knowledge could be seen as a peep into the divine mind.

The conceptions that the whole world is potentially 'usable', that the divine mind can be deciphered to find ways to put the world to use, and that human knowledge at any given stage can be regarded as the uniquely true representation of reality are perhaps not originally Bacon's or even of his times. It would be interesting to trace their origins and record the varied practical forms taken by these Baconian core concepts in ancient and medieval Europe. Our present interest, however, is limited to core ideas of modern science within which the Baconian concepts still seem to reign supreme.

For the notion that the proper objective of science is the study of everything in the universe as a potentially usable object has not been seriously challenged. Occasionally one may come across an expression of anguish at the thought of a world in which nothing exists that cannot be put to some use, and from where human subjectivity is banished. Martin Heidegger, for example, in A Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, offers a moving insight into this anguish and fear. However, for him, too, the Baconian-scientific worldview is something that need not be challenged or opposed. As far as he is concerned, this is the mode of expression of being that happens to be supreme at this juncture. Nothing can be done about it, except achieving awareness of the dangers inherent in the situation. That seems to be the position of most people, including modern ecologists who harbour anxieties about the objectifying nature of the Baconian worldview. Bacon's epistemological axioms are thus accorded an ontological status, implicitly denying the authenticity of the varied modes in which the Being happened to reveal itself in non-western societies.

The other feature of science that Bacon stresses, that of science being a true and, hence, uniquely valid representation of reality, has also remained largely unchallenged. It is true that Bacon's own attempt at constructing an epistemology that would make science the unique truth about the world was not very successful Alternative conceptions of what is, and what ought to be, the appropriate epistemology for science were put forward almost immediately, Descartes being the obvious example. However, whatever be the epistemological theories put forward by various people at various times, scholarship on science seems intent upon establishing the validity of the Baconian concept of science as the uniquely true representation of reality. To see its stranglehold, one has merely to move away from conventional scholarship (which is anyway known to be heavily infected with positivist ideas) and look at modern scholars who have supposedly given up positivist claims in favour of a 'liberal' view of science. In spite of the liberal cloak, it is easy to discern in them the Baconian urge to prove that modern science is the uniquely true, uniquely valid system of apprehending the real world.

In this context it is instructive to first look at the work of Thomas Kuhn. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn sketches a picture of modern science that shows it to be an activity far removed from the Baconian ideal of a mechanical process of systematic, objective accretion of knowledge free of all 'idols'. The history of Baconian sciences shows that normal scientific activity in any particular discipline consists in the application and articulation of an already accepted set of concepts, categories, theories, exemplary problem solutions, experimental procedures, etc. This shared complex Kuhn calls a paradigm. The routine process of application and articulation of paradigms is, according to Kuhn, punctuated by a crisis situation, wherein a paradigm current in a field is found to be deficient for various reasons, and an intense readjustment of concepts and categories, etc. takes place within the concerned scientific community, leading to the establishment of a new paradigm.

The process of normal science, that of articulation and application of the paradigm, is more or less mechanical. But despite being mechanical in nature, this process has nothing to do with the objective, value-free apprehension of reality that Bacon advocated. On the contrary, nature is approached in terms of categories and concepts supplied by the paradigm, and the data are worked upon through the ideal problem solutions and experimental procedures offered by the paradigm. In fact, according to Kuhn, the paradigms so deeply condition the scientist's perceptions during his normal activity that it can be said that not only normal science, but the scientists' world itself is constituted by the paradigms.24

The hold of the categories supplied by paradigms on the scientists is weakened by the crisis situations, and in these revolutionary stages of scientific activity the scientists do behave to some extent like innocent children free of all preconceptions about the world, according to the Baconian ideal. However, according to Kuhn, these are precisely the situations when one finds nothing mechanical at all in the scientific activity, and when all the 'idols' that Bacon set out to exorcise get free play in the scientist's mind.

