(Carolyn) Merchant sees proof in the link between persecution of witches and development of modern science in the work of Francis Bacon, one of the reputed father of the new scientific method, showing that the concept of scientific investigation of nature was modeled on the interrogations of witches under torture, portraying nature as a woman to conquer, unmask and rape.

This claim (found here in a critical reception of Federicis' Caliban and the witch) or a similar one shows up occasionally in feminist and post structuralist critiquues of science. To me it sounds ridiculous. However I want to actually understand the claim before dismissal:

  • Where there structural similarities, at the time, between trials and scientific enquiry as practiced by Bacon etc.?

  • If not, in what other ways can the claim above be made and supported?

  • 1
    Hard to support... The scientific method is based on empirical observations, stating of hypotheses and designing experiments to test hypotheses. In witch trial the "reality" of the pact with the devil was not an hypotheses but a firmly grounded belief. Apr 19, 2021 at 8:51
  • 4
    The "similarities" refer not to the method vs interrogation structure but to metaphorical phrases in Bacon like "you have but to hound nature in her wanderings... entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object." The context of such phrases is discussed e.g. in Pesic, Torture of Nature, and they turn out not to allude to what Merchant suggests they do. E.g. the Latin word for "holes and corners" referred to caverns or grottos rather than to witch's body cavities.
    – Conifold
    Apr 19, 2021 at 10:41
  • Magic was a "thread" in the development of Early Modern science, but not "black magic and witch trial. See e.g. Frances Yates' works as well as Paolo Rossi's Francis Bacon: Francis Bacon: from Magic to Science Apr 19, 2021 at 12:33
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: Bacon said ""whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names, he shall again command them"", which clearly alludes to magical practice. Francis Bacon is probably the key figure to divide science from superstition, making exactly how and why, important questions. The debate over action-at-a-distance which made Newton unhappy with his theory of gravity, & not resolved until general relativity, must be understood in this context - & entanglement still now. Metaphors and analogies have power & shaped & guided the history of thought.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 19, 2021 at 17:30
  • I see close votes but no comments as to why the vtc, or directions in which to improve the question. I mean, I know, this is an SE site, voting to close is a sport, but still ...
    – mart
    Apr 19, 2021 at 19:21

2 Answers 2


The are two issue to bring up here (from IEP)

(1) you seem to assume that Bacon's visions of science is what happens in reality. Some beg to differ e.g.:

[Bacon's method proposals made] the English physician (and neo-Aristotelian) William Harvey, of circulation-of-the-blood fame, to quip that Bacon wrote of natural philosophy “like a Lord Chancellor” – indeed like a politician or legislator rather than a practitioner. The assessment is just to the extent that Bacon in the New Organon does indeed prescribe a new and extremely rigid procedure for the investigation of nature rather than describe the more or less instinctive and improvisational – and by no means exclusively empirical – method that Kepler, Galileo, Harvey himself, and other working scientists were actually employing. In fact, other than Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who, overseeing a team of assistants, faithfully observed and then painstakingly recorded entire volumes of astronomical data in tidy, systematically arranged tables, it is doubtful that there is another major figure in the history of science who can be legitimately termed an authentic, true-blooded Baconian. (Darwin, it is true, claimed that The Origin of Species was based on “Baconian principles.” However, it is one thing to collect instances in order to compare species and show a relationship among them; it is quite another to theorize a mechanism, namely evolution by mutation and natural selection, that elegantly and powerfully explains their entire history and variety.)

Science, that is to say, does not, and has probably never advanced according to the strict, gradual, ever-plodding method of Baconian observation and induction. It proceeds instead by unpredictable – and often intuitive and even (though Bacon would cringe at the word) imaginative – leaps and bounds. Kepler used Tycho’s scrupulously gathered data to support his own heart-felt and even occult belief that the movements of celestial bodies are regular and symmetrical, composing a true harmony of the spheres. Galileo tossed unequal weights from the Leaning Tower as a mere public demonstration of the fact (contrary to Aristotle) that they would fall at the same rate. He had long before satisfied himself that this would happen via the very un-Bacon-like method of mathematical reasoning and deductive thought-experiment. Harvey, by a similar process of quantitative analysis and deductive logic, knew that the blood must circulate, and it was only to provide proof of this fact that he set himself the secondary task of amassing empirical evidence and establishing the actual method by which it did so.

