Dark Side of Enlightenment 2.0


A recent look back at Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum put me in mind of current “eliminativist” theories of science prevalent among philosophers whose research focuses on neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and various applications of information theory and cybernetics to the above. Referring eliminativism to Bacon’s ‘scientific method’  is pretty obvious, referring it to his politics is somewhat thornier and less often attempted. It’s well-known that he was a cheerleader for imperialism, agent of the crown, etc., but how did his loyalties affect his epistemology?

Bacon denies a) the immediate truth-value of experience (naive realism) and b) the immediate truth-value of internally consistent theory (rationalism, dogmatism). The legitimacy of knowledge comes down to the given method, or “way” that produces it in the form of an accessible object: “sense only gives a judgment on the experiment, while the experiment gives a judgment on nature and the thing itself” (BkI/L). In a form of abductive reasoning, the best “sign” or “testimony” of a theory’s truth is “the discovery of products and results” (BkI/LXXIII); the praxis of scientific discovery is the devising, implementing, and interpreting of experiments, their “products and results” the objectified “judgment” of method on the thing itself (as we will see, however, the value of a method does not reduce to the immediate practical utility of its knowledge products).

Bacon repeatedly ties this definition of scientific knowledge to imperial expansion as its formal equivalent, twin modes of discovery (we have rejected Aristotle’s “common knowledge”) with infinite horizons, the success of the one the chief source of “hope” for the future of the other. As his utopian fantasy New Atlantis makes even clearer, both imperialism and science are pedagogical practices and models of social organization (Bensalem’s residents and visitors are heavily monitored and restricted in order to maximize knowledge extraction).

Indeed, in both Novum Organum and New Atlantis, the highest level of scientific practice makes imperial practice obsolete. Though explicitly deriving his method in Book II from the form of English jurisprudence and its telos from the “discovery” of the New World, by positing an infinite horizon for both he extends them beyond a notion of politics variously defined as petty, risky, venal, and partial\sectarian:

“For the benefits of discoveries may extend to the whole human race, political benefits only to specific areas; and political benefits last no more than a few years, the benefits of discoveries for virtually all time. The improvement of a political condition usually entails violence and disturbance; but discoveries make men happy, and bring benefit without hurt or sorrow to anyone” (BkI/CXXIX).

In the hierarchy of human ambition, scientific discovery comes out on top:

“And it would not be irrelevant to distinguish three kinds and degress of human ambition. The first is the ambition of those who are greedy to increase their personal power in their own country; which is common and base. The second is the ambition of those who strive to extend the power and empire of their country among the human race; this surely has more dignity, but no less greed. But if anyone attempts to renew and extend the power and empire of the human race itself over the universe of things, his ambition (if it should be so called) is without a doubt more sensible and more majestic than the others’. And the empire of man over things lies solely in the arts and sciences. For one does not have empire over nature except by obeying her” (BkI/CXXIX).

The moment when society turns the force of its apparatus onto nature instead of humans is the moment when knowledge exceeds and determines power. Also when both are thought in terms of submission instead of assertion. The ideal Baconian ruler obeys nature and uses the fruits of that obedience to “guide” culture. Bensalemite foreign policy is conducted entirely through accident, example, and espionage — waylaid travelers are convinced to stay, and later may be released to their homelands on information-gathering missions. “But thus you see we maintain a trade, not for gold, silver, or jewels, nor for silks, nor for spices, nor any other commodity of matter; but only for God’s first creature, which was light; to have light, I say, of the growth of all parts of the world.”

A not entirely anachronistic analogy can be drawn here with the difference between GDP and the production of use-values. For though utility is a sign of an adequate science, science is not simply utilitarian, just as knowledge is not simply power (and capital is not simply riches). Bacon emphasizes  “illuminating experiments as distinct from profitable experiments” (BkI/XCIX) as the method of true science. Ultimately a discovery is valued not for its compatibility with a pre-theoretical substrate (immediate experience, authority, etc.), nor for useful products, which are only “taking an interest payment for the time being until the capital can be had” (BkI/CXVII), but for its capacity to produce new “discoveries” according to the scientific method. Method is then a machine for the expansion of science as a work, an enterprise, not yet another form of philosophical wrangling over the correspondence of language with the real, and as such is a technology for the intensification of all social labor in the name of truth. Subjective ‘idols’ (the senses, superstition, generalities, etc.) must be forced out, declared anti-social:

“We declare that the inept models of the world (like imitations by apes), which men’s fancies have constructed in philosophies, have to be smashed. And so men should be aware (as we said above) how great is the distance between the illusions of men’s minds and the ideas of God’s mind. The former are simply fanciful abstractions; the latter are the true marks of the Creator on his creatures as they are impressed and printed on matter in true and meticulous lines. Therefore truth and usefulness are (in this kind) the very same things, and the works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than for the benefits they bring to human life” (BkI/CXXIV).

