Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 10.  New Method

Exploring the Boundaries between Living and Non-living Things
400 BCE-500 CE • philosophers • academies
• museums
• libraries
• critique and expand on work of predecessors • intellectual gratification
500-1450 • learned professionals • monasteries
• universities
• master work of predecessors • explicate and glorify God's creation
1450-1600 • wealthy
• powerful
• virtuosi
• private studies
• patron's home
• observe Nature directly • personal and national benefit
1600-1730 • merchants
• literati
• scientific circles
• learned societies
• interrogate Nature • acquire and disseminate useful knowledge

A New Philosophy

By the turn of the seventeenth century, an ever-widening group of people could and did read.  Ready access to the world of ideas engendered a sense of intellectual restlessness and growing dissatisfaction with others' ideas about the world.  Those with sufficient resources and leisure time, or who could locate a wealthy patron to support them, pursued philosophical ventures on their own and sought new ways of arriving at certain knowledge about the structure and working of the world.

There were common threads running through these early efforts:

  • reason and observation are useful, but limited, methods for studying Nature
  • the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics
    • quantification of natural phenomena is key to "reading" it
  • processes as well as things can be measured and compared
    • space
    • time
    • motion?
    • respiration?
    • digestion?
    • thinking?
  • natural processes can (and often must) be adapted to make measurement possible
  • instruments enhance limited human capacities
  • real world events abide by simple patterned rules, but these rules may be masked by the fact that events only approximate their ideal mathematical representations
    • that's not only OK -- there's simply nothing we can do about it -- so we have to learn to deal with it
    • but how???

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
New Philosophers needed a new model to guide their practice to establish the what, where, how, and why of scientific investigation.

In 1620, Francis Bacon produced a handbook for New Philosophers entitled Novum Organum (1620)--The New Method

In the New Method, Bacon described the study of nature as a new kind of puzzle:

  • the natural world is a maze
  • the scientist is an explorer who travels through the maze of nature like Columbus
  • a scientist can get somewhere and make discoveries if he travels enough
  • the scientist/explorer must use signposts--crucial experiments to determine which way to go next
excerpts from
Bacon's New Method

Those who have treated of the sciences have been either empirics or dogmatical.

The former, like ants only heap up and use their store, the latter like spiders spin out their own webs.

The bee, a mean between both, extracts matter from the flowers of the garden and the field, but works and fashions it by its own efforts....

The true labor of philosophy resembles [that of the bee], for it neither relies entirely nor principally on the powers of the mind, or yet lays up in the memory the matter afforded by the experiments of natural history and mechanics in its raw state, but changes and works it in the understanding....

[T]he reverence for antiquity, and the authority of men who have been esteemed great in philosophy ... have retarded men from advancing in science....

[B]y far the greatest obstacle to the advancement of the sciences ... is to be found in men's despair and the idea of impossibility....

[T]he secrets of nature betray thmselves more readily when tormented by art than when left to their own course....

[M]en will ... only begin to know their own power, when each person performs a separate part, instead of undertaking in crowds the same work.

Those who heeded Bacon's warning to question the deadening authority of books and the brain stifling university system that was built upon it, sought fresh sources from which they could learn and new venues for exchanging ideas and discoveries with like-minded individuals.

Around 1623, the Minim monk, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), superior of the Place Royale monastery in Paris, initiated interaction among a network of savants throughout Europe for which he served as the hub, or "intelligentser."  He arranged meetings when they were in Paris and exchanged correspondence when they were away. 

Called the Académie Parisiensis, or Académie Mersenne, this thriving circle of mathematicians and natural philosophers included:

  • Jan Baptist van Helmont (1577-1644) -- chemist and physician
  • Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) -- physician and naturalist
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) -- political and moral philosopher
  • Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) -- mathematician and physicist
  • Etienne Pascal (1588-1651) -- lawyer and mathematician
  • Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) -- philosopher and astronomer
  • René Descartes (1596-1650) -- philosopher
  • Pierre Fermat (1601-1665) -- mathematician
  • Gilles Personne de Roberval (1602-1675) -- mathematician
  • Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) -- mathematician and philosopher
Events in the Life of René Descartes


born near Tours, France
sent to study at Jesuit school at La Flêche
went to Paris
studied mathematics
joined the army
met Dutch scientist, Isaac Beeckman, and becomes his pupil
series of vivid dreams provoked an interest in philosophy and raised fundamental questions in his mind concerning the limits and extent of human knowledge
after years of travel and study, settled in Paris, became active in Mersenne's circle, and began his philosophic writing

completed the first twelve of what he hoped would be thirty-six Rules for the Direction of the Mind, a comprehensive guide to developing clear and distinct ideas about the natural world, a work that remained unfinished at his death...

