Edurne De Wilde

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

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My research project considers the modern afterlives of Francis Bacon’s theory of the idols, a theory which the English philosopher and statesman introduced in his famous Novum Organum (1620). Concretely, Bacon identified four types of ‘idols’ – or ‘cognitive biases’ as we would call them nowadays. These idols, Bacon argued, were major obstacles to the advancement of science. According to Bacon, introspection into the working principles of the human mind was the answer. Only if scholars recognised their idols and guarded themselves against them, could they be successful in the pursuit of knowledge.

The starting point of my research project is the observation that, over time, Bacon’s idols assumed a life of their own. In my PhD-thesis, I examine how and why various 19th- and 20th-century scholars picked up Bacon’s idols and explicitly referred to them in their work. Why did Bacon’s idols continue to appeal to modern scholars and what (rhetorical) purposes did these references to Bacon’s idols serve?

As it is unfeasible and fruitless to compile and study all modern references to Bacon’s idols, my thesis spotlights five scholars, who invoked Bacon’s idols in their work and appropriated them in a creative way. These scholars are: Russian philosopher Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870), the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the American historian James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936), the Austrian art historian Ernst Hans Gombrich (1909-2001), and Itiel E. Dror, a cognitive psychologist currently working at University College London. In selecting these five case studies, I preferred variety over uniformity: the case studies differ in terms of time, space, scientific discipline, and academic genre.

By comparing these five scholars’ references to Bacon’s idols, my project tests the hypothesis that Bacon’s idols were rhetorically utilised by polemical thinkers, mainly to expose and condemn what they perceived as poor scholarship and to anchor their innovative understandings of objectivity and scientific method in time-honoured language. It is these rhetorical strategies and acts of anchoring that are at the heart of my research project.

My research project is part of a larger research project at Leiden University, entitled Scholarly Vices: A Longue Durée History. The general project, supervised by Professor Herman Paul, is concerned with the persistence of early modern language of vice in modern scholarly discourse.