Monthly Archives: February 2012

Materialism and panpsychism (puzzling about Bacon)

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

In my previous post I mentioned Hobbes’s worry that his materialist account of perception would lead him to a sort of panpsychism. When he explains the problem he faces, Hobbes notes that one might just accept the conclusion. After all, “there have been philosophers, and those learned men, who have maintained that all bodies are endued with sense” (De Corpore 25.5). Who were these learned men Hobbes had in mind?

One good candidate here is Tommaso Campanella. But here I want to draw attention to another possible candidate, Francis Bacon. In his Sylva Sylvarum Bacon claims that it “is certaine that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception” (Bacon 1627, 211; I learned of this from David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, 82-3).

Bacon notes the sensitivity of this “perception”, and goes on to give several examples, many of which are examples of things that are signs of the weather. The Sylva Sylvarum was a popular work, of which Hobbes would likely have known. Aside from the work’s popularity, Hobbes had the connection of having once worked for Bacon as a secretary: a connection that makes potential Hobbes-Bacon connections particularly intriguing, though they are hard to pin down.

So what did Bacon have in mind by talking about the perception of bodies?

IT is certaine, that all Bodies whatsoeuer, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception: For when one Body is applied to another, there is a Kinde of Election, to embrace that which is Agreeable, and to exclude or expell that which is Ingrate: And whether the Body be Alterant, or Altered, evermore a Perception precedeth Operation: For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another. And sometimes this Perception, in some Kinde of Bodies, is farre more Subtill than the Sense; So that the Sense is but a dull Thing in Comparison of it: Wee see a Weather-Glasse, will finde the least difference of the Weather, in Heat, or Cold, when Men finde it not. And this Perception also, is sometimes at Distance, as well as upon the Touch; As when the Load-Stone draweth Iron; or Flame fireth Naphtha of Babylon, a great distance off. It is therefore a Subiect of a very Noble Enquiry, to enquire of the more Subtill Perceptions; For it is another Key to open Nature, as well as the Sense; And sometimes Better (Bacon 1627, 211-2).

A weather glass was a sort of thermometer, and thermometers can register changes in temperature that human sensation cannot. More generally, they look different depending on what the temperature is. But we can only explain this behaviour, Bacon reckons, if there is in the weather glass a sort of perception of the surrounding medium and its temperature. The weather glass looks like this in the afternoon because it perceives warm air, and like that at night because it perceives cold air. Similarly, a load stone attracts iron, and this depends on the perception that the thing there is iron.

In addition to the evidence provided by examples, Bacon offers a further brief argument that there must be this perception: “whether the Body be Alterant, or Altered, evermore a Perception precedeth Operation: For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another”. How does that argument work? Is the idea that bodies react differently in different situations, but can only do that because of the presence of perception? So if there was no perception, different bodies would not be able to react differently to circumstances?

One might wonder whether this talk of perception can be given a deflationary reading. Is the perception that is not sense still in fact a mental act, or is it merely metaphorically perception? Well, one thing that is notable is that Bacon does not just talk of the state of the weather glass as an effect and a sign of the temperature, language he perfectly well could have used. Much as he distinguishes what is going on in the weather glass from the sense humans have, he chooses ‘perception’ as his term, which is surely somewhat significant.

There are three questions to which I’ve suggested some tentative answers. Is Bacon a plausible candidate for being one of the learned philosophers Hobbes had in mind? Is Bacon’s talk of perception merely metaphorical? How does the argument that there must be this perception, “For else all Bodies would be alike One to Another” work? But this is all very tentative. Any thoughts?