Modern vs. Western Thought: The Return of Bacon’s Idols

Dec 21, 2017 |  William H. Young

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Modern vs. Western Thought: The Return of Bacon’s Idols

Dec 21, 2017 | 

William H. Young

In its rejection of reason, logic, and rationality and turn to thinking based on feeling and subjectivism, Modern thought suffers many of the biases and disorders of human nature in reaching conclusions that Sir Francis Bacon long ago called “idols.” In the Seventeenth Century, Bacon initiated not only the Scientific Method and Revolution, but the Western objective and philosophic worldview of man, nature, and, the secular state.

This article summarizes Bacon’s “idols” and compares them to the disorders and biases in some contemporary examples of Modern thought.

Bacon’s Idols

In his Novum Organum (1620) (to replace Aristotle’s Organon) Bacon explained his idols:

The idols and false notions which have already preoccupied the human understanding, and are deeply rooted in it, not only so beset men’s minds that they become difficult of access, but even when access is obtained will again meet and trouble us in the instauration of the sciences, unless mankind when forewarned guard themselves with all possible care against them….

Four species of idols beset the human mind, to which (for distinction’s sake) we have assigned names, calling the first idols of the tribe, the second idols of the den, the third idols of the market, and the fourth idols of the theatre…. It is…of great service to point them out, for the doctrine of the idols bears the same relationship to the interpretation of nature as that of the confutation of sophisms does to common logic….

The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man’s sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things; on the contrary, all the perceptions both of the senses and the mind bear reference to man and not to the universe, and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted and distort and disfigure them….

The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the errors common to the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed, or equable and tranquil, and the like; so that the spirit of man (according to its several dispositions), is variable, confused, and, as it were actuated by chance; and Heraclitus said well that men search for knowledge in lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world…

There are also idols formed by the reciprocal intercourse and society of man with man, which we call idols of the market, from the commerce and association of men with each other; for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at the will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can the definitions and explanations with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy; words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies….

Lastly, there are idols which have crept into men’s minds from the various dogmas or peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration, and these we denominate idols of the theatre; for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds. Nor do we speak only of the present systems, or of the philosophy and sects of the ancients, since numerous other plays of a similar nature can still be composed and made to agree with each other, the causes of the most opposite errors being generally the same….[1]

In The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created (2004), William J. Bernstein argues that Bacon “brilliantly prefigured…modern behavioral psychology’s notion that humans have a proclivity to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. Man is…a pattern-seeking primate, with an unerring ability to see connections and suspect conspiracies where none exist.”[2]

The website explains further:

Bacon did not regard idols as symbols, but rather as fixations. In this respect he anticipated modern psychology…. The idols of the tribe are deceptive beliefs inherent in the mind of man…They are abstractions in error arising from common tendencies to exaggeration, distortion, and disproportion….The thoughts of the individual roam around in this dark cave and are variously modified by temperament, education, habit, environment, and accident….

Idols of the marketplace are errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, and in this classification Bacon anticipated the modern science of semantics…. The constant impact of words variously used without attention to their true meaning only in turn condition the understanding and breed fallacies….

Idols of the theatre are those which are due to sophistry and false learning…. When false philosophies have been cultivated and have attained a wide sphere of dominion in the world of the intellect they are no longer questioned. False superstructures are raised on false foundations, and in the end systems barren of merit parade their grandeur on the stage of the world….[3]

A Current Idol of the Tribe

Let’s consider a current example of one of Bacon’s idols of the tribe that illustrates subjectivism in the search for objective evidence to support a conclusion, on a matter that also involves the Modern thought on college campuses that has evolved over the period covered by this series of articles. That example will be higher education’s embrace of “emotional reasoning” as explicated by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in “The Coddling of the American Mind” in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.

They summarize the definition of emotional reasoning as “letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.” They go on to say:

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense….

Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment…But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

Bacon led the West to adopt the scientific method to overcome just such subjectivism and his idols, to turn to objective decision making based on evidence that became the touchstones of Western science and law.

