views updated Jun 08 2018


EMPIRICISM. In broad terms, empiricism is the view that experience is the most important or even the only source of knowledge or sound belief. The term itself is of nineteenth-century origin, but the history of empiricism can be traced at least as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341270 B.C.E.). With the emergence of Christian civilization, however, belief in the cognitive importance of the senses was no more encouraged than was the pursuit of their pleasures. The Greek philosopher who seemed most consistent with religious belief was Plato, who thought that we needed to escape from the senses in order to achieve true knowledge or, for that matter, happiness. Though it was Aristotle who became "the Philosopher" in the medieval universities and monastic institutions, the empiricist strands in Aristotle's thought were not taken up in any systematic way. One of the best known empiricist maxims, Nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit prius in sensu ('There is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses') seems to have been first stated by the great medieval Aristotelian and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1224/12251274). But empiricism formed no part of his enterprise of reconciling revealed religion with an Aristotelian philosophy.

At the beginning of the early modern period empiricism was not generally regarded as an intellectually defensible position. The word empiric, indeed, was used as a term of abuse, one that referred particularly to quack doctors who rejected the medical orthodoxies of their day, preferring remedies that they claimed worked in experience. While it was acknowledged that everyone has to rely, to some extent, on their sense experiences, many philosophers believed that humans have a faculty of reason that enables them to avoid the errors of the senses. Well into the early modern period the prevalent theories of knowledge and the sciences were ones that have appropriately been called "rationalist" to reflect their stress on reason and abstract argument.

These "rationalist" philosophers were sometimes important figures in the history of the mathematical sciences. This was true of the French philosopher René Descartes (15961650), whose view that the essence of matter consists of its geometrical properties was highly influential in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), co-inventor of the differential calculus, could also be counted among the "rationalists." Leibniz accepted that animals learn from experience but thought that the "simple empiric" was no better than they were, insofar as he did not use his reason. For Leibniz, as for many "rationalist" philosophers, reason was the "divine spark" in humankind that set it apart from the rest of creation as capable of knowing the truths not only of mathematics but of morality and religion.

Empiricism was not an organized philosophical point of view at the beginning of the early modern period. It seems remarkable indeed that it developed at all, given the religiously motivated bias and the intellectual contempt felt for it. Yet not only did it develop, but by the eighteenth century it had become and was to remain the most widely accepted philosophy of the sciences.


The first early modern defender of what would now be called an organized "empiricism" was the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (15611626). Bacon maintained that the true philosopher should be neither an empiricist nor a rationalist. The empiricist, he complained, is like an ant that collects much of value but does not put it into a coherent system. The rationalist, on the other hand, was like a spider, who spun wonderful constructions from within itself but whose thoughts did not connect with external reality. The true philosopher, Bacon wrote, should be like the bee that both collects much of value and puts it into an organized system.

What Bacon proposed were empirical methods of "induction," the process of arguing from a collection of instances of a phenomenon to a general conclusion. In his Novum Organum of 1620, Bacon already went beyond the method Leibniz was to dismiss as that of the "simple empiric," who notices resemblances between sequences of events (for instance, thunder repeatedly followed by rain) and arrives at a general conclusion on that basis (for instance, that thunder causes rain). Bacon stressed the importance of observing differences as well as similarities between sequences of events.

Bacon's view of science was in many ways ahead of his time, for his critical empiricism was combined with the view that knowledge would gradually increase and that its pursuit should be cooperative and free of sectarianism. His ideas were taken up by some of the founders of the Royal Society in England, such as Robert Boyle (16271691), who is sometimes called "the founder of modern chemistry," and Robert Hooke (16351703). Indeed the very aims of the Royal Society as articulated by its first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, sound highly Baconian, especially in their opposition to mere speculation and commitment to exact observations and experiments. The achievements of the great English physicist Isaac Newton (16421727) added to the prestige not only of the Royal Society but also of the new "experimental philosophy" with which he was associated.

Bacon had an immense influence on the self-perception of British scientists well into the nineteenth century, and he was also held in wide esteem elsewhere in Europe, for instance by the editors of the Encyclopédie (17511765). In his Discours préliminaire (1751; Preliminary discourse) to the Encyclopédie, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), an editor and leading contributor of scientific articles, referred to Bacon as the virtual founder of an experimental natural philosophy, and the Encyclopédie as a whole followed Bacon's tripartite scheme of knowledge.

Empiricism was revived, to some extent independently, by Bacon's younger French contemporary, Pierre Gassendi (15921655). Like Bacon, Gassendi was dissatisfied with the philosophical systems of his day, but he sought to avoid the extreme skepticism to which others were driven. Gassendi was inspired to a constructive philosophy by his study of Epicurus, whose philosophy he modified to cut out the points of conflict with Christianity (Gassendi was a priest). Gassendi insisted that our knowledge of the world comes only from experience, and he put forward a form of atomism as a hypothesis for explaining the world. This atomism was taken up by Robert Boyle, among others, and it was important in the development of seventeenth-century science.


Gassendi's empiricism also influenced the English philosopher John Locke (16321704). In his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke provided a sustained defense of the empiricist principle that all our ideas come from experience. Prior to Locke it was widely assumed that humans were born with an innate knowledge of certain principles, for instance of right and wrong. His critique of such innate principles was particularly valued as a corrective to the kind of dogmatism that had tended to prevail in moral and religious matters.

The empiricism of Locke was criticized from two different quarters, from followers who thought he had not gone far enough and from critics who thought he had gone too far. To some of his followers the Essay, although it seemed to point in the right direction, was not empirical enough. Locke had included a "rationalist" defense of moral truths and of the existence of God, for instance, claiming for them the kind of knowledge reserved for mathematics. He also, against empiricist principles, allowed that the mind was capable of forming abstract general ideas. To some of his empiricist successors this seemed to reinstate some of the metaphysical abstractions Locke's method and principles had managed to exclude. The Irish freethinker John Toland (16701722), for instance, attacked those mathematicians who turned to metaphysics in proposing such concepts as absolute space and time. For Toland the concept of a soul as an immaterial substance was another such untenable abstraction. Toland's radical interpretation of Locke brought out the natural association of empiricism with materialism. Locke sought to dissociate himself from Toland, but he was not entirely able to do so.

