Roger Bacon

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Roger Bacon
BirthplaceIlchester, Somerset
Friar, scholar

Bacon, Roger,

c.1214–1294?, English scholastic philosopher and scientist, a Franciscan. He studied at Oxford as well as at the Univ. of Paris and became one of the most celebrated and zealous teachers at Oxford. Bacon was learned in Hebrew and in Greek and stressed the value of knowing the original languages in the study of Aristotle and of the Bible. He may also have known Arabic; his own philosophy drew upon Arab Aristotelianism as well as upon St. Augustine. He had an interest far in advance of his times in natural science, in controlled experiments, and in the accurate observation of phenomena. "It is the intention of philosophy," he said, "to work out the natures and properties of things." He declared that mathematics was the gateway to science, and experience, or verification, the only basis of certainty. This belief in experience as a guide to the outer world was, however, not divorced from theology; wisdom and faith were to him one. His writings were numerous. Three of his most important works were written for Pope Clement IV in one year (1267–68)—the Opus majus (tr. 1928), the Opus minor, and the Opus tertium. He was deeply interested in alchemy, an interest that may account for his being credited by his contemporaries with great learning in magical practices. He was long credited with the invention of gunpowder (because of a formula for gunpowder that appeared in a work attributed to him). A manuscript in cipher, discovered in the 20th cent. and attributed to him, would make Bacon the first man to have observed spiral nebulae through a telescope and to have examined cells through a microscope; but considerable doubt has been cast on the original date and the authenticity of the manuscript. Earlier editions of his major works were supplemented by an edition of his hitherto unedited works in various fascicles by Robert Steele and others (1909–35).


See A. G. Little, ed., Roger Bacon Essays (1914, repr. 1972); biography by F. Winthrop Woodruff (1938); studies by T. Crowley (1950) and S. C. Easton (1952, repr. 1971).

Bacon, Roger


Born circa 1214 in Ilchester; died circa 1292 in Oxford. English philosopher and naturalist.

Bacon taught at the university in Oxford and belonged to the Franciscan Order. He planned a vast encyclopedia of knowledge, the preparatory work for which made up his Great Work, Smaller Work, and Third Work. Bacon believed that universals existed only in the One, which is not dependent on the general or on the principle of thought. By this means, Bacon emphasized not so much the subjectivity of the general (as did the adherents of nominalism) as the objectivity of the One. Not satisfied with the alchemists’ concept of a single “primal matter” without qualities, Bacon proposed the idea of qualitatively different elements, the combinations of which form concrete things. Bacon rejected the atomistic doctrine of the indivisibility of atoms and the doctrine of the vacuum. Criticizing the Scholastics, he saw the basis of all knowledge in experience, which can be of two kinds: inner (mystical “illumination”) and external. Bacon foresaw the great importance of mathematics, without which, in his opinion, not one science could exist, and he foresaw many discoveries, such as the telephone, self-propelled vehicles, and flying machines. He worked out a plan for a Utopian estate republic in which the source of power would be the plebiscite; he demanded the eradication of ignorance and the extension of secular education.


Opera hactenus inedita, fasc. 1-16. Oxford, 1909-40.


Trakhtenberg, O. V. Ocherki po istorii zapadno-evropeiskoi srednevekovoi filosofii. Moscow, 1957.
Little, A. G. Roger Bacon’s Life and Works. Oxford, 1914.
Easton, S. C. Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal Science. Oxford, 1952.
Heck, E. Roger Bacon. Bonn, 1957.