The content of truth thus reveals itself to be the proper form of utility. The most true and therefore the most useful knowledge is knowledge produced according to methodological criteria which can only insure the possibility of fully realized truth. This telos is something like Hegel’s absolute knowledge, the projected completion of the dialectic, in which one can always detect a ring of irony. Progress supersedes the best criteria for judging it: useful products. Sadly, “there is no way that [discoveries] can be brought down to the common understanding, except through their results and effects” (BkI/CXXVIII). And so history advances on credit.

Carolyn Merchant has understood Bacon’s narrative to underlie the notion of history Eurocentric culture has been living under since the 17th century, the perpetual work of recovering the garden of Eden. Science becomes the utopian practice of empire, but one that is not restricted to private imagination. Baconian knowledge presupposes an environment that must be controlled before it can be understood, and initiates the steady transformation of the planet into a lab, an artificial world fully accessible to human inquiry (the botanical garden of Eden). Indeed, it is the subtraction of private imagination and all the vanity of immediacy that defines scientific progress:

“The first task of true induction is the rejection or exclusion of singular natures which are not found in an instance in which the given nature is present; or which are found in an instance where the given nature decreases; or to decrease when the given nature increases. Only when the rejection and exclusion has been performed in proper fashion will there remain (at the bottom of the flask, so to speak) an affirmative form, solid, true, and well-defined (the volatile opinions having now vanished into smoke)” (BkII/XVI).

This is how I think we should understand contemporary eliminativism, not on the model of Descartes (who is always looking to establish self-evidence) but Bacon, for whom science gives meaning to the state, precisely by attempting to go beyond it. I don’t have my Foucault with me at the moment, but if I recall his “power-knowledge” critique tends to gloss the mechanics of the productive value Bacon attributes to time, “the author of authors and thus of all authority” (BkI/LXXXIV). While ancient and, up to now, modern science have been the product of contingency and chance, marked by the occasional great intellect and the inevitable perverters of his legacy, the whole force of the Great Renewal depends on the idea that future science (and by extension history) can be the steady unfolding of method.

What if progress, or the reproduction of history as authorless “written experience,” the initiation of the Foucaultian “process without a subject,” depends on the exclusion of agency in the form of the philosophical subject as its precondition? We’re now in the territory of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. The later “top-down” Cartesian subject, and its attributes of free will, radical doubt, self-certainty, etc., would then have to be read as the interpellation of ‘external’ agency into a larger system of philosophical, epistemic, political, and economic relations, the ‘internal’ development of which is predicated on posing the free subject’s existence while staging repeated attacks on its authority. The infinite sins of the subject: greed, partiality, ignorance, superstition, weakness, pride, sentimentality, etc., more than justify its ‘radical’ elimination, even as the rational, universalist ethic they presuppose depends on its continuity.

I leave with you with more quotes:

“We have also parks, and enclosures of all sorts, of beasts and birds; which we use not only for view or rareness, but like- wise for dissections and trials, that thereby may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man. Wherein we find many strange effects: as continuing life in them, though divers parts, which you account vital, be perished and taken forth; resusci- tating of some that seem dead in appearance, and the like. We try also all poisons, and other medicines upon them, as well of chirurgery as physic. By art likewise we make them greater or smaller than their kind is, and contrariwise dwarf them and stay their growth; we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also we make them differ in color, shape, activity, many ways. We find means to make commixtures and copulations of divers kinds, which have produced many new kinds, and them not barren, as the general opinion is. We make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes of putrefaction, whereof some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and com- mixture, what kind of those creatures will arise.”

New Atlantis, 1623


“These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of the creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification,—of which vaccination and other methods of inoculation with living or dead matter are examples that will, no doubt, be familiar to you. A similar operation is the transfusion of blood,—with which subject, indeed, I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples, show-monsters,—some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in ‘L’Homme qui Rit.’—But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another; to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth; to modify the articulations of its limbs; and, indeed, to change it in its most intimate structure.

“And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators until I took it up! Some of such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated as it were by accident,—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of the laws of growth. Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins—And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity.”

“But,” said I, “these things—these animals talk!”

