Knowledge and the Self: On the Relationship between Knowledge and the Self as It is presented in Francis Bacon’s Prose Essay

Knowledge and the Self:

On the Relationship between Knowledge and the Self as It is presented in Francis Bacon’s Prose

Perhaps there is nothing more fundamental and important and controversial a concept as the concept of ‘the self’. The notion of ‘the self’ or of a self is basic and could be considered as a result of our basic intuition. Almost all systems of thought take on the ‘individual’ or the ‘self’ as its starting point. The basic notion of the self as a subject is a very important part of philosophical inquiry.

            Try to imagine a branch of philosophy without a basic notion or concept of the self. Let us look at ethics. Normative ethical theories all involve ‘the self’ in relation with others, its actions and their effects on others, or of others in relation to ‘the self’, the effects of others’ actions to the self, etc. The notion of the self is therefore, very important in the field of ethics. Despite of the importance of the concept of ‘the self’, the concept has not got a satisfactory account. Philosophers had written much about it and different philosophers had been engaged in serious philosophical inquiries because of their different views of the self. The different points of view of philosophers regarding the subject reveal that the philosophical notion of the self is indeed, a difficult problem to resolve. The concept of the self is not as common-sensical as it seems. And at this point, we may ask ourselves the same philosophical question that previous philosophers had asked themselves. “What is the self?” By this question, what we wanted to arrive at is an understanding of the nature of the self.

            In line with this, what follows is a discussion of the concept of ‘the self’ as it can be seen in Francis Bacon’s prose. The importance of the concept lies in how it is associated with knowledge and hence powers itself. This paper in general attempts to answer the following questions: (1) Is there something that is the self, or only some things that constitute the self and (2) If it is the case that the self exist, how is it associated to knowledge?

            Let us now proceed to our discussion on the self. Prior to discussing our main problem that was cited earlier, we must first try to understand some relevant points, questions, and even assumptions on the concept of the self. Again, our main problem is the question, “What is the self?” Some would argue that that the self is a substance. Bolzano somehow shares the Aristotelian view of substance as simple bodies but of course it is important to note that they also differ in various aspects. The self is a simple substance according to Bolzano (Chisholm, 1989, p.157). He claims that there are two kinds of things: (1) those things that are states or conditions of other things; and (2) those things that are not states or conditions of other things (Chisholm, 1989, p.156). Number (2) is what Bolzano calls substances and examples of such substances are physical bodies and selves (Chisholm, 1989, p.156). If such is the case of ‘the self’ [that it is a substance], and that it is a simple substance as Bolzano claims, then, we can say that ‘the self’ is not a unity. But is the self a simple substance? Another important question would be, “If the self is a simple substance, what kind of substance is it?” This is where the mind-body problem comes in to the problem of the self. But we will not discuss that problem in this paper. It is clear that when we talk of the self, we assume these things: (i) there is something that is the self which serves as a boundary that separates ‘the self’ other ‘selves’ and from the rest of the world, (ii) the self has characteristics.

            Are we now prepared to accept the thesis that the self is a substance? The self is a substance, and a substance has being in its own right. The self is also that which is capable of motion and this is also that which persists through space and time. Francis Bacon accepted this concept of ‘the self’ and it was through this that he was able to show the relationship between ‘the self’, knowledge, and power.

Francis Bacon is best known for saying “knowledge is power”. His identification of knowledge with power may be understood in three ways. First, knowledge may enable humanity’s freedom from physical affliction and necessity. Second, knowledge is the main determinant for holding authority within the government and third, knowledge may be used as a means for controlling humanity. These different interpretations point to Bacon’s view of the importance of knowledge for the attainment of power. The best means for attaining power is through the ability to control the self. This ability is enabled by attaining the ability to understand the phenomena that occurs in reality. In the first interpretation above, knowledge may enable humanity’s freedom since it enables humanity to understand his surroundings. Such an understanding will enable an individual to predict the causal events in reality and hence have control over reality itself. In New Atlantis, one of the scientists said, “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (Bacon, 2007, p.34).

The second interpretation mentioned above, on the other hand, may be derived from The Advancement of Learning. In the treatise he argued that the privilege to rule the people ought to be given to those who are learned as opposed to those who merely occupy the position as a result of their heritage. Bacon thereby emphasizes that the ability to occupy a high rank in the government ought to be given merely to those who have the ability to rule. Such an ability may only be gained if one is learned.

The third interpretation above states that knowledge in itself may be used by a dominant group in society in order to gain control over the people. This is possible through the imposition of ideas that prevent people from questioning the things that are happening in their sorroundings.

The various interpretations above point to how Bacon conceives of the relationship between knowledge, power, and ‘the self’. For Bacon, it is only when one strives for or attains knowledge that one will have power and hence the ability to know one’s self. In The Essays, he states “wisdom for a man’s self is, in many branches thereof, a depraved thing” (Bacon, 2007, p.70). For Bacon, knowledge may only enable power if it is used not merely for the self but also for other individuals since it is only through the participation within society that it is possible for a person to continuously gain knowledge and hence attain wisdom.


Bacon, F. (2007). The Advancement of Learning. Np: NuVision Publications.

Bacon, F. (2007). The Essays. Np: Cosimo.

Bacon, F. (2007). New Atlantis. Np: Standard Publications.

Chisholm, R. (1989). On Metaphysics. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P.