Locke was by some measures the most influential philosopher of the eighteenth century, at any rate in Britain and France. There was some controversy between those who supported an empiricism like Locke's and those who favored the more rationalist philosophies of Leibniz or the French priest Nicolas Malebranche (16381715). But for many the decision was not whether to be for or against Locke, but whether to support a more radical or a more conservative interpretation of his empiricism.

The more radical reading of Locke became very influential in France, where skepticism and materialism were attractive to a number of intellectuals or philosophes, as they were called. These included the aristocratic Voltaire (16941778), who was noted for his hostility to the ecclesiastical establishment and for his slogan Écrasez l'infâme! ('Crush the infamous thing!'). In his Lettres philosophiques (1734; Letters on the English) Voltaire praised the new experimental method of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. This English trio was also adulated by many of those involved in the Encyclopédie project. The chief editor, Denis Diderot (17131784), was a freethinking empiricist and materialist.

Most British philosophers who followed Locke sought to interpret or modify his philosophy so that it would be compatible with religious belief. This was true of the Irish clergyman George Berkeley (16851753), who argued, in effect, that a more consistent empiricism than Locke's would undermine materialism. Berkeley argued that there were no "abstract general ideas," as Locke had allowed, but that the ideas we have are always particular. The concept of "matter" was a scholastic abstraction that was not needed in order to make sense of our experience. Berkeley's conclusion that the only substances in the world were God and spirits like ourselves was generally thought to be unbelievable. His analysis of the mathematical sciences foreshadows the "instrumentalism" common in twentieth century philosophies of physics. He allowed abstractions like "force" and "gravity" into theoretical formulae that were useful for making predictions, even though he did not think it should be supposed that anything answering to these abstractions exists in reality.

Berkeley's philosophy of the mathematical sciences was hardly acknowledged in the eighteenth century. This is surprising in view of the complaint, commonly made against empiricism, that it fails to do justice to the mathematical sciences. On an empiricist account, mathematical truths are only truths about the necessary relations between our ideas and not substantial truths about the world. Empiricism seemed for this reason an unsuccessful philosophy. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) accepted that our ideas arise in experience and that most of our knowledge is based on our senses. In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of pure reason), however, he argued that the truths of arithmetic and geometry were both necessary and substantial truths about the world, although empiricism cannot strictly allow them. Kant left a highly influential legacy of criticism of empiricism to subsequent philosophy.


The empiricist philosopher to whom Kant was responding in his first Critique was the Scottish skeptic David Hume (17111776). Hume is generally regarded as the most thoroughgoing defender of empiricism and critic of abstract metaphysics of the early modern period. He accepted Berkeley's argument that we have no reason to believe in "material substances" that exist independently of our senses. But similar arguments, he thought, also brought into question the spiritual substances to which Berkeley gave pride of place. All we actually experience, according to Hume, are fleeting impressions. We are not strictly aware of the self. Hume's empiricism thus led him even further than Berkeley had gone from a commonsense position, though he sought to save the situation by arguing that we are bound to hold beliefs that are not strictly warranted by experience.

Hume claimed that he was extending the same experimental method to the sciences of human nature that Newton had shown to be so fruitful in natural philosophy. There is some dispute about how to interpret his deeply probing arguments. On the one hand, his empiricism seemed to lead him to undermine the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry. For instance, it is fundamental to empirical science to be able to assume that the future will be like the pastthat we learn things from experience (such as that food nourishes us) and thus gain knowledge of the future or at least very strong grounds for belief about it. But what is the rational basis for such an assumption? An empiricist has to say that it is based on experience. But this simply begs the question. For it does not follow that, just because past experience has been a good guide to the future, it will continue to be reliable. Thus a rigorous empiricism, far from underpinning a scientific philosophy, appears to actually undermine it. Put another way, a rigorous empiricism appears to lead to skepticism. And this was an important part of Hume's legacy. At the same time Hume himself offered a way of avoiding a skeptical conclusion, maintaining that we are so constituted that we are bound to expect the future to be like the past. He even suggested, though perhaps not seriously, that nature was guiding us to the truth.

During the early modern period empiricism, despite the difficulties it entailed, gradually became the dominant theory of scientific rationality. The increased status of empirical science meant that philosophers began to frame their arguments in new ways. For instance, philosophers in the seventeenth century did not generally base their arguments for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul on experience. This was partly because they wished their conclusions to be demonstrated and not merely accepted as hypotheses. In the eighteenth century it became commonplace to accept that the existence of God was at best probable. The arguments for it were based on experiencein particular the experience of order in the universe, from which it was widely thought to be possible to infer the existence of an intelligent designer. These empirical arguments were increasingly favored by theologians. Hume himself took them seriously and examined them critically in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779). He suggested, however, that there were other, less obvious but equally plausible hypotheses that could be advanced to explain the evidence of order than the hypothesis of an intelligent creator.

A common commitment to empiricism did not lead everyone to the same conclusions, but it did settle the terms of debate, at least for many. One of the most widely read works of fiction of the eighteenth century was Voltaire's Candide (1759), whose hero perseveres in his "optimistic" belief that God has created the best of all possible worlds despite all the terrible misfortunes that befall him and those around him. In the book, Candide has been taught some theoretical basis (which he has forgotten) for his optimism by the German rationalist Pangloss. To those whose sympathies were on the side of Pangloss and who believed in a perfect providence, Candide would have been regarded as in very poor taste. It succeeded as a satire partly because the sympathies of enough readers were on the side of the author with regard to the existence, as an empirical fact, of massive unjustifiable evil in the world.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Berkeley, George ; Encyclopédie ; Epistemology ; Hume, David ; Idealism ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Locke, John ; Mathematics ; Newton, Isaac ; Philosophy ; Reason ; Scientific Revolution ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'. Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot. Translated by Richard N. Schwab. Indianapolis, 1963. Translation of the Discours préliminaire.