He said that was so, and proceeded to point out that the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education, he said, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx, he continued,—in the incapacity to frame delicately different sound-symbols by which thought could be sustained. In this I failed to agree with him, but with a certain incivility he declined to notice my objection. He repeated that the thing was so, and continued his account of his work.
I asked him why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness for that choice.

He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn more powerfully than any animal shape can. But I’ve not confined myself to man-making. Once or twice—” He was silent, for a minute perhaps. “These years! How they have slipped by! And here I have wasted a day saving your life, and am now wasting an hour explaining myself!”
“But,” said I, “I still do not understand. Where is your justification for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me would be some application—”

“Precisely,” said he. “But, you see, I am differently constituted. We are on different platforms. You are a materialist.”

“I am not a materialist,” I began hotly.

“In my view—in my view. For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain—”

I gave an impatient shrug at such sophistry.

“Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards—Why, even on this earth, even among living things, what pain is there?”

As he spoke he drew a little penknife from his pocket, opened the smaller blade, and moved his chair so that I could see his thigh. Then, choosing the place deliberately, he drove the blade into his leg and withdrew it.
“No doubt,” he said, “you have seen that before. It does not hurt a pin-prick. But what does it show? The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and it is not placed there,—is but little needed in the skin, and only here and there over the thigh is a spot capable of feeling pain. Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us. Not all living flesh is painful; nor is all nerve, not even all sensory nerve. There’s no tint of pain, real pain, in the sensations of the optic nerve. If you wound the optic nerve, you merely see flashes of light,—just as disease of the auditory nerve merely means a humming in our ears. Plants do not feel pain, nor the lower animals; it’s possible that such animals as the starfish and crayfish do not feel pain at all. Then with men, the more intelligent they become, the more intelligently they will see after their own welfare, and the less they will need the goad to keep them out of danger. I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later. Did you? And pain gets needless.

“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be, I fancy, that I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you,—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—bah! What is your theologian’s ecstasy but Mahomet’s houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them,—the mark of the beast from which they came! Pain, pain and pleasure, they are for us only so long as we wriggle in the dust.”

— H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)


5 Responses to “Dark Side of Enlightenment 2.0”

  1. lecolonelchabert Says:

    really interesting and disturbing.

    I’m not sure I get the conclusion though (don’t mean this as snide way of saying “don’t buy it” – i mean i don’t follow); when you say: the precondition of progress, of what Foucault called the process without a subject, is the exclusion of the agency “in the form of” the philosophical subject….do you mean the precondition of this account of progress is this (discursive) exclusion (philosophers do the excluding which is the precondition of their product)? Or do you mean progress not the account but the thing accounted for, an historical process which involves the suppression of agency of a certain type (in subjection to functions, institutions…)? I mean, are you referring to philosophy’s product or that which it is trying to describe and explain? Philosophy is ignoring agency for its own purposes, or agency is (really, “really”) neutralised (by scientific, imperialist practises)?

  2. lecolonelchabert Says:

    I forgot that Moreau cites hypnotism…which puts me in mind of that Malcolm Bull piece about aristotle, hegel and dubois, and also something edward bond wrote: “Our unconscious is not more animal than our conscious, it is often even more human. The unconscious sees through us and our social corruption and sends us messages of our humanity, ingeniously and persistently trying to reconcile the divisive tensions in our lives. Our unconscious makes us sane; it is only in an insane society that our unconscious colludes in insanity.” in _Modern Epic_, moretti writes of how the 19th century turned history into a metaphor for geography (and vice versa) – imperialism and time travelling, a production of innocence (one cannot injure the past); psychoanalysis imposes an historical cartography, or geographic history, too, of an internal geography, and then this, cartography, the most individualist of all postures, is Foucault’s preferred subjectivity. (Agencylessness is above all innocence.)

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    hm, that is unclear — ok directly i meant progress as a myth — some philosophers do the positing of the subject, others denounce it/reduce it, but these are related movements within the same historical process. the cartesian subject is an attempt to gain knowledge/power over ‘agency’ — the problem — and insert it into a system of relations. (i assume philosophy to be a component of a greater ideological project, the production of liberal individualism more generally) as foucault argues, this involves a great deal of repression. but critiques of that subject, both poststructuralist and eliminativist, respond to the failure of ‘the subject’ to solve the problem of agency by attacking its ‘legitimacy.’ with the bacon and the other quotes i’m trying to a) guess at some of anti-humanism’s precursors (anti-superstition, defense of scientific investigation for its own sake, etc.) and b) suggest that anti-humanism is part of the same historical process of control as humanism, critiques of the subject part of the same history as theories of the subject. they are philosophy’s contribution to two complementary strategies for managing a populace. actual agency is the same problem for both: after really subjecting a person to a formal definition, undermining the definition undermines the person, making way for progress.

