What Did Francis Bacon Mean by “Knowledge Is Power”?

A deep dive into Francis Bacon’s theory of knowledge, his scientific discoveries, and his famous maxim “Knowledge is Power.”

Dec 9, 2023By Antonio Panovski, BA Philosophy

francis bacon knowledge is power


The British empiricist philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an important figure because he greatly contributed to the development of modern science. He believed that observation, experiment, and experience are crucial if we want to get to know the world around us. He maintained that position throughout his life, and so he’s a must-know thinker of the Renaissance. This article seeks to answer a number of questions: Who was he? How did he contribute to philosophy? What was his most important work and his most crucial views? And, what did he mean by “Knowledge is power”?


Who Was Francis Bacon?

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Portrait of Bacon by Paul van Somer I, c. 1617, via Dulwich Picture Gallery.


Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English philosopher and statesman who lived during the beginning ages of the Renaissance. He is best known for his contributions to the development of the scientific method, and that’s why he is often regarded as one of the founders of modern science and empiricism. He was born on 22 January 1561 at York House near Strand in London. He attended Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. While on his studies at Cambridge, Bacon met Queen Elizabeth, who was impressed by his brightness and high intellect. In addition to his scientific contributions, Bacon served as the Lord Chancellor of England and made significant contributions to law, politics, and philosophy.


His studies brought him to the belief that the methods, results, and data that were being practiced at his time were fallacious. He expressed an enormous dissatisfaction with Aristotle’s method of deduction, which seemed barren, argumentative, and wrong in its objections to Bacon. That is why he came up with a method of his own and why to this day, he is recognized as a philosopher who contributed greatly to scientific progress during the Renaissance. But what did his philosophy really consist of? Why is he so important? And what kind of scientific method did he come up with? We’ll answer these questions throughout the text below.


Epistemology and Modern Science

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Portrait of John Locke, by Godfrey Kneller, 1697, via Hermitage Museum


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Let’s start off with his contribution to epistemology—the theory of knowledge. During Bacon’s life, there was a rising interest in scientifically exploring the world. Thinkers of the time rejected the religious and philosophical approach to examining reality only by pure reason. They believed that such a method does not bring accurate knowledge, and was too speculative. True knowledge is born using our experience, along with the methods of observation and experimentation. Bacon too held this position. In fact, he was the leading figure in promoting that position and spreading it all throughout the Renaissance.


Bacon advocated for a new approach to acquiring knowledge that emphasized observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning. He believed that scientific knowledge should be based on empirical evidence rather than relying solely on tradition, authority, or abstract reasoning. Bacon emphasized the importance of gathering data through systematic observation and conducting experiments to test hypotheses. That’s why he is often regarded as one of the founders of modern science and empiricism. Although we may stumble upon writings that suggest that John Locke (1632-1704) is the father of modern empiricism, Bacon was the thinker who held and promoted empiricism before Locke.


Aristotle’s Influence

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Roman copy (in marble) of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle, Lysippos, c. 330 BCE,, via Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps.


Advocating for modern science led Bacon to proclaim that “Knowledge is Power.” He was referring to the knowledge that has the potential to empower individuals and societies. He believed that by acquiring knowledge and understanding the natural world, humans could gain control over it and harness its resources for their benefit. That’s because, in Bacon’s view, knowledge is not merely theoretical or abstract but has practical implications. It enables individuals to make informed decisions, solve problems, and achieve their goals: by acquiring knowledge, the individual acquires power.


Long before Bacon’s time, Aristotle published his book Organum, in which he presented his logic. The translation of the Greek word that Aristotle used—organum—is “instrument,” “tool.” What Aristotle refers to is that logic is the ultimate tool for acquiring knowledge and an essential skill of the mind with which individuals are able to use and operate to gain truth. In his book, Aristotle suggests that the method of deduction is the main basis for any logic of the mind. It’s the method that we want to use in order to gain certain knowledge that would be absolutely true.


Aristotle’s philosophy and logic were very influential throughout the ancient world and into the medieval (dark) ages. During the Dark Ages, philosophy was put into the service of theology. However, Aristotle’s logic still remained relevant, and theology used his logic to its own advantage. Thus, Aristotle’s deductive method remained the most influential scientific method for centuries.


Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum: The New Instrument

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Portrait of Bacon, unknown artist, circa 1618, via National Portrait Gallery


That is, until Bacon published his book Novum Organum in which he introduced the use of a “new instrument”—the inductive method. In this book, Bacon criticizes the traditional methods of acquiring knowledge and presents a new approach that emphasizes observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning. The main idea in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum is to propose a new method of scientific inquiry that would lead to the advancement of knowledge and the improvement of human life. Aristotle’s deductive method, says Bacon, is based on pure reason, detached from any physical observation and investigation of the real world. Instead, he proposes that knowledge should be built upon a solid foundation of empirical evidence obtained through careful observation and experimentation.


Bacon advocates for systematic data collection, the formulation of hypotheses, and the testing of those hypotheses through controlled experiments. That’s how he came up with a method that’s the complete opposite of Aristotle’s method—the method of induction. The inductive method involves drawing general conclusions based on specific observations or experiments. On the other hand, Aristotle’s deductive method had the opposite path—drawing specific conclusions based on general observations. Having this structure, the deduction method is not able to broaden our knowledge, leaving us with the knowledge that we already had before we began applying the method, and this is what Bacon objected against. He rejected it because we are unable to gain any additional knowledge, while the induction method that he suggests does enable us to gain new knowledge as well.


Francis Bacon’s Four Idols

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Statue of Francis Bacon in the chapel Trinity College, Cambridge, via Wikimedia Commons.


Since we’ve already mentioned the main idea in Bacon’s Novum Organum, it’s time to take a look at his concept of “idols.” The concept precedes the method of induction, but for the purpose of the text flow, we’ll be explaining it now. Before introducing the induction method as the new scientific method, Bacon took time to explain various errors and fallacies in human reason and understanding. The “idols” are actually various sources of error and bias that can hinder human understanding.. These idols are the results of the long-lasting tradition of reasoning that has shaped the way that humans think.


He identifies four types of idols, each representing different obstacles to attaining true knowledge. Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus) are inherent to human nature and arise from the common tendencies and limitations of the human mind. They include tendencies to simplify complex phenomena, impose patterns where none exist, and be influenced by personal biases or prejudices. The idols of the tribe stem from our shared human nature and can distort our perception of reality.


The Cave and The Marketplace

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Statue of Bacon in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., by Carol M. Highsmith, via Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.


The Idols of the Cave refer to the individual biases and limitations of each person. They arise from one’s unique background, experiences, education, and perspectives. People tend to see the world through their own “cave” or personal viewpoint, which can lead to subjective interpretations and distortions of reality, says Bacon. That’s why he calls these fallacies ‘the idol of the cave.’


The Idols of the Marketplace arise from the use of language and communication. They refer to the misunderstandings and ambiguities that can arise from the imprecise and imperfect nature of human language. Words can be vague, says Bacon, and have multiple meanings or be subject to misinterpretation, leading to confusion and errors in understanding. Idols of the Theater stem from philosophical and intellectual systems, ideologies, or dogmas that people adopt and become attached to. They are the result of uncritical acceptance of traditional beliefs, philosophical frameworks, or misleading theories. The idols of the theater can limit intellectual freedom and prevent new insights and discoveries, making it seem like the performance we are seeing in the theater is the reflection of reality, when in fact, it’s actors starring in a made-up reality scenario.


Francis Bacon’s Further Influence

francis bacon novum organum induction book
Front page of a 1779 copy of Bacon’s Novum Organum, (published 1620), via Wikimedia Commons.


It’s important to mention that Bacon did not invent the induction method himself. Aristotle knew about the method of induction long before Bacon and wrote extensively about it. But he still preferred the deductive method over the inductive one. Since we already covered the importance of scientific reasoning that Bacon preached about, and have seen what his maxim “Knowledge is power” means, let’s take a look at Francis Bacon’s philosophical importance and further influence. The most important aspect of his work is that he is often regarded as one of the founders of the empirical method in science.


Bacon advocated for systematic observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning as the foundation for acquiring knowledge about the natural world. His emphasis on gathering data and conducting experiments laid the groundwork for the development of modern scientific methodology. Bacon’s ideas played a significant role in the broader context of the Scientific Revolution during the 17th century. Because he called for a new approach to knowledge and critiqued the traditional Aristotelian philosophy and scholasticism, he helped pave the way for the emergence of new scientific disciplines and paradigms. Again, at last, Bacon’s emphasis on induction provided a methodological framework for scientific investigation, which remains central to scientific inquiry today.

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By Antonio PanovskiBA PhilosophyAntonio holds a BA in Philosophy from SS. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. His main areas of interest are contemporary, as well as analytic philosophy, with a special focus on the epistemological aspect of them, although he’s currently thoroughly examining the philosophy of science. Besides writing, he loves cinema, music, and traveling.