Individual scientists embrace a new paradigm for all sorts of reasons and usually for several at once. Some of these reasons - for example, the sun worship that helped make Kepler a Copernican - lie outside the apparent sphere of science entirely. Others must depend upon the idiosyncrasies of autobiography and personality. Even the nationality on the prior reputation of the innovator and his teachers can sometimes play a significant role....25

Perhaps the scientific community as a whole is less swayed by these idols of the mind. But even for the community, acceptance of a new paradigm is hardly a mechanical process based on 'certain rule and method', but involves intangible considerations like aesthetic appeal, neatness, simplicity, etc.26

Having arrived at this completely non-Baconian understanding of the process of scientific development, and having seen the influence of non-mechanical cultural and personal factors in the crucial stages of the history of science, one expects that Kuhn would abandon the idea of modern science being somehow a uniquely valid representation of reality. One would expect him to take a relativistic position, allowing for the possibility of different cultures arriving at different yet equally valid apprehensions of reality. Particularly so, because, given his understanding of scientific progress, Kuhn refused to agree thatscience, through its revolutionary paradigm changes, could be seen to be moving towards absolute truth in the Baconian sense of becoming a perfect representation of reality.

However, as Kuhn is quick to point out, this does not mean that scientific understanding of reality is relative. He tells us that even though modern science cannot be shown to be a transcript of the divine mind, yet it remains the uniquely valid apprehension of reality available to humanity, simply because no other culture has ever possessed any science. In the last chapter of his book Kuhn claims:

Every civilization of which we have records has possessed a technology, an art, a religion, a political system, laws, and so on. In many cases those facets of civilizations have been as developed as our own. But only the civilizations that descended from Hellenic Greece have possessed more than the most rudimentary science. The bulk of scientific knowledge is a product of Europe in the last four centuries. No other place and time has supported the very special communities from which scientific productivity comes.27

Later on, in the postscript to his book, appended to the 1970 edition, he makes his non-relativistic position more explicit:

Applied to culture and its development that position is relativistic. But applied to science it may not be, and it is in any case far from mere relativism.... Taken as a group or in groups, practitioners of the developed sciences are... fundamentally puzzle-solvers. Though the values that they deploy at times of theory-choice derive from other aspects of their work as well, the demonstrated ability to set up and solve puzzles presented by nature is... the dominant criterion for most members of a scientific group....28

And in his 1970 paper in honour of Sir Karl Popper,29 the ability to support a puzzle-solving tradition, which so far seemed one of the many considerations that go into paradigm choice, becomes the mechanical criterion that can be used to separate science from non-science. And Kuhn in 1970 triumphantly claimed that, like Sir Karl Popper, he, too, could prove astrology, psychoanalysis and Marxist historiography to be nonscientific. Kuhn even concluded with Karl Popper that if 'we have deliberately made it our task to live in this unknown world of ours... then there is no more rational procedure than the method of... conjecture and refutation.' Or for that matter, any other method that Bacon, Popper or Kuhn determine that modern science has or ought to follow.

The net result of Kuhn's liberal understanding of the phenomenon of modern science is that what Bacon wanted to prove as the unique truth about the world on epistemological considerations, now becomes so on the grounds of the historical uniqueness of the western scientific community. But it remains the unique truth about the world and the uniquely appropriate way of living in the world. The discipline of the philosophy of science may have gained new insights and fresh vitality because of the Kuhnian exercise, but the core Baconian conception of a uniquely true science has lost no ground thereby.

Kuhn established the non-relative, unique validity of western science by asserting that the descendants of the Hellenic civilization alone were able to arrive at the correct societal-epistemological formula that would ensure the development of anything more than the most rudimentary science. However, Kuhn, notwithstanding his scholarship in the history of western science, does not happen to be an authority on the non-Hellenic civilizations and their sciences. Fortunately, in Joseph Needham we have a contemporary scholar who has extensively studied the sciences of a non-western civilization along with its detailed cultural, social and philosophical background. His conclusions about the Chinese sciences are of interest in the context of Kuhn's summary dismissal of the sciences of non-Hellenic civilizations; and so is the way Needham deals with the Baconian injunction that modern science be looked upon as the uniquely true transcription of reality.

