Bacon in McLuhan 4 (‘Printing and Social Change’)

McLuhan’s 1959 essay, ‘Printing and Social Change’,1 has the following paragraph on Bacon:

The Essays of Francis Bacon are a high instance of all the new characteristics of the reading and writing disciplines which were having such exciting results in 1600. Bacon’s scientific program was frankly based on the printed book as offering  a supreme instrument of applied science. For centuries men had spoken of the ‘book of nature’ meaning pages for contemplation and meditation. Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.2 Bacon had no concern with speculative science. He wanted practical results for ‘the relief of man’s fallen estate‘.  He was not mistaken in the power of print to provide the means of applied science. The methods of spelled-out and segmented processes have been at the base of all Western achievement. Technology is explicitness. (27-28)

Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo (1564-1642) were contemporaries. Galileo’s telescope used a mechanical device to extend an existing human ability, sight, through the application of focus.3 

Bacon, in McLuhan’s reading, considered that human being is founded on an even more fundamental ability than sight (or any of the physical senses, alone or together), namely what McLuhan termed “an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51). He cited Bacon describing this ability as the faculty of “touching the nature of things”. [Works IX, 239] This was the faculty enabling the uniquely human characteristic of language use and was therefore what gave humans the ability to read the books of scripture and of nature in their languages.

Bacon could then be seen as asking how this most basic human ‘sense’ might itself be focused. How magnify its results in analogous fashion to the magnification of sight by the telescope? As cited above from ‘Printing and Social Change’:

Bacon understood the resources of print technology very well. His idea was to catalogue the entire face of nature in systematic book form in such a way that as by a kind of synoptical device one could consult any phenomenon in a printed form. If the cataloguing were completely done in tables and columns, Bacon was sure that a child could read off the most profound natural laws which had been hidden from man since the fall of Adam.

Since the “intuitive perception of essentials” was most purely exercised by infants learning to speak in their recognition of names and words as names and words, the focused magnification of this sense could be termed its return to that superlative childish state. This had the added advantage of appealing at the same time to the many instances in scripture calling for such a return in the exercise of faith.

So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child. [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII 99.]

Bacon’s insight was that focus or “explicitness” in regard to the nature of things” could align humans ever more closely with the design of the world. Four centuries of spectacular scientific discovery since his time have shown that he was correct as far as the exterior landscape is concerned (although, even there, abysmal black holes have been encountered).4

McLuhan’s proposal following on Bacon’s was that an analogous focusing of the interior landscape was required to address our increasing individual and social problems (and perhaps even to solve theoretical problems of the exterior landscape): Understanding Media

  1.  ‘Printing and Social Change’, in Printing Progress: a mid-century report, 1959, 89-112, reprinted in McLuhan Unbound, 1:1, 3-31.
  2. McLuhan was referring to the Novum Organum here with its ‘tables of presentation’. A century later, Swift may have had Bacon’s notion in mind with the engine of “communicativeness” seen by Gulliver on his travels: “out of those rich materials to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences”. See Wakese 4: the engine of communicativeness.
  3. The principle had long been known (at least since the classical Greeks) through the magnification effect of glass and could be put to use, as it was by Galileo and others in Bacon’s lifetime, also for a microscope.
  4. Black holes have certainly been exposed as well in the interior landscape in its drive to “explicitness”. Our knowledge of knowledge has fallen through itself as specified by Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols: “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” (Die Götzen-Dämmerung: “Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!”) McLuhan’s proposal was that black holes are actually the key to understanding both the exterior and interior landscapes: “the gap is where the action is!” After all, was not such an abysmal gap not already crossed in our “touching (interior sense) the nature of things (exterior sense)”? Was this not a “fecund interval” (as McLuhan began to term it late in life), however unfathomable it was and would always remain?