chapter  4
20 Pages


In a famous passage in the Great Instauration (1620) that intriguingly anticipates Nietzsche’s ‘four errors’, Francis Bacon describes the four ‘Idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding’, and which prevent human beings from arriving at a clear understanding of the world in which they live. First, he writes, are the ‘Idols of the Tribe’, so called because they ‘have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men’. They are responsible for an innate tendency to attribute human significance to natural phenomena, populating the universe with human intelligence and desire, from the anthropoid totems

of traditional religion to the casual poetry of ‘raging tempests’. Second are the ‘Idols of the Cave’ that govern individual temperament, predisposing each of us to find particular patterns of significance in the contingency of things; for ‘every one . . . has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature’. Third are the linguistic confusions that result from the attempt to describe and classify things using ready-made vocabularies and concepts, which Bacon calls the ‘Idols of the Market Place’, ‘on account of the commerce and consort of men there’; since ‘it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar’. Finally there are the ‘Idols of the Theatre’, the theoretical systems and explanatory narratives ‘which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies’, so called ‘because in my judgement all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion’, into which every fragment of experience, however awkward or contradictory, must be made to fit (Bacon 1905: 2634).