Joseph Needham, after his investigation into the Chinese science and civilization, finds no evidence in favour of the claim that descendants of Hellenic Greece alone proved capable of producing anything approaching a science. On the contrary, Needham comes to the conclusion that 'between the first century B.C. and fifteenth century A.D. Chinese civilization was much more efficient than the occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs', and that, 'in many ways this [the Chinese intellectual and philosophical tradition] was much more congruent with modern science than was the world outlook of Christendom.'30

Needham in his major work, Science and Civilization in China, offers a vision of the amazing range and sophistication of the sciences and technologies that developed in China before their independent development was stifled by the impact of Europe.31 In his 'Legacy of China' article, Needham also gives a list of the discoveries, inventions and concepts which travelled from China to the west and had a seminal influence in precipitating the scientific revolution there.32 Incidentally, in this list of important inventions transmitted from China to Europe are included the three which, according to Bacon, 'changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world' (I. 129), namely, printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. Needham also points out that while these three and many other techniques were invented in China and were developed and extensively utilized in the Chinese society over centuries without disrupting that society in any way, they, strangely, shook occidental society to its roots.

One of the striking examples Needham gives in this connection is that of the invention and transmission of the mechanical clock. According to Needham, a working hydro-mechanical clock was built in China about A.D. 725. From then onwards, one can trace in Chinese society a tradition of clock building which continued up to the seventeenth century. It seems that the invention reached Europe six hundred years later, in the fourteenth century, and it immediately caused a ferment there. The idea of the mechanical clock so gripped the European imagination that by the middle of the fourteenth century 'no European community felt able to hold up its head unless in its midst the planets wheeled in cycles and epicycles, while angels trumpeted, cocks crew, and apostles, kings and prophets marched and countermarched at the booming of the hour.'33 And while the European communities rested content with building fancy clocks, the European intellectuals went further and started seeing the whole world as an analogue of the clockwork mechanism. For bishops and mathematicians, the universe became a vast mechanical clock created by God so that 'all the wheels moved as harmoniously as possible'.34

In other words, Chinese society could absorb and take in its stride its major technological achievements. These achieve meets on reaching Europe often caused indigestion which, according to Needham, amounted to major metamorphoses. The reasons for this strangely unstable behaviour in Europe compared to the quiet response of China have to be looked for in the complex of cultural-philosophical values and sociopolitical organizations current in the west and in China. However, whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, the prevalence of some unique scientific outlook in the west and its absence in China is not one of them. We have mentioned that Needham found the intellectual and philosophical tradition of China to be much more in conformity with modern science than that of the west. He was also categorical in his assertion that the technological achievements of China were not the result of merely empirical efforts, but were made possible through the application of sophisticated scientific concepts and theories. He insists that just 'because practical inventions were the only things that the Indian, the Arabic, or Western cultures were generally capable of taking over from the Chinese cultural-area, this does not mean that the Chinese themselves had been mere "sooty empiricks". On the contrary, there was a large body of naturalistic theory in ancient and medieval China, there was systematic recorded experimentation, and there was a great deal of measurement often quite surprising in its accuracy.'35

According to Needham, the Chinese, before the European impact, had not only evolved more sophisticated sciences and technologies than those of the west, but also retained an entirely different conception of the law of nature.36 In the west, nature has always been thought of as being governed by laws laid down by an external God. We have seen that the primary urge in Bacon was to find a method of deciphering these divine laws, and then playing God with nature and man. Now Needham tells us that for Kepler, Descartes, Boyle and Newton, the laws of nature which they believed 'they were revealing to the human mind, were edicts which had been issued by a supra-personal supra-rational being'.37 For the Chinese, however, there never was any celestial lawgiver issuing commands to nature. Nature was self-governed, unfolding itself according to its own internal harmonies. The object of science for the Chinese therefore was not to decipher the law in order to put nature to human uses, but to find out the way of nature, the Tao of Heaven, in order to be able to go along with it, to live according to the Tao.

