Philosophy Francis Bacon
David Simpson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0255


Francis Bacon (b. 1561–d. 1626) is one of a select company of philosophers whose works have attracted the critical attention and close scrutiny of major thinkers and leading scholars of every later era. Always a polarizing figure, Bacon’s status and reputation have repeated the same basic pattern (spectacular rise, sharp fall) as his political career. Venerated by one generation only to be disparaged or even demonized in the next, he has been hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment and as the prophet and architect of the modern industrial state yet has also been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for everything from the rise of consumerism and the triumph of corporate capitalism to the destruction of nature and the rape of the earth. He has received glowing tributes from Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Abraham Cowley, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Giambattista Vico, Armand Jean du Plesis Richelieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, and Friedrich Nietzsche. On the other hand, his critics have included Baruch Spinoza, Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Max Horkheimer, Martin Heidegger, and Herbert Marcuse. Alexander Pope’s blunt assessment—“the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind” (“Essay on Man,” IV)—seems harsh, but it is not atypical. The following article reveals both the bright and dark sides of Bacon’s reputation and legacy and also shows the remarkable range of his genius. The primary emphasis of the article is on Bacon as a philosopher and as a leading figure in the scientific revolution. But it also covers his lasting contributions to the fields of history, literature, law, politics, and government. The sheer scope and variety of Bacon’s interests and achievements have posed a challenge not only to his biographers, but to his bibliographers as well. The difficulty for the bibliographer is, of course, to select the best, most relevant, most useful, and most interesting resources from the immense volume of material currently available either in print or electronic form. Consequently, the main effort here has been to identify both the most important of the old and the most promising of the new—that is, to pay tribute to classic and standard works but also to give proper recognition to provocative or unusual ones; to highlight pioneering or seminal studies but also to give due regard to the most-innovative modern scholarship. Of Bacon, who at a young age famously proclaimed “all knowledge as his province,” and who by the end of his career had indeed achieved a kind of universal expertise, it can truly be said that he was a “Renaissance man” in every sense and that there is virtually no aspect of Renaissance learning or culture that isn’t touched on in his writings. Macaulay, who was merciless in his estimate of Bacon’s moral character, nevertheless aptly summarized his special genius and intellectual distinction: “The art which Bacon taught was the art of inventing arts. The knowledge in which Bacon excelled all men was a knowledge of the mutual relations of all departments of knowledge” (see Macaulay 1848, cited under Biographies, p. 418).

General Introductions and Overviews

Students and general readers seeking convenient, concise synopses of Bacon’s career and major writings or accessible, reliable introductions to or summaries of his thought will find the resources listed here of particular interest. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and Klein 2012, both online encyclopedia articles, probably offer the quickest and handiest overviews of Bacon’s life and works and provide a good starting point for deeper and more-detailed investigation. Although published over fifty years ago and a bit too admiringly pro-Bacon (the Lord Chancellor is credited not only with fulfilling Aristotle’s ideal of magnanimity but also with possessing the four cardinal and three theological virtues), Anderson 1962, based on a series of lectures, still qualifies as a useful and dependable guide to Bacon’s life and work. Even more glowing in its estimation of Bacon is Eiseley 1973 and its characterization of the Lord Chancellor as a champion and visionary of modern science and patron of a better world. Though his prose often assumes a decidedly purple hue, Loren Eiseley’s text nevertheless provides an eloquent celebration and exposition of Bacon’s thought and worldview. Peltonen 1996 and Vickers 1968 provide helpful background information and expert commentary on a wide range of pertinent topics. Fattori 2012 is a broad study by a respected Italian scholar.

  • Anderson, Fulton H. Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Arensberg Lectures. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1962.

    A combination biography and critical commentary on Bacon’s career and major works. Though dated in some respects, still a convenient, reliable, one-volume introduction to Bacon’s life and writings. Republished as recently as 1978 (Westport, CT: Greenwood).

  • Eiseley, Loren. The Man Who Saw through Time. Scribner Library. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1973.

    A unique and unconventional contribution to Bacon studies—part biography, part commentary, part lyrical tribute and appreciation—by the noted anthropologist, speculative philosopher, poet, and science writer.

  • Fattori, Marta. Études sur Francis Bacon. Épiméthée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012.

    An eclectic and wide-ranging study organized around three main topics or themes: (1) Bacon’s reclassification of types of learning on the basis of his account of human mental faculties—especially, memory, imagination, and “wit” (ingenium); (2) problems and semantic issues relating to Bacon’s technical vocabulary and use of philosophical terms; and (3) the contemporaneous cultural forces aiding or resisting Bacon’s reputation and the reception of his thought. A French translation of a work originally published in Italian.

  • Klein, Jürgen. “Francis Bacon.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2012.

    Handy and academically solid online overview and guide to the life and writings.

  • Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge Companions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    A collection of articles by leading scholars covering most of the major topics in Bacon studies—from speculative philosophy and religion to political philosophy and philosophy of science. With a general introduction and an extensive bibliography.

  • Simpson, David. “Francis Bacon (1561–1626).” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. Martin: University of Tennessee at Martin.

    A brief overview of Bacon’s life and career, with a critical commentary and assessment of his major writings.

  • Vickers, Brian, ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon. Essential Articles. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1968.

    Although arguably less “essential” than when originally published, this collection of classic articles, on topics ranging from jurisprudence and philosophy of science to historiography and prose style, remains a solid and valuable resource.

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