Francis Bacon’s flux of the spirits and Renaissance paradigms of hybridity and adaptation

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Francis Bacon’s works cover a diverse range of spheres, including natural philosophy, experimental science, discursive essays and contemporary politics; yet underpinning this diversity, and spanning his roles as intellectual scholar and public official, lies his belief in a hybridity and adaptiveness in Nature that is also expressed in humans.

Bacon describes the compound nature of the human body as an extreme manifestation of the hybridity to be found in Nature more generally, and it is this that results in humans’ particularly fluid and impressionable nature. This hybridity is also expressed by the co-effective nature of the bodily humours and the passions of the mind, with the distribution of the faculties of the mind in the organs of the body also reflecting the non-trivially embodied nature of the mind. The embodied mind is described as an “uneven mirror” which “inserts and mingles its own nature with the nature of things as it forms and devises its own notions”; this reveals that a blurring between the characteristics of subject and object is inevitable, with a projection of one’s own qualities onto the object. Errors and false beliefs on the epistemological level result from the ontological interrelationship of natural bodies; these errors arise not just from our hybridity, or flawed sensory perceptions, but also from the discernment and motions of the spirits through which all matter is dynamically interconnected. That humans are not only embodied but also extended into the world is implied by the flux from spirit to spirit, not only within, but also between entities, and this resulted in Bacon’s interest in pursuing empirical tests on social permeability, as well as on humans and other entities more general susceptibility to appropriate another substance’s properties.

In Sylva Sylvarum Bacon explained that the spirits or “Pneumaticals” are the properties which govern nature in both animate and non-animate bodies. Without proper knowledge of the almost unceasing motion of the spirits no true analysis of Nature in general or of human nature in particular could be made: only a more empirical natural history could provide the necessary foundation for the building of a true philosophy. Hybridity in Nature requires a similar hybridity on a theoretical level, with inclusive approaches to understanding humans and Nature, as a supplement to their categorical division. Natural hybridity reflects, and in addition necessitates, hybridity on a linguistic, technological and sociocultural level, since while humans are both the rulers and the cause for which the world was created, without the aid of many resources they are unarmed and naked. Awareness and skepticism about humans’ tendency to frame experience according to human qualities and beliefs, and to accept elegant fictions and abstractions as truth, leads Bacon to emphasize the need by the human mind of tools and assistance, in order to overcome the illusions that impede it. One such tool is language, since although words can cause error because they only reflect the current notions of things, language’s contingency also allows for the concentrated transmission of ideas, and writing further supplements the memory, enabling the retaining and recovery of knowledge.

In De sapientia veterum Bacon explained that those who aim to forcibly govern matter will discover that matter instead metamorphoses into diverse forms, until, as if completing a circuit, it returns to its original state of being. Matter’s adaptation into metamorphosed and renewed forms indicates the underlying cause of human nature’s capacity to be flexible and hybrid and yet remain itself. Only through perceiving Nature anew could humans ever hope to grasp epistemologically their natural extendedness: Bacon’s innovative, albeit paradoxical seeming, proposal is that admission of the intellectual need for external tools and assistance is the necessary antidote to ontological hybridity and adaptability.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrancis Bacon on Motion and Power
EditorsGuido Giglioni, James Taylor, Sorana Corneanu, Dana Jalobeanu
Place of PublicationSwitzerland
PublisherSpringer Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9783319276397
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2016
Event'Hybrid Humans: Renaissance Paradigms of Appropriation and Adaptation', Francis Bacon and the Materiality of the Appetites - Warburg Institute, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 17 Jun 201118 Jun 2011

Publication series

NameInternational Archives of the History of Ideas/ Archives internationales d'histoire des idées
ISSN (Electronic)0066-6610


Symposium'Hybrid Humans: Renaissance Paradigms of Appropriation and Adaptation', Francis Bacon and the Materiality of the Appetites
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Francis Bacon
  • spirits
  • extended mind
  • extended emotions
  • distributed cognition
  • emotions


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