Such vastly different conceptions of the law of nature in China and the west arose, according to Needham, because of their different conceptions about the role of the political authority in society. The Chinese society, except during the draconian authoritarianism of the Chi'n (Chhin) dynasty (221 B.C- 007 B.C.), never accepted the legalist idea that the king could dictate law for the people. The political authority could only codify the complex of customs, usages or ceremonies of the people and administer the law accordingly. And just as the Chinese could not tolerate the idea of a terrestrial king laying down the law for people, they could not think of a celestial authority doing the same for nature. Needham also believes that with these ideas about the political authority, the Chinese also evolved an essentially 'democratic' polity, administered by a non-hereditary bureaucracy to which admission was strictly according to merit.

In Europe, on the other hand, the idea of the positive law dictated by the king came to be accepted rather early. Correspondingly, the idea of a supreme being dictating laws for natural objects also became a part of orthodoxy. Needham makes this point explicit.

Without doubt one of the oldest notions of Western civilization was that just as earthly imperial lawgivers enacted codes of positive law, to be obeyed by men, so also the celestial and supreme rational creator deity had laid down a series of laws which must be obeyed by minerals, crystals, plants and stars in their courses.39

This idea that natural objects must obey natural laws just as human beings obey human laws was so strong in Europe that in 1474 a cock was prosecuted and sentenced to be burnt alive for the 'unnatural crime' of laying an egg, and there was a similar prosecution in Switzerland as late as 1730.40

We have given a rough sketch of Needham's ideas about Chinese science and civilization. With such high appreciation of the sciences and technologies developed by the Chinese, and with such a clear conception of the differing social, political and epistemological moorings of Chinese science and society, one would have expected that Needham would give up the Baconian idea of the unique validity of western science, and explore the possibility of different societies developing different yet equally valid sciences. However, we find him protecting the Baconian ideas through a curious two-step procedure.

First, he admits that not only were the Chinese sciences and technologies better developed, but China also had a better conception about the laws of nature, and better socio-political organizations. However, through their own logic of evolution, European science and society have already arrived at conceptions similar to those of the Chinese. Thus, Needham points out, a democratic bureaucracy is now considered the appropriate instrument of governance all over Europe, and laws of nature in modern science are now thought of as statistical regularities rather than divine edicts. Next, Needham claims that though Chinese conceptions about science and society were essentially correct, yet they held those conceptions rather early, much before their appropriate time. The Chinese, according to Needham, had established a bureaucracy much before the advent of telephones and computers, which alone could bring out the potentials of bureaucracy as 'a magnificent instrument of human social organization'.41 And the Chinese rejected the idea of a celestial lawgiver before the full potential of the idea in the form of Newtonian sciences could be explored, and also before any development similar to quantum physics necessitated acceptance of the idea of the law of nature as a mere statistical regularity. Towards the end of the chapter on the laws of nature, Needham asks:

The problem is whether recognition of such statistical regularities and their mathematical expression could have been reached by any other road than that which science actually travelled in the West. Was the state of mind in which an egg-laying cock could be prosecuted at law necessary in a culture which should later have the property of producing a Kepler?42

And his answer seems to be that there could not be any other road: 'Who shall say that the Newtonian phase was not an essential one?'

The implication is that not only are the final truths arrived at by western science uniquely valid, but the exact historical sequence through which they were arrived at in the west was essential and necessary. The Chinese had, rather early, held positions about science and society which Needham believes were congruent with those of modern western science and society. But that happened to be 'too early' for such positions to be useful in apprehending the truth. The Chinese, through those positions, perhaps achieved what Bacon would have called 'anticipations of nature'; the Chinese themselves, being hasty, failed to arrive at the 'true' sciences.