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Edited by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000. Translation of Novum Organum.

Brush, Craig B., ed. and trans. Selected Works of Pierre Gassendi. New York, 1972.

Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, eds. Encyclopedia: Selections. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. New York, 1965. Translation of selections from the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, eds. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. Translation of Kritik der reinen Vernunft.

Taylor, Richard, ed. The Empiricists. Garden City, N.Y., 1961. Includes an abridged version of John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, George Berkeley's Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and David Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Candide, or, Optimism: A Fresh Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. Edited by Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York, 1991. Translation of Candide, ou, Optimisme.

. Letters Concerning the English Nation. Edited by Nicholas Cronk. Oxford and New York, 1994. Translation of part of his Lettres philosophiques.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Stuart, ed. British Philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment. Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 5. London and New York, 1996. Provides chapters on most of the empiricist philosophers of the early modern period.

Cottingham, John. Rationalism. Edited by Justin Wintle. London, 1984. Puts empiricism in the context of the rationalist philosophers, their criticisms, and alternatives.

Garrett, Don, and Edward Barnabell, eds. Encyclopedia of Empiricism. Westport, Conn., 1997. The definitive reference work on this topic.

Stuart Brown


views updated May 23 2018


Empiricism is the theory that experience rather than reason is the source of knowledge, and in this sense it is opposed to rationalism. This general thesis, however, can receive different emphases and refinements; hence, those philosophers who have been labeled empiricists are united only in their general tendency and may differ in various ways. The word empiricism is derived from the Greek εμπειρα (empeiria ), the Latin translation of which is experientia, from which in turn we derive the word experience. Aristotle conceived of experience as the as yet unorganized product of sense perception and memory; this is a common philosophical conception of the notion. Memory is required so that what is perceived may be retained in the mind. To say that we have learned something from experience is to say that we have come to know of it by the use of our senses. We have experience when we are sufficiently aware of what we have discovered in this way. There is another, perhaps connected, sense of the term experience in which sensations, feelings, and so on, are experiences and in which to perceive something involves having sense experiences. These are experiences because awareness of them is something that happens to us. Indeed, the suggestion of passivity is common to uses of the word. To go into refinements here would not be relevant; one need only appreciate that the statement that experience is the source of knowledge means that knowledge depends ultimately on the use of the senses and on what is discovered through them. Sense experience may be necessary for the attainment of experience, but for present purposes that is unimportant.

The weakest form of empiricism is the doctrine that the senses do provide us with "knowledge" in some sense of the word. This could be denied only by one who had so elevated a conception of knowledge that the senses cannot attain to it. Plato, for example, held at one stage that because of the changeability of the world of sense, sense knowledge lacks the certainty and infallibility that true knowledge must possess. Hence, knowledge cannot be derived from the senses, but only from some other kind of awareness of what he called Forms. The most that sense perception could do would be to remind us of this genuine knowledge. This conception of knowledge demands an infallibility that sense perception cannot provide. Normally, we do not demand such high standards of knowledge, nor do we succumb to this kind of skepticism about sense perception. The commonsense view is that the senses do provide us with knowledge of some sort, and most people, when philosophizing, adopt this kind of empiricist view.

This weak form of empiricism can be generalized into the thesis that all knowledge comes from experience, The extreme form of this thesis would be the claim that no source other than experience provides knowledge at all. But this formulation is ambiguous, because there could be various reasons why all that we know might be dependent in some way upon experience. One reason might be that every proposition that we know is either a direct report on experience or a report whose truth is inferred from experience. A prima facie exception to such a thesis is provided by the propositions of mathematics; they have usually been thought to be a priori, not a posteriorithat is, we can know their truth independently of experience. There have, however, been philosophers who have denied the a priori nature of mathematical propositions. J. S. Mill, for example, maintained that the propositions of mathematics are merely very highly confirmed generalizations from experience and, consequently, all propositions are either reports on experience or generalizations from experience. This view has not been widely accepted.

A second reason for maintaining that all knowledge is dependent on experience would be that we can have no ideas or concepts that are not derived from experience, that is, that all concepts are a posteriori, whether or not the truths which can be asserted by means of these concepts are themselves a posteriori. It may be that we know some propositions without having to resort immediately to experience for their validation; for their truth may depend solely on the logical relations between the ideas involved. Yet these ideas may themselves be derived from experience. If all our ideas are so derived, then knowledge of any sort must be dependent on sense experience in some way. According to this thesis, not all knowledge is derived immediately from experience, but all knowledge is dependent on experience at least in the sense that all the materials for knowledge are ultimately derived from experience. St. Thomas Aquinas was an empiricist in this sense. He thought that all our concepts are derived from experience, in that there is "nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the senses" (a doctrine supposedly derived from Aristotle). He did not think, however, that all knowledge either consists of sense experience or is inferred inductively from experience. Similarly, John Locke held and tried to show that all our ideas are derived from experience, either directly or by way of reflection on ideas of sense. He did not hold, however, that all knowledge was sense knowledge.

It is possible to argue an even more complex thesis. It may be held that while there are ideas which are not derived from experiencea priori ideasand while there are a priori truths which may or may not involve a priori ideas, such ideas and truths only have application on the precondition that there is experience. That is to say thatfor human beings at any ratereason can function only by way of some kind of connection with experience; "pure" reason is impossible. This was, in effect, Immanuel Kant's position, and although he did not call himself an empiricist simpliciter, he was certainly opposed to what he called dogmatic rationalism. He held that there is no place for forms of knowledge of reality which are derived from pure reason alone.

