Francis Bacon – “The Advancement of Learning” (excerpt)

In the excerpt titled by the editor “The abuses of language”, Bacon sets out to explain how a good thing can become a bad thing, i.e. the humanist love of pure Latin and beautiful language can stand in the way of search for truth. He attributes the beginning of it (not entirely correctly) to Martin Luther, who trying to find arguments for his fight turned back to ancient authorities, which in turn led him and his followers to study again ancient languages and aurhors, while despising the impure Latin of medieval scholastics. Why is it a problem, then? Because “men study words and not matter”, that is the beautifully constructed sentences can become a purpose unto itself. There is nothing wrong, Bacon writes, in liking good writing and trying to write well, but the danger is that the pleasure it gives us is too easy, and that’s not the purpose of good philosophy. Like Hercules, who early in his career chose the hard path instead of the easy one, so scholars should turn away from “these delicacies and affectations”. What would Bacon make of some notoriously obscure 20th-c. philosophers like Derrida, I wonder? Would he hold them as the example of this strenuous search for truth or would he dismiss their writing as “affectations”?


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