The Essay is also a trial of nature. While none of us have any doubt that the reason for an essay is to examine the student, ‘the essay’ itself is sold to the student as an opportunity to examine the world. The essay is an opportunity to know more about the world. The connection between ‘essaying’ and ‘knowing’, however, points us toward the depths to which the formal structures of our education are embedded within the discourse of Baconian empirical philosophy: what we now call modern scientific method.
(Behold! I will tell you a mystery: there was once a time when learners didn’t sit exams!)
Francis Bacon is widely regarded as the Father of modern empirical science. A courtier in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, Bacon was best known in his own time as a lawyer and jurist. People have often observed that his contribution to the development of modern scientific method came through the application of forms of legal reasoning to natural philosophy. Baconian scientific method – the method of empirical experimentation – is a way to put the World on trial. The rhetorical devices that Bacon employed to sell his vision are instructive. Bacon conceived of Nature as his coy mistress: a lady who could be more or less willing to give up her secrets. The Baconian scientist would put her to The Question, peeling back the layers, and even, if necessary, putting her on the Rack (his image, not mine).
(Has anyone considered that maybe this is the reason why Scientists have never been good with the ladies?)
You know, sometimes when sleep is scant, it can feel like we are wrestling with the books, torturing the secrets out of recalcitrant ancient languages, putting obfuscating theologians to The Question, conducting our inquisition of the tradition.
But even if essaying is tortuous, should you let it make you a torturer?
(For more on Francis Bacon there is a brilliant ‘In Our Time’ podcast here)