One could enumerate – in true Baconian fashion – a host of further instances. But the point is already made: advances in scientific knowledge have not been achieved for the most part via Baconian induction (which amounts to a kind of systematic and exhaustive survey of nature supposedly leading to ultimate insights) but rather by shrewd hints and guesses – in a word by hypotheses – that are then either corroborated or (in Karl Popper’s important term) falsified by subsequent research.

(For a [much] more sympathetic view towards Bacon in this regard, see SEP.)

(2) it's Bacon's view of the humanity-nature relationship that's usually criticized (and his view of science was basically subordinate to that):

Bacon’s reputation and legacy remain controversial even today. While no historian of science or philosophy doubts his immense importance both as a proselytizer on behalf of the empirical method and as an advocate of sweeping intellectual reform, opinion varies widely as to the actual social value and moral significance of the ideas that he represented and effectively bequeathed to us. The issue basically comes down to one’s estimate of or sympathy for the entire Enlightenment/Utilitarian project. Those who for the most part share Bacon’s view that nature exists mainly for human use and benefit, and who furthermore endorse his opinion that scientific inquiry should aim first and foremost at the amelioration of the human condition and the “relief of man’s estate,” generally applaud him as a great social visionary. On the other hand, those who view nature as an entity in its own right, a higher-order estate of which the human community is only a part, tend to perceive him as a kind of arch-villain – the evil originator of the idea of science as the instrument of global imperialism and technological conquest.

On the one side, then, we have figures like the anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley, who portrays Bacon (whom he calls “the man who saw through time”) as a kind of Promethean culture hero. He praises Bacon as the great inventor of the idea of science as both a communal enterprise and a practical discipline in the service of humanity. On the other side, we have writers, from Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Lewis Mumford to, more recently, Jeremy Rifkin and eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant, who have represented him as one of the main culprits behind what they perceive as western science’s continuing legacy of alienation, exploitation, and ecological oppression.

IEP here is actually being fairly biased in that the list of Bacon hagiographers is fairly long as well, even in recent times; the SEP entry is basically almost a polar opposite--e.g. Urbach is quoted umpteen times on the SEP page (and none at all on IEP.) Likewise for: Rees, Gaukroger and Pérez-Ramos (Gaukroger is the only one of these even mentioned on IEP's page, and only as "further reading" but not cited for anything.)

As far as witches and Bacon.... that's probably a stretch. What other commentators, e.g. Serjeantson (2014) have pointed out in Bacon's terminology is that he (almost certainly due to his legal career) uses certain legal terms in the realm of science and philosophy; the chief one seems to be "indicium" (but also "inquisitio" appears).

What is an indicium? Like “interpretatio,” the term does not appear in Goclenius’s specifically philosophical lexicon. But it does appear in several legal lexicons of the late Renaissance, including those of Pardoux Duprat and Simon Schard, where it is defined as “a sign . . . of a crime, or of something else that is sought . . . an aid to proof.” Perhaps the foremost theorist of legal indicia in Bacon’s time was Jacopo Menochio (1532–1607), who treated them at length in his massive Commentary on Presumptions, Conjectures, Signs, and Indications (1587–1590). Menochio endorses the association we have already seen between indicia as the grounds for inquisitio. He also offers a full account of what indicia are. Following the authoritative commentator Baldus de Ubaldis, Menochio distinguishes between a “half-full” (semi-plenum) indication—a form of presumption that “strongly moves the mind to credit or discredit something”—and a “full” (plenum) indication, which is even better, for it is “the demonstration of a thing by a different sign, by which the mind relies on something just as if it existed.”