The Regulæ -- Rules for the Direction of the Mind
by René Descartes (1596-1650)
Written in Latin around 1628.
Dutch translation appeared in Holland in 1684.
First Latin edition published in Amsterdam in 1701.
1. The aim of our studies should be to direct the mind with a view to forming true & sound judgments about whatever comes before it.
2. We should attend only to those objects of which our minds seem capable of having certain & indubitable cognition.
 [If two individuals disagree -- one is wrong; the philosopher's attention should be limited to Arithmetic or Geometry -- all else is opinion.]
3. Concerning objects proposed for study, we ought to investigate what we can clearly and evidently intuit or deduce with certainty, and not what other people have thought or what we ourselves conjecture.  For knowledge can be attained in no other way.
 [If the question is difficult, it is more likely that few, rather than many will have been able to discover the truth about it.  There are only two ways to come to knowledge:  intuition and deduction solely from reason.]
4. We need a method if we are to investigate the truth of things.
5. The whole method consists entirely in the ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our mind's eye if we are to discover some truth.  We shall be following this method exactly if we first reduce complicated & obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones, & then, starting with the intuition of the simplest ones of all, try to ascend through the same steps to a knowledge of all the rest.
6. In order to distinguish the simplest things from those that are complicated & to set them out in orderly manner, we should attend to what is most simple in each series of things in which we have directly dedicated some truths from others, & should observe how all the rest are more, or less, or equally removed from the simplest.
7. In order to make our knowledge complete, every single thing relating to our undertaking must be surveyed in a continuous & wholly uninterrupted sweep of thought, & be included in a sufficient & well-ordered enumeration.
8. If in the series of things to be examined we come across something which our intellect is unable to intuit sufficiently well, we must stop at that point & refrain from the superfluous task of examining the remaining items.
 [The instruments of knowledge are intellect, imagination, and sense-perception.  The intellect alone is capable of attaining knowledge.  Intellect is aided by other mental tools like imagination, the senses, and memory.]
9. We must concentrate our mind's eye totally upon the most insignificant and easiest of matters, and dwell on them long enough to acquire the habit of intuiting the truth distinctly & clearly.
10. In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display or presuppose order.
11. If after intuiting a number of simple propositions we deduce something else from them, it is useful to run through them in a continuous & completely uninterrupted train of thought, to reflect on their relations to one another & to form a distinct & as far as possible simultaneous conception of several of them.  For in this way our knowledge becomes much more certain & our mental capacity is enormously increased.
12. Finally, we must make use of all the aids which intellect, imagination , sense-perception, & memory afford in order, firstly, to intuit simple propositions distinctly; secondly to combine correctly the matters under investigation with what we already know, so that they too may be known; & thirdly, to find out what things should be compared with each other so that we make the most thorough use of all our human powers.
 [Human senses are like impressions in wax.]

Descartes relocated to Holland and began work on The World, or Treatise on Light (physics and cosmology) and Treatise on Man (the structure and function of the human body and soul); both were to be major works based on new, non-Aristotelian principles 

1633 stopped plans to publish these treatises after Galileo's arrest in 1632 [though he continued to revise these works for several years, he never published them; a French version of each treatise was eventually published in 1664, after his death]
excerpt from
Descartes' Treatise on Man (c. 1632-1640)
...I suppose the body to be just a statue or a machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us.  Thus He not only gives its exterior the colours and shapes of all the parts of our body, but also places inside it all the parts needed to make it walk, eat, breathe, and imitate all those functions we have which can be imagined to proceed from matter and to depend solely on the disposition of our organs....

Go to:
  • "The Sand-man" (1817) by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)
Readings for Week
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