Bacon, Roger (1266)

Opus maius. MS Digby 325, 15th century manuscript. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
In the 13th century, the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, often regarded as England’s first scientist, asserted that ‘without experiment nothing can be sufficiently known’.

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“Having laid down fundamental principles of the wisdom of the Latins so far as they are found in language, mathematics, and optics, I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experiment nothing can be sufficiently known. There are two ways of acquiring knowledge, one through reason, the other by experiment. Argument reaches a conclusion and compels us to admit it, but it neither makes us certain nor so annihilates doubt that the mind rests calm in the intuition of truth, unless it finds this certitude by way of experience. Thus many have arguments toward attainable facts, but because they have not experienced them, they overlook them and neither avoid a harmful nor follow a beneficial course.  Even if a man that has never seen fire, proves by good reasoning that fire burns, and devours and destroys things, nevertheless the mind of one hearing his arguments would never be convinced, nor would he avoid fire until he puts his hand or some combustible thing into it in order to prove by experiment what the argument taught. But after the fact of combustion is experienced, the mind is satisfied and lies calm in the certainty of truth. Hence argument is not enough, but experience is.”

Translations by Eva Oledzka and Bruce Barker-Benfield

Translations consulted:  Bridges JH (1897). Oxford: Oxford University Press and Burke RB (1928). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


 Roger Bacon (1214-1294)


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The editors are grateful to:

The Wellcome Trust for making available the portrait of Roger Bacon (1214-1294).