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Francis Bacon and the art-nature distinction

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Commentators generally expound Bacon’s position on the art-nature relationship in terms of how much it retained or departed from traditional conceptions. This paper argues that an appreciation of the Baconian meaning of the terms ‘art’ and ‘nature’ requires a close examination of his wider cosmogonical speculations. Bacon’s cosmogonical account moves from a state of unbridled chaos to the relatively stable system for which the term ‘nature’ is normally used. The fundamental principle lying at the heart of Baconian cosmogony is an enriched and appetitive matter: eternal, unchanging, and the plenipotentiary source of all things. Successive limitations of matter’s absolute power produced a lazy and habitual nature, which Bacon labelled ‘nature free’. To shift nature from this otiose condition, the Baconian operator recapitulates the original binding of matter. Bacon designated the systematic procedures of binding nature the science of magic. Magic is Bacon’s human counterpart to the original cosmogonical process which gave rise to the current system of nature. In Bacon’s cosmogony all possible worlds unfold out of matter: the function of art is to shake out nature’s hidden folds. Hence, the distinction between naturalia and artificialia maps onto the distinction between actual and potential. Nature free is without purpose but art – nature bound – knowingly brings into being an alternative nature designed for human utility. Bacon’s goal, I shall argue, was to access the occult storehouse of matter’s powers by means of the artful manipulation of matter itself.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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