Finding Bacon in Robinson Crusoe

Defoe and the New Sciences

November 20, 1998

Intellectual and Moral Habits are formed much according to the Information men meet with, especially in their younger dayes." This was the view of Charles Morton, who in 1697 became vice-president of Harvard College. Morton also founded the famous Dissenters' Academy at Newington Green where Defoe was a student from c. 1674-79. The question Ilse Vickers poses is whether Defoe's education was indeed a formative experience and in particular whether Morton's reception of Francis Bacon's philosophy of science is discernible in the style and content of Defoe's writing.

Morton studied at Wadham College, Oxford, and was initiated into the new sciences by such luminaries as William Petty and John Wilkins, founding members of the Royal Society. The education offered by Morton at his academy was thoroughly Baconian: experimental science was central to the curriculum and although Latin and Greek were taught, lectures were in English. His science lectures, the Compendium Physicae, similarly emphasised the importance of observation and experimentation. Defoe praised Morton's lectures and his academy, attacking Oxford and Cambridge for turning out "meer schollars", men who "seem to be form'd in a school on purpose to dye in a school".

Vickers argues that Defoe's non-fiction texts, such as the History of Arts and Sciences (1725), provide evidence for a new interpretation of his fiction. Defoe reveals himself to be a committed Baconian, who wanted "to open people's eyes" to the world and who believed that it was the duty of humankind to improve nature. With regard to Robinson Crusoe, Vickers points out that Crusoe began his island sojourn in 1659, one year before the founding of the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667) describes how the fellows used "a close, naked, natural way of speaking; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness, as they can". Morton made plain language a priority and Vickers traces its role in Defoe's work.

However, Bacon distinguished between the language of literature and of science: rhetoric and metaphor were appropriate for the former but not the latter. Although Vickers argues convincingly that Defoe transformed the facticity of scientific discourse into a literary modality, she does not investigate the full implications of this important theme for his fiction. Despite this Defoe and the New Sciences casts new light on our understanding of Defoe and is an original contribution to the non-scientific reception of Bacon's philosophy.

Peter Smith is a freelance writer.

Defoe and the New Sciences

Author - Ilse Vickers
ISBN - 0 521 409 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 196

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