This is not to argue that Bacon’s own philosophical doctrine of indicia vera is straightforwardly that of the civilians. But his use of their terminology provokes the strong suspicion that he is developing his ideas about “inquisition,” “indication,” and ultimately perhaps even “interpretation” from the civilian law of evidence. Moreover, to this developing web of legal terminology in Bacon’s philosophy of science we can add a further node, which we also encountered at the beginning of this account: the persistent references in Bacon’s unpublished early writings to a “formulary” or formula of interpretation. A formularius in late medieval Latin was precisely a “lawyer who was skilled in formulae,” and formulae in the law that Bacon knew were the set terms in which indictments or actiones were brought against those charged with crimes.

So it seems uncontroversial enough to say that Bacon couched his scientific method in semi-legal terminology, or at least terminology inspired from the domain of legal evidence (gathering).

As to one more obscure connection:

There is, finally, a little-noticed passage in one of Bacon’s unpublished writings that might clinch this case for a legal origin for the interpretatio naturae. In the volume of Writings in Natural and Universal Philosophy (1653) that Isaac Gruter printed from the manuscripts supplied to him by Bacon’s executor William Boswell (d. 1650) there appears a little-studied treatise entitled Filum labyrinthi, sive inquisitio legitima de motu. In this short treatise Bacon makes a rare explicit analogy between legal processes and the study of nature: “Just as those civil judgments are most incorrupt and honest where least oratory and obfuscation (or even eloquence) is condoned, but instead almost all the time and effort is employed on witnesses; so, in the same way, the best judgments about Nature are achieved when things are deduced by numerous and evident testimonies of experience, rather than by the presentation of aggressive or plausible speeches or disputations.” The “testimonies of authors,” Bacon goes on, are bound up with desires and inducements; but the “testimonies and answers” of things, though they are sometimes cryptic and obscure, are always sincere and uncorrupted. This passage does not explicitly invoke the idea of “interpretation.” But it does suggest very strongly that Bacon’s vision of natural investigation had its origin in the processes of legal inquisitio. If this is so, then Bacon’s general theory of the “interpretation of nature” may perhaps also be regarded as having a significantly legal foundation. [...]

Before Bacon’s intervention, it appears that “interpretation” was not in fact an activity practiced upon nature either by natural philosophers, or by learned Galenic physicians, or by their Paracelsian counterparts, or by natural magicians, or even by alchemists. They preferred to conceive of their natural investigations in terms of cognition, explanation, and analysis, not in terms of the textual procedure of “interpretation.” [...]

By contrast, in the realm of law we have found a number of suggestive parallels between specifically civilian legal procedures and the terminology that Bacon associates with his idea of interpreting nature. Not only Bacon’s use of interpretatio itself, but also the closely associated concepts of indicia, inquisitiones, and formulae, seem to have their origins in the law.

Serjeantson goes as far to suggest that this (then novel) use of legal terminology in philosophy by Bacon may have had something to do with the retorts that his work received (including the one by William Harvey, mentioned further above.)

  • On the relevance of Bacon's legal career to his thoughts on experiment, I came across this paper (paywalled but available on sci-hub here) which suggests that the most relevant experience wasn't about criminal cases but rather "his concrete knowledge of early Stuart craftsmen applying for royal privileges and patents for new technical inventions" and that "he adapted legal requirements—devised to identify inventions unambiguously—to describe and analyze experimental practices"
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 21, 2021 at 16:55

Francis Bacon is such a key and fascinating figure in the history of science. Newton showed that great predictions of motions are not enough to liberate us from superstitions like alchemy and seeking bible codes. In Bacon's time, there was no concept if a detective, which arrived with Conan Doyle. I would say Bacon is grasping for that role, in so far as it existed in hus era. His work and thought deserves close scrutiny, both for it's role in the history of science, and in it's own right. Some quotes, to begin:

"Judges must beware of hard constructions, and strained inferences; for there is no worse torture, than the torture of laws."

