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Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Helped Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science Paperback – 3 Jul 2003

4 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd; New edition edition (3 July 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1840464739
  • ISBN-13: 978-1840464733
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 769,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'Henry expounds his case with the contagious, even bullish, enthusiasm of the committed teacher, and the book is carefully pitched at an interested but not necessarily informed readership.' Nature

About the Author

John Henry is a Senior Lecturer in Science Studies at Edinburgh University. He is the author of Moving Heaven and Earth: Copernicus and the Solar System (2001), and has also illustrated a book on darts.


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The name Francis Bacon might first bring to mind images of purple screaming popes rather than the Renaissance thinker who did what, exactly? The Bacon who died in 1626 made no major discovery to rank him alongside Newton, and yet he deserves a place in both the history and philosophy of science as someone who investigated "the very nature of science itself". John Henry makes a good case for the importance of a figure who was driven by three concerns that are still relevant today: "how knowledge was justified, how it could be expanded and how it could be made useful."

Before Bacon, it was widely thought that knowledge had to be recovered from the past. "Adam, the first man, had known all things before the Fall" and the challenge was how best to wind the clock back to that golden age. Although Bacon was a Christian (it was hard to be anything else in England at that time), he was one of the first philosophers to move away from this biblically grounded framework and "to advocate the experimental method as the most efficient and reliable way of acquiring knowledge of the natural world".

The new "logic of scientific discovery" turned the scholastic Aristotelian tradition inside out by recognizing the utility of inductive logic, so long the poor relation of deductive logic. Of course, "simple enumeration" could lead to a false conclusion: having observed a thousand white swans, it's tempting to think that all swans are white. What is required is an appropriate degree of scepticism and the imagination to foresee possibilities such as the existence of black swans. (This anticipates Hume's famous remark that a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. See Hume on Religion.
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Very useful background for students trying to make sense of science and magic in 16th Century and where Francis Bacon fits in.
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Everything great. good quality
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Henry is one of the leading experts on Francis Bacon, but his central thesis that magic was driving the development of science is a bit blinkered. Before Bacon, we have the financiers Stevin and Gresham, and while Bacon is significant in an English context, Descartes, inspiring both Newton and Leibnitz and inspired by Stevin's Dutch Mathematics, had a broader and deeper impact.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa0b054bc) out of 5 stars 1 review
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9bf14c24) out of 5 stars Provocative interpretations and thought-provoking book 5 Oct. 2005
By Barry Schachter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Knowledge is Power by John Henry (Cambridge, England: Icon Books, 2002).

This short, quick read attempts to put into context Francis Bacon's contribution to and status in Empiricism (and modern science).

Henry notes that Bacon was the first great advocate of the use of empirical investigation as a means to gain knowledge, as well as an advocate of the goal of increasing knowledge for the sake of benefitting the human race.

Henry believes that Bacon's motivation was a religious one. He argues that Bacon saw the increase of knowledge as a way to hasten the Millennium (or second coming of Christ). He argues that Bacon felt the Aristotelian tradition, embraced since the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, and based on non-empirical, deductive reasoning, was a dead end as far as the quest for new knowledge goes.

He argues that Bacon felt that he could provide a new, better approach to advancing knowledge by adapting certain aspects of the empirical approach used by "magicians" and witches.

Henry admonishes the reader (and other historians) repeatedly to view Bacon in the context of the time and not with our current cultural views and biases. Henry says that for the most part magic in the 16th and 17th centuries was about understanding the effects of nature (e.g., potions that ameliorate or create some effect). Henry said that magical knowledge was gained in part by experiment, though not systematic experiment, and certainly not experiment with a larger social purpose. Henry asserts that that Bacon was familiar with the magical tradition and the writings of major contemporary figures in that tradition.

Henry noted that Bacon never completed his work elucidating his new approach (various pieces, outlines and examples of the approach were published). Further, Henry emphasized that Bacon contributed no significant new insights using his empirical approach, and was not able to completely articulate how his approach should work. He said that it is difficult to identify any philosopher (scientist) who strictly followed Bacon's suggested methods.

Henry argues that Bacon's real fame rests on the political situation of the times. Henry believes that in the time of the Restoration in England (1660-ish), Philosophy was distrusted, thought to be a tool of the Catholic church and of extreme religious sects. He thinks that Bacon's ideas (he was long-dead by this time) offered a politically attractive way for philosophers of the time to salvage or restore their status by proclaiming their Empiricist approach as objective, non-partisan information gathering intended to benefit all people. Henry thus claims that Bacon's chief contribution is to the rhetoric of science.

This is an interesting and somewhat thought-provoking book. The author has chosen a highly accessible, informal, non-academic style. In fact, there were several times when I wished Henry had included more direct quotes and fewer assertions about what Locke was thinking.
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