It is possible, then, to maintain a general empiricist thesis that all knowledge is derived from experience on the grounds either that (1) all that we know is directly concerned with sense experience or derived from it by strictly experiential means, that is, learning, association, or inductive inference; or (2) all that we know is dependent on sense experience in that all the materials for knowledge are directly derived from sense experience; or (3) all that we know is dependent on sense perception in that even though we can know some things a priori, this is only in a relative sense, since the having of experience is a general precondition for being said to have such knowledge. None of these theses demand any more than the ordinary conception of knowledge. They do not demand that the knowledge in question should possess absolute infallibility so that the possibility of error is logically excluded. For none of the theses in question is essentially designed to be an answer to skepticism.

Empiricism and Skepticism

Some forms of rationalism, for example, the Platonic theory already referred to, are meant to be answers to skepticism. They presuppose that an adequate reply to philosophical skepticism can be given only by showing that reason can provide forms of knowledge where error is logically excluded. The search for certainty, so intimately associated with seventeenth-century rationalism in general and René Descartes in particular, aimed at showing that knowledge is possible because there are some things about which we cannot be wrong. Empiricism can be a rival to rationalism, not just in the sense already notedthat it may reject the supposition that reason by itself, without reference to sense perception, can provide knowledgebut also in the sense that it proposes an alternate way of arriving at certainty. Empiricism, in this sense, is the thesis that the certainty required to answer the skeptic is to be found in the deliverances of the senses themselves and not in the deliverances of reason. Rationalism and empiricism, in this sense, are agreed that some such certainty must be found if skepticism is to be answered. They disagree about the sources of that certainty and about the method by which the rest of what we ordinarily call knowledge is to be derived from the primary certainties. Whereas rationalism seeks to derive knowledge in general from certain primary axioms (the truth of which is indubitable) by means of strictly deductive procedures, empiricism seeks to build up or construct knowledge from certain basic elements that are, again, indubitable. The clearest expression of this point of view is probably to be found in twentieth-century empiricism, especially that associated with the logical positivist movement. This point of view is also found in the British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, but in their case it is overladen with other elements and other forms of empiricism, some of which have already been noted. A short historical survey may serve to pinpoint the main issues.

Empiricism in Greek and Medieval Philosophy

It is often said that, in one sense, Aristotle was the founder of empiricism. Certainly Thomas Aquinas believed that he had Aristotle's authority for the view that there is nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the senses. It is not clear, however, that Aristotle ever raised this question. When he spoke of the relations between reason and the senses, he was concerned with issues in the philosophy of mind rather than with epistemology. Certainly Aristotle seems to have believed that knowledge is possible outside the immediate sphere of the senses and that reason can and does furnish us with necessary truths about the world. Aristotle's place in the development of empiricism, then, remains unclear.

Perhaps the first declared empiricist was Epicurus, who maintained that the senses are the only source of knowledge. Epicurus was an extreme atomist and held that sense perception comes about as a result of contact between the atoms of the soul and films of atoms issuing from the bodies around us. By this means phantasiae (appearances) are set up. These are all veridical. All sensations are true, and there is no standard other than sensation to which we may refer our judgments about the world. Sensations are set up in the soul by external stimuli, and for this reason Epicurus takes them to be "given." They constitute phantasiae when they occur in bulk. There is no further evidence that can be adduced in order that their veridicality may be assessed, either from other sensations or from reason. This is not to say that we cannot be in error concerning objects of perception; the films of atoms may become distorted in transit or the phantasiae caused by them may be fitted to the wrong prolepsis (conception). The last is a kind of abstract idea built up from successive sensations; the fitting of a phantasia to a prolepsis is what corresponds to judgment in Epicurus. It would appear that what Epicurus meant by his assertion that all sensations are true was that since they are caused in us, we can go no further in seeking information; they may not make us have true knowledge of objects, but in themselves they are incorrigible. Precisely how all knowledge was to be built up from these sensations is not clear, and it has often been remarked that the axioms on which Epicurus's metaphysical system rests are far from the data of sense and are often based on more or less a priori arguments. Nevertheless, Epicurus's ideal of knowledge is one which not only depends on experience for its materials but is based on basic truths of experience.

A theory of knowledge similar in many ways to that of Epicurus may be found in St. Thomas Aquinas, although the main sources of Thomas's philosophy are to be found in Aristotle. Thomas was not a complete empiricist, for he did not think that all knowledge was derived from truths of experience. Knowledge of God, for example, could be obtained in other ways, and his existence could be proved by logical argument. Yet Thomas did think that the materials for knowledge must be derived from sense experience, and he gave an account of the mechanism by which this comes about. Roughly, when the sense organs are stimulated, there also results a change in the soul, which is the form of the body; this is a phantasm, a kind of sensory image. In order for sense perception to occur, the universal character of the phantasm must be seen as such. For this purpose, Thomas resorted to Aristotle's distinction between an active and a passive reason. The active reason has to make possible the acquisition by the passive reason of the sensible form of the object of perception by a process which Thomasprobably adapting an analogy used by Aristotledescribed as the illuminating of the phantasm. The active reason reveals the sensible form of the object by abstraction from the phantasm. This form is imposed upon the passive reason, which produces a species expressa, or verbal concept, which in turn is used in judgment. This process is called the conversio ad phantasmata ; all concepts are arrived at in this way, by abstraction from phantasms. Hence, in applying them to entities that cannot be objects of perception, we must do so by means of analogies of various kinds with sensible objects. Thomas's empiricism is, therefore, limited to concepts, and it is only in this limited sense that he held "there is nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the senses."

The British Empiricists

When thinking of empiricism, one tends to think, above all, of the British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


John Locke was an empiricist in roughly the same sense that Thomas was, and he set the tone for his successors. His "new way of ideas," as it was called, had as its purpose "to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent." The reference to certainty makes it appear that he was concerned with skepticism or with skeptical arguments similar to Descartes's method of doubt. Locke's solution to this problem, however, was by no means consistently empiricist. His main target for attack was the doctrine of innate ideas, the doctrine that there may be ideas with which we are born or, at any rate, which we do not have to derive from sense experience. The first book of his Essay concerning Human Understanding is devoted to a biting attack on this doctrine. In the rest of the book he sets out a positive account of the way in which ideas are built up, explaining that by "idea" he means that which the mind "is applied about whilst thinking." Ideas may be either of sensation or of reflection upon those of sensation; there is no other source. Ideas are also classified as simple or complex, the latter being built up out of the former. The mind has a certain freedom in this process, which may lead to error. (Locke later admitted ideas of relation and general ideas alongside the simple and complex.) The second book of the Essay is an exhaustive account of the way in which all objects of the mind are built up from ideas of sense. In this respect, then, Locke's philosophy may be considered an attempt to show in detail the truth of the kind of view which Thomas had embraced, without accepting the same view of the mechanism whereby ideas come into being.

