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What is Empiricism?

Updated on February 25, 2012

Empiricism (from the Greek empeiria, trial, experience) is a philosophical term signifying a belief that actual sense-experience is the source of all ideas and excluding all possibility of a priori knowledge or conceptions. This view arose out of the system of Heraclitus, rejected by Socrates and Plato. It maintains that the mind is at first a tabula rasa (clean slate) upon which experience must write all impressions. The Sophists of antiquity were empiricists. The Scholastics taught that the mind can attain to true intellectual apprehension not by innate ideas but by concepts derived from sense-experience.

Descartes's philosophy established a compromise, one part of knowledge being considered innate, another empirical or derived from outside. Many British thinkers have held empiricist views (Locke, Hume, John Stuart Mill). Locke made experience the basis of all knowledge, sensation, and reflection, while Berkeley and Hume developed the theory on different lines. This form of empiricism was very different from the Cartesian 'rationalism' of the European continent. Its chief fault is perhaps that it gives a wrong account of experience, representing it as piecemeal, whereas the two elements of knowledge (a posteriori facts of experience and a priori facts) are essentially and inseparably united, as was recognized by Kant.

In medicine, the term empiric was applied to those who (in opposition to the Dogmatici and Methodici) drew their rules of practice from personal experience, disregarding the more scientific methods of inference and deduction and all philosophic theory. Hence the word came to mean an untrained practitioner, one who prescribed solely on individual observation and experiment, a quack-doctor. Empirical laws are those adopted merely because found (or supposed) to be beneficial and successful in practice, without any reason authorising them (as distinguished from 'causal' laws).

Theory of Meaning

The empiricist theory of meaning has traditionally been stated as a theory about the genesis of our ideas or concepts.

In the Middle Ages it was summarized in the formula "Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu" ("Nothing is in the intellect that has not been previously in sensation"). This was essentially the thesis of John Locke's epoch-making polemic, All Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1960), against the rational ist doctrine of innate ideas. The mind at birth, Locke maintained, is like a blank sheet of paper, or tabula rasa, and every idea th at it acquires must come from experience-either from vision, hearing, taste, touch, and other sense experiences or from observing the operations of our own minds by means of what Locke called "inner sense."

David Hume, who restated this theory about the genesis of ideas in the opening paragraphs of his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), gave it greater strength and precision by drawing a distinction between ideas and impressions. All our ideas, he said, come from impressions, and impressions are defined to include sensations, passions, and emotions, as they occur in their original vividness.

The contrasting rationalist position to which Locke and Hume were opposed is clearly stated in the writings of Rene Descartes and other 17th century rationalists. Descartes distinguished two functions of the human reason: a discursive function that enables us to draw conclusions from premises, and an intuitive function that enables us to grasp certain ultimate truths and concepts directly. Although many of our ideas are acquired through sense experience, there are some (notably the idea of the soul and the idea of material substance) that must be acquired a priori (that is, independently of experience) by means of rational intuition.

In the 20th century, empiricists have tended to formulate their theory of meaning not by reference to the genesis of our concepts, but by reference to the experiences that determine whether a concept has been applied correctly.

One outstanding example of this change of emphasis is the pragmatic theory of meaning, which was originally formulated by Charles Sanders Peirce in the maxim: "Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the object of your conception to have. Then, your conception of these effects is the whole of your conception of the object."

The verifiability theory of meaning, which is closely associated with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the school of logical positivism, represents a very similar position. However an empiricist theory of meaning is formulated, there are certain basic terms that a re usually excluded as meaningless unless reinterpreted in a purely empirical way. Thus for the typical empiricist the soul can be conceived only as a stream of conscious experiences, matter only as a pattern of sensible qualities, and necessary causal connections only as uniform sequences of events. Theory of Knowledge. Whatever the source of our concepts, a further question arises concerning the source of human knowledge and the justification of our beliefs. Rationalists have traditionally maintained that there are some general truths such as "Every event has a cause," the elementary propositions of mathematics, and sometimes the basic principles of ethics, which are self-evident and known a priori by means of rational intuition. Empiricists have denied that we have such a faculty of rational intuition.

They have usually conceded, however, that the truths of mathematics are indeed a priori and thus to be sharply distinguished from the truths of physics, biology, psychology, and other natural sciences. In the natural sciences our knowledge is obtained a posteriori by means of experimentation, observation, and induction, whereas this experimental method has no place in the solution of problems of pure mathematics.

To account for this distinction the empiricist usually maintains that the truths of mathematics are merely propositions that express the relations of meaning that hold among our concepts. Thus "2 + 2 = 4" is true simply because of the way "2," "plus," "equals," and "4" are defined, and the theorems of geometry are true simply because of the way such terms as "line," "point," and "between" are defined. In other words, all such mathematical propositions have the same epistemic status as the statement "Every wife has a husband," which is true because a wife is defined as a woman who has a husband. They are all, in a broad sense of the word, tautologies. Hume stated this empiricist theory of mathematics by distinguishing between "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact": the propositions of mathematics merely express the relations among our ideas or concepts, whereas all knowledge about matters of fact (that is, about the actual world) must be derived from experience.

Immanuel Kant's use of the terms "analytic" and "synthetic" has enabled subsequent philosophers to state the issue even more precisely.

A judgment is analytic, as Kant uses the word, if it can be shown to be hue merely by analysis of the concepts in it. A judgment is synthetic, on the contrary, if its predicate really adds something new to the subject. Using these terms, therefore, we may define an empiricist as one who believes that all rational (a priori) truths are analytic. Kant's own Critique of Pure Reason is a defense of the rationalistic thesis that there are some synthetic a priori truths. However, Kant denies that these truths extend beyond the range of possible human experience.

After 1940, certain philosophers, notably Willard Van Orman Quine and Morton Gabriel White in the United States, challenged the validity of the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic. They suggested the possibility of an empiricism even more thoroughgoing than that of Hume- an empiricism that would deny a priori knowledge altogether.


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    • Paradise7 profile image


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Excellent hub, thank you!! I use the word "empirical", meaning justified or determined by the senses, or by successful practice. I see I've got it almost right.


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