Lukianoff and Haidt noted the danger of accepting emotional reasoning as a thinking process that will lead students to difficulties in their interactions in later life. Another example in which campus activism is leading students to choose subjectivism over reason is described in a recent Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Lorde of the Flies: Why College Students Reject Reason,” by Jillian Kay Melchior. Audre Lorde, a black lesbian who died in 1992, is a campus idol of the social justice movement. Melchior explains that students have adopted the anti-Western views in one of Lorde’s essays:

She defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings.” If student activists seem irrational, they’re actually deliberately antirational, rejecting reason as “white” and ‘male.”[4]

An overall result of the blurring between subjectivism and reasoning was given in my last article on moral relativism among emerging adults by sociologist Christian Smith, who noted that:

Central to many of the confusions in emerging adult moral reasoning is the inability to distinguish between objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts. The error of not distinguishing these two things is this: the realities themselves are confused with, and therefore dependent upon, people’s cognitive grasp of them. What actually exists is conflated into what is believed to exist. But these are different things that must be kept separate….

Yet most emerging adults do not understand that…They think that people believing something to be morally true is what makes it morally true.[5]

Ironically and tragically, we see how deeply into American life the academy’s subjectivism, dismissal of truth, social construction of reality, emotional reasoning, and acceptance of feeling—all containing Bacon’s idols—as the basis for decisions has penetrated, doing great damage.

Biased Thinking

But, especially tragic, as Lukianoff and Haidt argue further, is that there is an even greater danger of the academy’s acceptance of Bacon’s ancient idols as the basis for Modern thought:

A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.[6]

Lukianoff and Haidt go on to identify the common cognitive disorders that therapy seeks to correct but that the academy accepts as key elements of Modern thought, including: mind reading, fortune-telling, catastrophizing, labeling, discounting positives, negative filtering, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, blaming, what if?, emotional reasoning, and inability to disconfirm. Ironically, many of those cognitive disorders were recognized by Francis Bacon back in the seventeenth century in what, as we’ve seen, he designated as “idols of the mind or tribe.”

Moreover, contemporary psychology recognizes that there are cognitive and personal biases in the decision-making processes of every human being, including those such as confirmation bias, premature termination of search for evidence, cognitive inertia, selective perception, wishful thinking, repetition bias, anchoring and adjustment, groupthink, and others.[7] Again, such biases were recognized by Bacon, prefiguring modern psychology.

It’s ironic, that at a time when modern psychology, as shown in the previous two paragraphs, can identify and now address each of those idols to improve man’s health and decision-making, the academy and Modern thought have chosen to ignore psychology’s insights in their ideological drive to adopt subjectivism and cultural determinism.

Idols of the Theater

Bacon mentions idols of the theater that may have crept into men’s minds from “various dogmas” or “fictitious and theatrical worlds.” Two contemporary idols of the theater, examples of the sophistry and false learning that Bacon so presciently anticipated, come to mind.

One such idol is Postmodernism, the dogma or doctrine that knowledge and reality can be socially constructed, that objective reality can be superseded by the subjective reality of the cultural identity group. Postmodernism is founded upon the dismissal of the fundamental principles Western civilization and the adoption of multiculturalism.

The second such idol is Sustainability, the dogma or doctrine that a command economy with zero economic growth without man-made carbon emissions is needed to protect the environment. Sustainability also is founded upon anti-capitalist Marxist socialism, radical environmentalist nature worship, mental models not reliant on scientific evidence, and feelings over reason.

Modern Thought

In Modern thought, the determinism of academic social science, postmodern multicultural, and radical environmental dogma and the subjectivism of feeling—all reflecting modern-day Baconian “idols”—has come frequently to prevail, in opposition to the course that Western civilization has followed since Francis Bacon began the Scientific Revolution and the Western objective worldview.

The next article will complete my current series on Modern versus Western thought.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image:  Public Domain



[1] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 30 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 107−13.

[2] William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 104–5.

[3] “The Four Idols of Francis Bacon,” Sir Francis Bacon’s New Advancement of Learning,, April 2016.

[4] Jilian Kay Melchior, “Lorde of the Flies: Why College Students Reject Reason,” The Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2017.

[5] Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 61.

[6] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind” The Atlantic, September 2015.

[7] Decision-making, Wikipedia,

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