Francis Bacon: The Idol of the Tribe and Market

In his Novum Organum Francis Bacon outlines the four most dangerous idols of the human mind: Tribe, Market, Den, and Theater.  The emphasis on these idols are Bacon’s attempt to analyze current problems that humans suffer from and how to respond.  The names can be somewhat misleading unless one has read Bacon and understood him; as such, we’re going to examine two of four idols and what Bacon had in mind when he spoke of the idol of the tribe and the idol of market.

Bacon’s philosophy was a radical break with the past.  In fact, the idol of the theater is the idol of passed down wisdom (the ancients) which become a barrier to human intellectual and scientific advancement.  It is necessary for the idol of the theater to be demolished for advancement, progress, to commence.  Bacon establishes the quintessential progressive-Whig outlook here.  But this is not an explanation of the idol of the theater.  However, it is important to know this tidbit to recognize the impetus behind the idols of tribe and market.

I. The Idol of the Tribe

The first idol is the idol of the tribe.  And the idol of the idol of tribe is deeply engrained in human nature according to Bacon:

The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; or man’s sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things; on the contrary, all the perceptions both of the senses and the mind bear reference to man and not to the universe, and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted and distort and disfigure them.

The idol of the tribe is twofold in Bacon.  First is the critique that the first sense, that is, common sense, is the correct one.  On the contrary, Bacon argues, the first sense, the common sense argument, is actually the wrong one.  Bacon is criticizing what later becomes confirmation bias in philosophy – the using of the human senses and thinking to see what it wants to see because it was the first thing the mind was exposed to.  What we are first exposed to is generally what we hold to be true no matter what.  And this is a problem according to Bacon.

But what is the common sense argument that humans generally retort to?  It is the argument of tribe, lineage, and family.  In other words, as the name suggests, it is the idol of tribalism

How do men associate with one another and why?  Most would argue by blood, or family.  This is the standard answer of most men.  It is found in the venerable ancient writers of antiquity, affirmed in Christianity, and still defended by many today.  Bacon, however, thinks that men associate for the purpose of material advancement and empirical advancement.  To be bound to the idol of common sense, which is the family or tribe, is to be shackled to a fundamental ignorance and poverty.  The world is bigger than the family or tribe.  And the family, or tribe, can only produce a certain amount of material affluence on its own.  Furthermore, the family or tribe is also the idol that is most likely to be shackled to the idol of the theater which stunts the advancement of knowledge by accepting the ancient ways – “wisdom” – of the past.

What Bacon is advocating for is the liberation of the individual from the family, or the tribe.  In critiquing the idol of the tribe Bacon wants to overcome the common sense arguments that stunt human knowledge and affluence; for it is this first sense that often produces a distorted understanding of nature and reality (from Bacon’s perspective).  Until we are able to overcome our first sense prejudices we will not be able to progress in any meaningful sense empirically (epistemologically) and materially (affluence).  The first prejudice of epistemology is rationalism (specifically transcendental rationalism).  The first prejudice of materiality is that wealth is bad.  The first prejudice of how men associate is that they do so based on filial ties.  These first prejudices of “common sense” must be obliterated for humanity to progress beyond the constrictive chains of the idols of the tribe.

II. The Idol of the Market

The second idol that I wish to examine and explain is the idol of the market.  Economics students or Marxists should not confuse the idol of the market for the idolatry of market economics or capitalism.  On the contrary, Bacon seeks the advancement of material wealth and goods.

For Bacon, the idol of the market is the problem of language and association through language.  According to Bacon, the problem with the market is that language is often confusing and prevents good commercial activity and association between men.  Men cannot communicate effectively with each other without a standard code of language which all can understand. 

Here Bacon is actually something of a linguistic essentialist.  Without definitive definitions our language only sows confusion.  This confusion stunts the ability to advance knowledge and make associations between men easier:

There are also idols formed by the reciprocal intercourse and society of man with man, which we call idols of the market, from the commerce and association of men with each other; for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at the will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can the definitions and explanations with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy—words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies

The idols of the market are the most troublesome of all, those namely which have entwined themselves round the understanding from the associations of words and names. For men imagine that their reason governs words, while, in fact, words react upon the understanding; and this has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive.

The reason why the idol of the market is most troublesome of all the idols is because the limits of language and the confusion that is sowed by having multiple languages and words defined by popular culture is that merchants and scientists, the two groups of people who do the most to advance the human cause of affluence and knowledge, are left in a chaotic sea of confusion and inability to converse and do business with one another.  According to Bacon, we need to filter out all the jibberish nonsense that makes human association difficult to impossible.  Once we filter out the confusion we will be able to liberate commerce and science.

Herein lay the key desire of Bacon in his criticism of the idol of the market: the confusion of language and conversation (discourse) prevents commercial and scientific enterprise from taking off.  As such, the idol of the market prevents the material affluence of peoples and the knowledge of the natural world possible.  Not because the “market place” is an idol of corruption as people who have never read Bacon assert.  Bacon is clear, as quoted above, that the idol of the market is how men converse with one another without clarity and precision we end in sophism and the hope of the sciences become stunted, or “inactive.”

III. Bacon’s Goals

Beneath Bacon’s criticism of the idols of the tribe and the market is his want to liberate human mind from the ignorance of common sense (the tribe) and from sophistical use of language which impede the advances of commerce and science.  In reality, Bacon wants to achieve the fruition of common sense and commercial and scientific association and interaction which, to him, are threatened by the problems he outlined concerning these specific idols.  The idol of common sense is that common sense isn’t common sense.  The idol of the market is that our use of language, which seemingly allows men to associate and converse freely and effectively, is in reality stunting our ability to associate and converse freely and effectively.

Commerce and science are the real reason men associate with one another.  Commerce and science are the liberators of mankind.  Commerce and science are stunted by arguments of common sense (the idol of the tribe) and sophistical language (the idol of the market).  Until commerce and science can be liberated, man’s material affluence and (empirical) knowledge are limited.  What limits commerce and science?  The idols of the tribe and the idols of the market (and also the idols of the theater and the den).

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