An Instance of the Fingerpost is a 1997 historical mystery novel by Iain Pears.
A murder in 17th century Oxford is related from the contradictory points of view of four of the characters, all of them unreliable narrators. The setting of the novel is just after the English Civil War, when the king's authority is not yet settled, and conspiracies abound.
A contrast portrayed in the novel is that between a philosophy based on ancient and medieval tracts; and the scientific method that was beginning to be applied in physics, chemistry and medicine. Among the secondary characters are historical figures such as the philosopher John Locke, the scientist Robert Boyle and the mathematician John Wallis.
The four parts of the novel are preceded by quotes from Aphorisms in Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, and the title itself derives from the fourth such quote. The quote, however, is much abbreviated, with no ellipsis showing the omissions. The full quote:
- Among Prerogative Instances I will put in the fourteenth place Instances of the Fingerpost, borrowing the term from the fingerposts which are set up where roads part, to indicate the several directions. These I also call Decisive and Judicial, and in some cases, Oracular and Commanding Instances. I explain them thus. When in the investigation of any nature the understanding is so balanced as to be uncertain to which of two or more natures the cause of the nature in question should be assigned on account of the frequent and ordinary concurrence of many natures, instances of the fingerpost show the union of one of the natures with the nature in question to be sure and indissoluble, of the other to be varied and separable; and thus the question is decided, and the former nature is admitted as the cause, while the latter is dismissed and rejected. Such instances afford very great light and are of high authority, the course of interpretation sometimes ending in them and being completed. Sometimes these instances of the fingerpost meet us accidentally among those already noticed, but for the most part they are new, and are expressly and designedly sought for and applied, and discovered only by earnest and active diligence.
However note that in the original Latin, the term is not by any means "fingerpost" but simply "cross" (Latin crux, crucis) - a root term giving deeper meaning to the "crucial" decision as to which if any of the narratives are "true," and echoing the decisive "crucifixion" revealed in the story.
In the original Latin:
- Inter praerogativas instantiarum, ponemus loco decimo quarto Instantias Crucis; translato vocabulo a Crucibus, quae erectae in biviis indicant et signant viarum separationes. Has etiam Instantias Decisorias et Judiciales, et in casibus nonnullis Instantias Oraculi et Mandati, appellare consuevimus. Earum ratio talis est. Cum in inquisitione naturae alicujus intellectus ponitur tanquam in aequilibrio, ut incertus sit utri naturarum e duabus, vel quandoque pluribus, causa naturae inquisitae attribui aut assignari debeat, propter complurium naturarum concursum frequentem et ordinarium, instantiae crucis ostendunt consortium unius ex naturis (quoad naturam inquisitam) fidum et indissolubile, alterius autem varium et separabile ; unde terminatur quaestio, et recipitur natura illa prior pro causa, missa altera et repudiata. Itaque hujusmodi instantiae sunt maximae lucis, et quasi magnae authoritatis; ita ut curriculum interpretationis quandoque in illas desinat, et per illas perficiatur. Interdum autem Instantiae Crucis illae occurrunt et inveniuntur inter jampridem notatas; at ut plurimum novae sunt, et de industria atque ex composito quaesitae et applicatae, et diligentia sedula et acri tandem erutae. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Book Two, "Aphorisms," Section XXXVI.