"The nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom"

"..for I have taken all knowledge to be my province; and if I could purge it of two sorts of rovers, whereof the one with frivolous disputations, confutations, and verbosities, the other with blind experiments and auricular traditions and impostures, hath committed so many spoils, I hope I should bring in industrious observations, grounded conclusions, and profitable inventions and discoveries; the best state of that province."

"whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names, he shall again command them"

"We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do."

" Knowledge itself is power."

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties"

A close reading of Bacon's work shows he pictured a kind of mutual struggle between man and nature to reveal truth, rather than torture as we understand it. And we can see much concern with the state, and the parallel between 'law and order' in the sciences and the state: that a knowledge-orientated state will be a moral and well-run state.

The judicial paradigm of the era was based in Roman Law and inquisition - literally trials, in the sense of tribulations, ie successive stressings, or tortures. Scholars have identified that in a world without prison as a punishment (used for holding for trial) questioning and punishment went together, and threat of torture was used mainly to weed out the obviously guilty, and actual torture reserved for the rare cases where someone accused was determined to declare their innocence whatever was presented against them Due process as beyond reasonable doubt, was only introduced in the late 1700s. So as we try to understand developments in scientific method, we should also consider parallel judicial developments.

The prosecutions of male witches are underappreciated. It is too simplistic to relate all trials by torture to witches, and all witches as female. That just was not the perspective of the era. It must be noted the prominence given in modern culture, and special condemnation/revulsion, to female serial killers. I'd say that gives insight into the focus on female witches.

The long dispute between male doctors and female midwives over delivering babies, was in practice an assertion of female power knowledge and expertise, not only over men but over science, as far more babies survived with midwives until at least the 1890s. The introduction of handwashing and cleanliness to hospitals was linked to noticing the far lower death rates on midwife wards, for which Ignaz Semmelweis was hounded to madness and early death. Jon Snow encountered similar when proposing the germ hypothesis. The cultural opposition to hygiene is fascinating, iterated currently in opposition to face masks and vaccines during a pandemic that in many countries has killed more than every war they have fought in.

Historian Niall Ferguson draws parallels to the rise of printing presses and pamphleteering, with the dawn of the internet era. I would not just as salacious stories about female serial killers sell tabloids, so with the texts that created the witch panics, after a long era when witch trials had become very rare. The role of constraining the lives of women in allowing more men to dispense with subsistence tasks and take up professions, facilitating the rise of capitalism, is I'd say valid, and psychologically part of explaining the rise in animus against witchcraft. I would look to James C Scott's description of the rising impulse to make people and society 'legible', on the overlap of practical and emotive motivation, around this.

  • Bringing up the "Eurabia guy" (and calling him a historian) as an argument gets a DV from me. Ferguson is an unabashed apologist for British colonialism, to say nothing of his support for Trump, Le Pen etc. I can't be bothered to read what Ferguson may have written about Bacon, but I don't expect it to be anything else than Victorian-style praise, knowing Ferguson's other views.
    – Fizz
    Apr 20, 2021 at 7:14
  • @Fizz: Professor at Harvard, senior research fellow at Oxford. You just reveal your shallow political snobbery, to think someone who thinks differently to you shouldn't be listened to, because obviously you feel incapable of taking on arguments on their own terms. He didn't as far as I know write about Bacon. I only mentioned him for the parallel between the printing press & Internet, to highlight how our own era is haunted by conspiracy theories (QAnon baby-eating etc), which gives more insight into witch-panics than Merchant's trenchantly feminist take.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 20, 2021 at 10:50
  • That you brought up Ferguson even where he seemingly has nothing to say, reveals your biases more than mine. Ferguson is primarily an ideologue. Read Ferguson's pieces about how Trump was the best thing all things considered. And then he wasn't; but even when it became academically unpalatable to defend Trump, it's was really all the fault of "pandemic madness". An apologist works exactly like this.
    – Fizz
    Apr 20, 2021 at 11:11
  • If you want to quote a historian about Bacon, quote Rees.
    – Fizz
    Apr 20, 2021 at 11:11
  • @Fizz: Again, I wasn't quoting him about Bacon. You are biting your own tail.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 20, 2021 at 11:14

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