But Locke wanted to assess the certainty of our knowledge as well as its extent. The mind's freedom in forming complex ideas is a source of error, but in the case of simple ideas the mind, to Locke, was like a great mirror, capable of reflecting only what is set before it. Nevertheless, he did not maintain that all our ideas reflect the exact properties of things nor that all knowledge is of this character. In the fourth book of the Essay he asserts that all knowledge consists of "the perception of the connection of and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of our ideas," but he goes on to distinguish three degrees of knowledgeintuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive. We can have intuitive knowledge of our own existence, demonstrative knowledge of God's existence, and sensitive knowledge of the existence of particular finite things. Intuition and demonstration bring certainty with them; they provide in effect a priori knowledge. The question of how there can be a priori knowledge of the existence of anything and how this can be a matter of the agreement or disagreement between ideas presents many problems.

These problems become acute in connection with sensitive knowledge. Locke tried to argue at one point that knowledge of the existence of particular finite things is a matter of the perception of the agreement of our ideas with that of existence. This will not do; to know that something exists is not to know merely that the idea of it fits in with the idea of existence. Hence, Locke admitted that this knowledge has not the certainty of the other two, although he insisted that it goes beyond mere probability and is commonly thought of as knowledge. He also tried to argue for the claim that we do have knowledge of sensible things, maintaining that simple ideas are caused in us in such a way that the mind is passive in receiving them. Moreover, the senses may cohere in their reports. None of these considerations really show that we do have knowledge of sensible things, and Locke admitted that they did not amount to proof.

Locke did not claim that all our ideas correspond to the properties of things. He felt this claim was true in the case of the so-called primary qualities, for example, bulk, figure, and motion, qualities without which, he maintained, a thing could not exist. It was not true of secondary qualitiesfor example, color and taste. In this case, the properties of things cause us to have ideas that are not representative of those things; the term "secondary quality " is thus a misnomer. Locke's denial of the real existence of secondary qualities turns on his assimilation of our ideas of them to feelings like pain. (His acceptance of primary qualities was probably influenced by the success of physics in his time and its preoccupation with these properties of things.) As for things themselves, Locke maintained that we have little or no knowledge of their real essence, only of their nominal essencetheir nature as determined by the way in which we classify them. This is due to the weakness of our senses. We cannot penetrate to the real essence of things, and our ideas of substances are mostly those of powersthe powers that things have to affect us and each other. It can be seen from all this that Locke was an empiricist in a very limited sense. In his view all the materials for knowledge are provided by sense perception, but the extent and certainty of sensible knowledge is limited, while on the other hand, there is nonempirical a priori knowledge of nonsensible things.


One aim of Berkeley, the second of the British empiricists, was to rid Locke's philosophy of those elements that were inconsistent with empiricism, although Berkeley's main aim was to produce a metaphysical view which would show the glory of God. According to this view, there is nothing that our understanding cannot grasp, and our perceptions can be regarded as a kind of divine language by which God speaks to us; for God is the cause of our perceptions. The esse of sensible things is percipi they consist in being perceived and they have no existence without the mind. There exist, therefore, only sensations or ideas and spirits that are their cause. God is the cause of our sensations, and we ourselves can be the cause of ideas of the imagination.

Berkeley argued against those elements of Locke's philosophy that presupposed a physical reality lying behind our ideas. He attacked Locke's conception of substance and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, pointing out that there was no distinction to be made between them in respect of their dependence on mind. He also attacked the doctrine of abstract ideas which Locke had held, the doctrine that we have general ideas of things abstracted from the conditions of their particular existenceLocke's theory of universals. This Berkeley did because he believed that Locke's theory might provide a loophole for asserting the existence of an idea of substance. The outcome of this was Berkeley's claim that there are no restrictions on the extent of our knowledge. We have knowledge of the existence of God and ourselves to the extent that we have notions of these spirits. We have knowledge of everything else, since the existence of everything else is a matter of its being perceived. There is nothing further beyond our ken. Even subjects such as geometry, which might be supposed to involve knowledge of nonempirical matters, had to be limited in scope in order to rule out nonempirical objects of knowledge. Thus, Berkeley maintained that there is a least perceptible size; hence, there can be no ideas of infinitesimals or points.

In addition to claiming unrestricted scope for our knowledge, Berkeley asserted that knowledge is entirely dependent on sensations for all its materials other than the notions we have of God and ourselves. Berkeley claimed that this view "gives certainty to knowledge" and prevents skepticism. At the same time it defends common sense, he argued, because it does not involve the postulation of a reality behind ideas. His view gave certainty, he held, because sensations are by definition free from error; for error can arise only from the wrong use of ideas in judgment. The certainty of our sensations is due to the fact that there can be no question whether they actually represent a reality behind them; and this is the basis of Berkeley's claim to deal with skepticism. In general, all knowledge apart from that of our own existence and of God must, for Berkeley, ultimately be derived from sense perception. With these exceptions, therefore, Berkeley was an empiricist not only in respect of the scope and materials of knowledge but also in respect of its foundations. All truths must be founded on the truths of sense experience. The relations between ideas, which Locke had found a source of knowledge, were, for Berkeley, the result of the mind's own acts.

The mind operates upon the ideas given to it, comparing or contrasting them; it does not merely record what is there. Formal disciplines like mathematics, which might be thought to turn on the relations between ideas, thus depend on the ways in which the mind arbitrarily puts ideas together. Hence, to put the matter in terms more familiar today, mathematics is as much a matter of invention as discovery.


