Journal of Early Modern Studies

Volume 11, Issue 1, Spring 2022

Philosophy, Religion, and Science in Seventeenth-Century England

Daniel Schwartz
Pages 17-35

Francis Bacon on the Certainty and Deceptiveness of Sense-Perception

There is an important tension within Francis Bacon’s discussions of sense-perception. On the one hand, he sometimes seems to regard sense-percep­tion as a certain and unquestionable source of information about the world. On the other hand, he refers to errors, faults, desertions, and deceptions of the senses; indeed, he aims to offer a method which can remedy these errors. Thus, Bacon may appear conflicted about whether sense-perception provides reliable information about the world. But, I argue, this appearance of a conflict is itself illusory. Bacon offers us a coherent and compelling account of sense-perception that acknowledges not only its weaknesses but also its strengths. I explain his account by exploring its roots in the atomist and natural magic traditions, drawing special attention to the similarity between Bacon’s response to skepticism and earlier atomist responses to skepticism. One of the key features of the view is the analogy between sense organs and scientific instruments, both of which infallibly register information based on causal principles.