It seems strange to insist that authoritarian concepts of nature and society are essential for the evolution of true democracy and the true laws of nature. It seems even stranger that Needham, a humanist and a scholar who has known another civilization in its full glory, should take such a stand. That he does take such a stand shows the persisting influence of the Baconian injunction that Baconian sciences be looked upon as the true and hence unique transcriptions of reality. It also perhaps indicates what diverse forms racism can take.

For our third example of a scholar who does not belong to the positivist tradition and yet upholds the Baconian conception of the unique validity of the western science, we take a modern Cartesian, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Husserl's major interest is of course to establish the study of subjectivity as the proper concern of philosophy, and construct a methodology that will lead to apodictic certainty in this context. However, in a number of his essays and lectures, especially in the Crisis of European Sciences, the Vienna Lecture, and the Origin of Geometry, Husserl offers systematic reflections on the nature of the positive sciences and on the question of their unique validity.43

Husserl, of course, does not agree with the Baconian epistemology that looks upon science as 'objective' knowledge of the world, acquired without any subjective intervention, without subjectivity playing any role in it. For Husserl this objectivism, which takes the 'form of various types of naturalism', is na´ve because 'what is acquired through scientific activity is not something real but something ideal.' But the na´vetÚ of objectivism has marked the philosophy of the whole modern period since the Renaissance and all the sciences, the beginnings of which were, according to Husserl, already there in Greek antiquity, have been caught in this na´vetÚ. He finds only German idealism, proceeding from Kant, as being passionately concerned with overcoming this fault.44

Though for Husserl this na´vetÚ of objectivism is an error, like Needham in another context, he finds this error a necessary stage in the development of European philosophy which for him includes all sciences as its branches. Through this na´vetÚ 'the world becomes the objective world as opposed to representations of the world, those which vary according to nation or individual subject, thus truth becomes objective truth.' Objectivism thus appears as the first unfolding of the theoretical attitude which, according to Husserl, is the essence of the European scientific spirit.45

However, by adopting the objectivist-positivist attitude, science drops from its domain all questions regarding 'reason' and 'meaning' of the world, and thereby loses sight of its own 'meaning'. This leads to human faith in 'reason' and 'science' becoming diluted. There arises a feeling of 'distress' in all the sciences regarding their meaning. This is the Crisis of European Sciences. Yet it must be made clear that 'this is a crisis which... shakes to the foundations the whole meaning of their truth.'46

It is the promise of phenomenology that, through an investigation into subjectivity it will overcome the crisis, it will reveal with apodictic certainty the 'meaning of the truth' of the 'science', and restore man's faith in 'reason' and 'science', because lack of this faith means nothing less than the loss of faith 'in himself, in his own true being'. This meaning of the truth of science will presumably be discovered after a phenomenological exercise, and in that sense Husserl's Crisis becomes another introduction to phenomenology. However, he already offers an intimation of the meaning of the sciences. This meaning, according to him, lies in the theoretical attitude which, roughly speaking, looks upon the world as an infinity of idealities, to be discovered one after the other in an infinite horizon in which the truth-in-itself counts as an infinitely distant point, while at any time the finite number of idealities discovered are retained as persisting validities.47 This theoretical attitude, according to Husserl, made its appearance amongst the Greeks, and remains unique to Europe. Therefore it is not valid to talk of a Chinese or an Indian philosophy or science as one talks of the European philosophy or science. In the second part of the Crisis and in the Origin of Geometry, Husserl also sketches the unfolding of this theoretical attitude through the intellectual history of Europe in a way that is reminiscent of the Marxian unfolding of history through its various stages. Husserl's work carries with it the same sort of determinism and finality as Marx's.