In respect to relations between ideas Hume perhaps went back to Locke, but in other respects much of Hume's philosophy may be represented as an attempt to rid empiricism of the remaining excrescences of nonempiricist doctrine in Berkeley. As to the materials for knowledge, Hume tried to improve on his predecessors with attempts at greater precision. He distinguished first between impressions and ideas, the former being the contents of the mind in perception, the latter those in imagination, and so on. He further subdivided ideas into those of sense and those of reflection, and again, into those which are simple and those which are complex. Like Berkeley, he denied the existence of anything behind impressions, and a cardinal point of his empiricism, to which he returned again and again, was that every simple idea is a copy of a corresponding impression. The understanding is therefore limited to these mental contents. Hume's main method in philosophy was what he called the "experimental method," the reference in all philosophical problems to the discoveries of experience. In effect, the conclusions which he drew from this are the opposite of Berkeley's. They can produce only skepticism. No justification can be given for belief in the existence of the self and an external world, for example. Reason cannot justify such beliefs, for all that we are given is a bundle of impressions and ideas. Only a psychological explanation can be given to account for our having such beliefs. Hume gives such an explanation in terms of the constancy and coherence of our impressions and ideas, and the principles of the association of ideas.

Hume's theory of knowledge is based on a distinction between two kinds of relations of ideas. In the Treatise of Human Nature he makes the distinction between relations that depend completely on the related ideas and those that can be changed without changing the ideas. The former, in effect, constitute necessary connections, the latter factual ones. In the later Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he short-circuited the discussion by distinguishing simply between relations of ideas and matters of fact. Mathematics depends entirely on relations of ideas and is thus concerned with necessary truths, the denial of which involves a contradiction. Matters of fact may rest simply on observation, but in the causal relation Hume finds the only case of a matter-of-fact relation that can take us from one idea to another. He shows that statements of causal connection cannot be logically necessary truths, in spite of the fact that we do attach some necessity to causal connections. After a long discussion he finds the explanation for this in the fact that causes precede their effects, are contiguous to them, and are such that there is a constant conjunction between them. As a result, the mind, through custom, tends to pass from one to the other. The feeling derived from this, which is an impression of reflection, constitutes the feeling of necessity that we find in the causal connection.

Hume denied any real connection between cause and effect but tried to explain why we think that there is such. His demonstration that the causal connection is a contingent one is of the utmost importance, but his conclusions about it are skeptical. He held that there can be no real or objective justification for inference from cause to effect. He did allow, it is true, that certain rules can be provided which, when followed, will give some kind of probability to those inductive inferences which we actually do make. The aim of these rules is to make custom reliable and to avoid superstition. Hume has really no right, according to his own principles, to allow so much, and in doing so, he deserts skepticism in favor of a reductionist positivism, which seeks only to deny any necessary connection among things, while retaining belief in inductive inference. The concept of causal connection is thus in effect reduced to that of constant association of events contiguous in space and closely related in time. This is a position incompatible with his general skepticism. Apart from this, Hume's philosophy is of a piece. In Hume, then, extreme empiricism led to skepticism. Apart from relations of ideas, he held, the only knowledge we can have is of what we can directly observe, and any attempt to palliate this conclusion can produce only inconsistency.

In British empiricism, therefore, the gradual weeding out of anything inconsistent with empiricism, either in the form of the claim that the materials for knowledge must be derived from experience or in the form of the claim that knowledge cannot go beyond experience in its objects, resulted in skepticism about most of the things which we ordinarily claim to know. Kant proposed a reconciliation between this thesis and rationalism, maintaining that the rationalist claim of a priori knowledge about reality must be restricted to its application to experience. There is no room for a priori knowledge of anything that is not an object of experience. Pure reason can provide no real knowledge, despite the claims of rationalist metaphysicians. Such nonanalytic propositions as we do know a priori constitute principles that lay down the conditions to which experience must conform if it is to be objectively valid and not just a product of the imagination. A priori truths other than mere analytic truths have validity only in reference to experience; hence, while all knowledge is based on experience, it is not all derived from experience. This is scarcely empiricism in any recognized form, nor did Kant claim that it was; but it is a thesis that gives an important role to experience in knowledge.

One final point may be made about the British empiricists: They all employed a common method of trying to build up the body of knowledge from simple building blocks. The model for this method may have been the empirical science of the day. (Hume claimed to derive his experimental method from Isaac Newton.) The rationalists claimed more for reason and sought to reveal sources for knowledge and its materials other than experience; but they were also opposed to the empiricists in their choice of method, finding their inspiration in the method of axiomatic geometry.

john stuart mill

J. S. Mill, the main figure in nineteenth-century empiricism, followed directly in the tradition of Hume. Mill's account of our knowledge of the external world, for example, was in part phenomenalist in character; it maintained that things are merely permanent possibilities of sensation. But it was mainly an account of the way in which we come to believe in such a thing as an external world and thus followed Hume in its psychological character. In one respect, however, Mill was more radical than Hume. He was so impressed by the possibilities of the use of induction that he found inductive inference in places where we should not ordinarily expect to find it. In particular, he claimed that mathematical truths were merely very highly confirmed generalizations from experience; mathematical inference, generally conceived as deductive in nature, he set down as founded on induction. Thus, in Mill's philosophy there was no real place for knowledge based on relations of ideas. In his view logical and mathematical necessity is psychological; we are merely unable to conceive any other possibilities than those that logical and mathematical propositions assert. This is perhaps the most extreme version of empiricism known, but it has not found many defenders.