    the lack of agency really inflicted on some is experienced by the philosopher as willed detachment: objectivity rather than objecthood. i’ve always thought that for foucault this response came from sympathy, a kind of solidarity blurring into identification with the victimized.

    foucault has some comments on bacon’s idola (idols of the tribe, fora, theatre, etc.) but i’m away from my books and forget exactly what he says.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    and what do i mean by ‘agency’ — action that hasn’t been sufficiently diagrammed (‘undertheorized’).

  5. lecolonelchabert Says:

    thanks, yeah, you were not unclear, I got muddled importing an idea of sequence. what you say is very persuasive. this back and forth of humanist and anti-humanist…in the 17th and 18th century its easy for harlequin to convince philosophers they’re on the moon.

    i think though foucault rather identifies, at least at first, with he who is torturing nature to reveal her secrets…his first victim-protagonist is Sade prisoner to be liberated, the type of the subjected sovereign. so objecthood and objectivity complicit and indeed one. (Sade’s victims appear at first for foucault just objects naturally, bodies, being female…there is a nieztschean masculism there which just has to sustain anything feminine, be it “nature” or women, as the other of the subject who is will to power; eventually this is rethought though because Foucault felt Sade lacked spontaneity, which suggests to Foucault he wasn’t after all that much of “a creative genius”.But I think Foucault thought that Mad Bacon Scientist in his island laboratory was pretty sexy, and his “identification” with the victim was a consequence of this fascination, as if that position offers the fullest experience of that “creative” will/power.).

    “foucault has some comments on bacon’s idola (idols of the tribe, fora, theatre, etc.) but i’m away from my books and forget exactly what he says.”

    It’s part of the chronology of representation :

    We already find a critique of resemblance in Bacon – an empirical critique that concerns, not the relations of order and equality between things, but the types of mind and the forms of illusion to which they might be subject. We are dealing with a doctrine of the quid pro quo. Bacon does not dissipate similitudes by means of evidence and its attendant rules. He shows them, shimmering before our eyes, vanishing as one draws near, then re-forming again a moment mater, a little further off. They are idols. The idols of the den and the idols of the theatre make us believe that things resemble what we have learned and the theories we have formed for ourselves; other idols make us believe that things are linked by resemblances between themselves.

    “The human intellect, from its peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater order and equality in things that it actually finds; and, while there are many things in Nature unique, and quite irregular, still it feigns parallels, correspondents, and relations that have no existence. Hence the fiction, ‘that among the heavenly bodies all motion takes place by perfect circles.’”

    Such are the idols of the tribe, spontaneous fictions of the mind, to which are added – as effects and sometimes as causes – the confusions of language: one and the same name being applied to things that are not of the same nature. These are the idols of the market. Only prudence on the part of the mind can dissipate them, if it abjures its natural haste and levity in order to become ‘penetrating’ and ultimately perceive the differences inherent in nature.

    The Cartesian critique of resemblance is of another type. It is no longer sixteenth century thought becoming troubled as it contemplates itself and beginning to jettison its most familiar forms; it is Classical thought excluding resemblance as the fundamental experience and primary form of knowledge, denouncing it as a confused mixture that must be analysed in terms of identity, difference, measurement and order. Though Descartes rejects resemblance, he does so not by excluding the act of comparison from rational thought, nor even by seeking to limit it, but on the contrary by universalizing it and thereby giving it its purest form. Indeed it is by means of comparison that we discover ‘form, extent, movement and other such things’ – hat is to say, simple natures – in all subjects in which they may be present. And moreover, in a deduction of the type ‘all of A is B, all of B is C, therefore all of A is C,” it is clear that the mind “makes a comparison between the terms sought and the term given, to wit A and C, with relation to the knowledge that both are B.” In consequence, if one makes an exception of the intuition one may have of a single thing, one can say that all knowledge “is obtained by the comparison of to or more things with each other”. But in fact there can be no true knowledge except by intuition, that is, by a singular act of pure and attentive intelligence, and by deduction, which links the observed evidence together. How then can comparison, which is required for the acquisition of almost all knowledge and which, by definition, is neither an isolated observation nor a deduction, stand as an authority for a true thought? “Almost all the labour accomplished by human reason consists without doubt in rendering this operation possible.”

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