Although, much of his philosophy tends to be unhelpful (as were many modern philosophers who became skeptical of truth), I found his four idols to be interesting. He lived during the origins of popular skepticism and he developed this idea of the four idols as things to stay clear of when making a sound judgment. He was concerned with the ability to make a pure thought, a thought without any influence by idols, a thought that was completely factual and true. I'm not sure if he ever succeeded.
Continue reading to hear Bacon's own words and explanation. Click here for my summary and application.
He begins by describing how his four idols have already effected our thought processes:
"The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset men's minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance is obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults" (38).
Then he attempts to "forewarn" us of these idols:
"There are four classes of idols which beset men's minds. To these for distinction's sake I have assigned names,--calling the first class Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market-place; the fourth, Idols of the Theater" (39).
He explains why it is important to be on the look-out for these particular idols right from the start:
"The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use, for the doctrine of idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation of sophisms is to common logic" (40).
The first one are the Idols of the Tribe:
"The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions, as well of the sense as of the mind, are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it" (41).
This first idol basically states that humanity is flawed because it is utterly unable to see the big picture. Due to our limited capacity and individualistic reception of the world, we remain unable to grasp an untainted picture of the universe outside of ourselves.
The second are the Idols of the Cave:
"The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature; owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance...." (42).
This second idol is concerned with human nesting. It is natural to select the things that make you the most comfortable to surround yourself with. We sift through things, keeping the ones we find most valuable near us. The Idols of the Cave are the influences (typically in your abode/home/cave) that you have chosen to keep around you. This includes ideas from posters, books, authors, TV, etc.
While the first idol focused on how askew the individual's perspective/aspect was, this one spreads it out to say that even your typical surroundings have been effected by rampant ideas.
The third idols are Idols of the Market-place:
"There are also idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies" (43).
The Idols of the Market-place steps out once again, further than the individual and his abode. The third idol is from the influence of others around you. Their thoughts and actions effect your very own mannerisms. Not only do they influence how you act, but also how you speak and how you think.
The fourth, and final, idols are the Idols of the Theater:
"Lastly, there are idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater; because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stageplays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak: for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received..." (44).
Basically, besides our own aspect (first idol), our surroundings (second idol), and our fellowship (third idol), there are Idols of the Theater. These are ideas that have been intended to be spread. They are not accidental, there are those out there who wish you to hear their aspect (whether it be true or false). And, often times we watch. Just giving attention or paying heed to these idols gives them a foothold and an influence in our own lives.
Explaining the importance of knowing these idols: CLICK HERE
**All of these quotes have been taken from Bacon's Novum Organum as quoted in Forrest E. Baird's fifth edition of Philosophic Classics Volume III: Modern Philosophy. I have made note of the paragraph numbers above. It's definitely a good selection and worth the buy if you are interested.