Twentieth-Century Empiricism

Empiricists in the twentieth century generally reverted to the radical distinction between necessary truths, as found in logic and mathematics, and empirical truths, as found elsewhere. Necessity is confined by them, however, to logic and mathematics, and all other truths are held to be merely contingent. Partly for this reason and partly because it has been held that the apparatus of modern logic may be relevant to philosophical problems, twentieth-century empiricists tended to call themselves "Logical Empiricists" (at least those who were connected in one way or another with logical positivism). Bertrand Russell, however, who derived something from the positivists, but who owes equally much to the British empiricists, always claimed that there are limits to empiricism, on the grounds that the principles of inductive inference cannot themselves be justified by reference to experience.

In general, twentieth-century empiricists were less interested in the question of the materials for knowledge than in that of the empirical basis for knowledge. Insofar as they considered the former question, the tendency has been, as in other matters, to eschew psychological considerations and to raise the problem in connection with meaning. All descriptive symbols, it is maintained, should be definable in terms of other symbols, except that ultimately one must come to expressions that are definable ostensively only. That is, there must ultimately be terms which can be cashed by direct reference to experience and to it alone; ostensive definition consists of giving the term together with some direct act of pointing, such that no other understanding of meaning is required. In regard to nondescriptive terms the situation is less clear, but the general tendency is to assume that the only possible source of ideas which might be called a priori is logic and mathematics. Following Russell, twentieth-century empiricists assumed that mathematical notions can be reduced to logical ones or can at least involve similar features and that logical notions are concerned only with relations between symbols and can be defined accordingly. Russell, it is true, suggested that terms such as or might also be defined ostensively, for example, by reference to feelings of hesitation, but this suggestion has not been generally accepted.

If the views on the question of the materials for knowledge are not clear-cut, there has not been the same indefiniteness over the basis of knowledge. Although some positivists, the so-called physicalists, have maintained that the language of physics should be taken as providing the basic truths, most philosophers of positivist persuasion have gone to direct experience for the truths on which knowledge is taken to rest. These truths are to be found in sense-datum propositionspropositions that are a direct record of experience and which are for this reason incorrigible, consisting of ostensively definable terms, that is, names of sense data. It is not clear what would constitute an example of this. (Russell, for example, suggested "Red here now," where every expression is what he called a "logically proper name," such that its reference is guaranteed.) Nevertheless, it has been assumed that all propositions except logical ones must be reducible to these "basic propositions," which are about sense data.

However, propositions about physical objects are not incorrigible. Yet to suppose that such propositions deal with entities that lie behind the immediate data of the senses and that can only be inferred from those data would be to suppose that there is a gap between us and physical objects, the crossing of which is problematical. This would allow an opening for the skeptic. An alternative view is phenomenalism, the doctrine that the meaning of our statements about physical objects can be analyzed in terms of propositions about sense data. Physical objects are logical constructions out of sense data ("logical" because the issue concerns the correct logical analysis of propositions about physical objects and not the question of how, as a matter of psychological fact, we construct our ideas of physical objects). In general, according to positivists, all propositions other than those that are logically necessary must be verifiable by reduction, either directly or indirectly, to propositions about sense data. Anything which is not so reducible is nonsense. In epistemological terms, any contingent truth that we can be said to know must be founded on and reducible to propositions concerning sense experience. Necessary truths, it is generally held, are true by convention or in virtue of the meaning of the words involved. They tell us nothing about the world as such.

This program has run into difficulties of two main kinds. First, there have been difficulties in actually carrying out the analysis demanded. It would be almost universally agreed that propositions about physical objects cannot be analyzed in terms of propositions about actual and possible sense data, since the analysis would have to be infinitely long. This is an objection of principle. Second, the criterion of verifiability tends to exclude some kinds of propositions that we ordinarily think that we understand. There have been difficulties in this respect, for example, over propositions of natural law, as well as propositions of ethics, etc. There has been widespread dissatisfaction with attempts to justify empiricism of this sort.

It should now be possible to offer some assessment of empiricism. As an answer to skepticism it claims that the certainty and incorrigibility that knowledge demands can (apart from logical truths) be found only in immediate experience and that the rest of knowledge must be built upon this. In this sense, the theory is misguided as well as unsuccessful in carrying out its program. The lack of success can be seen in the fact that eighteenth-century empiricism led to skepticism, while the twentieth-century program of reduction was very widely admitted as a failure. The attempt was misguided in that knowledge does not require this kind of certainty and incorrigibility. Skepticism is not to be answered by providing absolutely certain truths, but by examining the grounds of skepticism itself. According to our ordinary conception of knowledge, what we claim to know must be true and based on the best of reasons. But by the best of reasons is not meant proof. Experience certainly provides justification for belief in, for example, physical objects, but if this belief is to amount to knowledge, it is not necessary that the justification should amount to proof. It is futile to argue whether experience or reason alone can provide proof of what we ordinarily claim to know. No one could have knowledge of the world unless he had experiences and could reason, but this does not mean that either experience or reason by themselves could provide the kind of absolute certainty which would constitute proof. Nor is it required that they should provide proof in order that knowledge may be possible.

What of the thesis that, whether or not experience can provide certainty, all knowledge is derived from experience? In Mill's sense, that all truths, of whatever kind, receive their validation from experience, the thesis is obviously false and need be considered no further. The thesis that all the materials for knowledge are derived from experience may seem more plausible. Yet, despite the number of philosophers who have maintained this thesis, it is not altogether clear what it means. The version of the doctrine held by Locke and Thomas looks like a psychological account of the origin of our ideas; in logical dress it amounts to the view that all our concepts or all the words which we use are definable in terms of those which are ostensively definable. Whether or not there are any a priori notions outside logic and mathematics, it certainly seems implausible to say that logical and mathematical notions may ultimately be definable ostensively.