Having already arrived at a deterministic account of the intellectual development of man, one wonders what more is to be achieved through the phenomenological exercise. It seems that Husserl wants to achieve an apodictically certain answer to a question which he repeatedly asks, to which he already seems to have the answer, if one goes by his 'historical reflections' which we have talked about above. The question he asks is:

There is something unique here in Europe that is recognized in us by all other human groups, too, something that, quite apart from all considerations of utility, becomes a motive for them to Europeanize themselves even in their unbroken will to spiritual self-preservation, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, would never Indianize ourselves, for example.48

The question then is: whether the spectacle of the Europeanization of all other civilizations bears witness to the rule of an absolute meaning, one which is proper to the sense, rather than to a historical non-sense, of the world.49


Whether the telos which was inborn in European humanity at the birth of Greek philosophy... is merely a factual, historical delusion, the accidental acquisition of merely one among many other civilizations and histories, or whether Greek humanity was not rather the first breakthrough to what is essential to humanity as such... 50

Thus Husserl through his phenomenology will not only provide apodictic certainty about the 'meaning of the truth' of Baconian sciences, but will also 'prove' with the same certainty the unique 'humanity' of the Greek humanity and its descendants, the European people.

It is curious that someone concerned with the exploration of subjectivity, of consciousness, should formulate such a racist version of the Truth.


In this final section we offer a few brief comments on the consequences of holding such a Baconian view of knowledge. First, we feel that the Baconian project of orienting all knowledge towards a search for power, towards control over both man and nature, and at the same time insisting that this knowledge has some unique validity, is inherently violent. It is no wonder, therefore, that Francis Bacon, who rejoiced over the acquisition of power by Europe over the rest of humanity through the use of the 'true' arts, such as that of gunpowder and the compass,51 also often recommended to King James I various ways of expanding his empire. Such expansion would be useful, he urged, both for acquiring material benefits and for the honour of civilizing barbarians through spreading truth and casting out superstition.52 The exercise in a way continues till today; the Baconian sciences and corresponding social norms continue to make deep incursions into all other knowledge systems and societies.

It is not accidental that Hobbes, who was at one time secretary to Bacon, while expanding Baconian ideas into the political domain, comes to the conclusion in his Leviathan that no individual has the right to challenge the absolute authority and the absolute truthfulness of the existing powers. Hobbes therefore also claims that in a Baconian society the virtuous man, the man who claims to know what is right and what is wrong, is the most dangerous person.

This brings us to our second point. Baconian truth, which is synonymous in Bacon's system with power, necessarily requires an 'other' in the form of nature, society of man, on whom the power is to be exercised, through whom the 'truth' is to be made manifest. As a consequence, this truth remains absolutely non-universalizable, notwithstanding its claim to absolute validity. What is true for the one who holds power is necessarily false for the other who must be manipulated according to it. What is more, sooner or later the other, be it nature or man, tries to strike back and puncture the myth of universal validity. The intractable ecological problems that started surfacing in the 1960s are perhaps nature's way of striking back at man who takes her as an object to be manipulated according to his supposedly universally valid truth. Perhaps this is the message Gandhi conveys in Hind Swaraj when he says of European civilization: 'This civilization is such that one only has to be patient, and it will be self-destroyed.'53 Gandhi's perception of the self-destructiveness of the European civilization, in turn, echoes the realization expressed in the Bhagavadgita that civilizations based on concepts such as those of Bacon destroy themselves again and again.54

Finally, the Baconian idea of truth is in no way universal to mankind. In India the ultimate 'truth' has always been held to be different from both avidya, the knowledge of the mortal world, and vidya, the knowledge of the immortal in man and the universe. The Isawasya Upanisad55 advises us:

Those who know both vidya and avidya along with the Ultimate Truth, they [alone] live through the mortal world through avidya and enjoy the immortal through vidya.... Those who worship avidya [alone] enter into blind darkness. Into darkness still greater than that, as it were, do they enter who delight in vidya [alone].56

What depths of blind darkness the Baconian conception of knowledge perpetuates!

Contents - Previous - Next