Spirits Coming Alive: The Subtle Alchemy of Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum

In: Early Science and Medicine

Abstract

Observations, experiments and inquiries into the world of plants figure prominently in Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum. My purpose in this article is to offer a survey of this very rich and relatively under-investigated natural historical material, with the purpose of showing two things. First, I show that these inquiries unveil a sophisticated instrumental approach. Bacon treats plants as (al)chemical laboratories in which one can investigate the fundamental processes of nature and the continuous ‘pneumatisation’ of matter. A detailed examination of this instrumental approach can shed important light upon Bacon’s reductionist strategies of explanation. Second, I show that some of the experiments with plants recorded (or merely suggested) in the Sylva Sylvarum uncover several layers of theoretical vocabulary. In this experimental context, key concepts of Bacon’s natural philosophy are further refined and acquire new meanings.