More important, the notion of ostensive definition is itself suspect. How could one understand what was going on when a noise was made, accompanied by a pointing to something, unless one knew the kind of thing which was being indicated and, more important perhaps, was aware that it was language that was being used? In other words, much has to be understood before this kind of definition can even begin. The notion that words can be cashed in terms of direct experience without further presuppositions is, thus, highly suspect. This is not to say that there are no distinctions to be made between different kinds of concepts or words, but merely that the distinctions in question cannot be made by means of any simple distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

There remains the Kantian point that the having of experience is a condition for any further knowledge. This would certainly be the case for creatures of our kind of sensibility, as Kant would put it. Yet the logical possibility of the possession of knowledge by nonsensitive creatures remains, whether or not any such creatures exist in fact.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Aristotle; Berkeley, George; Descartes, René; Epicurus; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Logical Positivism; Logic, History of; Mill, John Stuart; Plato; Positivism; Pragmatism; Rationalism; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sensationalism; Skepticism, History of; Thomas Aquinas, St.



Bailey, Cyril. Epicurus, the Extant Remains. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926. In Greek, with English translation.

Bailey, Cyril. The Greek Atomists and Epicurus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928.

Zeller, Eduard. Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. Translated by O. J. Reichel. London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1892.

thomas aquinas

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. London: Penguin, 1955.

Thomas Aquinas, St. Summa Theologica, Ia, 78ff., in Vol. IV of the English translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London, 1922.

the british empiricists

Ayer, A. J., and Raymond Winch, eds. British Empirical Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1952. A collection of writings by the British empiricists.

Mill, J. S. System of Logic. 8th ed. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1872.

See also Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, the translation by Norman Kemp Smith. London, 1953.

twentieth-century empiricists

Anderson, John, Studies in Empirical Philosophy. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1962.

Ayer, A. J. Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. London: Macmillan, 1940.

Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic. 2nd ed. London: Gollancz, 1946.

Ayer, A. J. Philosophical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1954.

Ayer, A. J. Problem of Knowledge. London: Macmillan, 1956.

Ayer, A. J., ed. Logical Positivism. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959.

Lewis, C. I. An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

Price, H. H. Thinking and Experience. London and New York: Hutchison's University Library, 1953.

Russell, Bertrand. Human Knowledge. London: Allen and Unwin, 1948.

Russell, Bertrand. Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. London: Allen and Unwin, 1940.

For other writings dealing with Empiricism, see the bibliographies to the entries Logical Positivism; Positivism; Pragmatism; and Sensationalism.

D. W. Hamlyn (1967)


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Pierre Bayle.

Not every seventeenth-century intellectual engaged in scientific research embraced rationalism. Some rejected it as presuming to use mathematics to do something mathematics could not do, that is, validate the existence of God. Of these, the most important was Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), the French genius whose Jansenist convictions prompted him to affirm that God is only knowable through the insights he offers as gifts of grace to individual humans. Those trained in the traditional concerns of humanism, with its emphasis on creating a philosophy that might inspire virtue, similarly failed to concede the high road to the rationalists. Many thinkers who could be placed in this category adopted a skeptical posture that questioned the value of any knowledge of human affairs derived from scientific methods of reasoning. Of these, the most influential was Pierre Bayle (1647–1706). Bayle was born and raised as a French Huguenot, those that followed the teachings of John Calvin. For a brief period he converted to Catholicism, although his re-conversion to Calvinism necessitated his flight from France. Ultimately, he settled as a free man in Rotterdam, but he did so with the knowledge that the French government had imprisoned his brothers as punishment for his writings. They would eventually die in jail. Even in Rotterdam, clerical authorities attacked Bayle for the apparent atheism articulated in his writings. The trials and tribulations Bayle experienced because of his religious views made him a bitter opponent of any and all dogmas—proclamations of truth—whether they be religious, scientific, or otherwise. As Voltaire later characterized him with some hyperbole, Bayle had the finest mind for the "art of reasoning"—that is, critical analysis—of any intellectual "who ever wrote." Bayle slowly examined any claim of truth and worked through its arguments to show the doubts about it every rational person had to recognize. One example of Bayle's method was his discussion of "identity." Since Descartes had based his proof of existence on consciousness, early-modern thinkers debated whether identity was continuous—whether a person has the same consciousness today that he or she had five days ago or five years ago. To a "learned theologian" who affirmed that consciousness is retained, Bayle posed the questions: "How do you know that, this morning, God did not let your soul fall back into nothing?" and "How do you know that God did not create another soul with the same modifications?" As Bayle concluded, "That new soul is the one you have now. Convince me to the contrary." Bayle's influence over philosophy stemmed from his Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary; 1702), a vast compendium of more than nine million words that was an international best-seller throughout much of eighteenth century. The articles in the dictionary were fairly straightforward. It was in his footnotes, though, that Bayle got into trouble. These were filled with the same relentless skepticism and questioning spirit that took no assumptions for granted that were found in all of Bayle's writings. While he insisted that he was a believing Christian, he nevertheless compiled a significant body of works that were questioned, even in his own lifetime, as a challenge to his own religion. Recent scholarship may have become more supportive of the idea that Bayle's confessions of faith were sincere, yet eighteenth-century philosophers who followed him were convinced of his questioning spirit and his use of human reason to undermine Christian teachings. Bayle's work was particularly important for its impact on rationalistic arguments. His writings successfully assaulted the rationalists' assumptions that mathematical reasoning could bring certainty to questions about human existence. In this way his work cleared the ground for the coming of empiricism, a school of philosophy that championed human observation and the insights it might offer.


By the second half of the seventeenth century, philosophical thinking in Europe had come to an impasse. Outside of clerical circles the traditional methods of university scholasticism had almost no appeal. Humanism, too, with its emphasis on ancient textual and literary study, was incapable of making sense of the ongoing discoveries that were occurring in science and beyond Europe's boundaries in the journeys of exploration. Much of the new knowledge that was being amassed at the time, too, derived from new technologies like the telescope that extended the power of the human senses. For all these reasons, rationalism, with its rejection of the possibility of learning new things through the senses, left many people, but especially scientists, cold. In the works of Bayle can be seen some of the tensions of the age, and some scholars have long pointed to his work as a prime example of a resurgence of skepticism in the era. At the same time, the rapid rise of empiricism, a movement that, in fact, grew from Bayle's very questioning cast of mind, cautions against an interpretation that points to a widespread resurgence of skepticism. It would be wrong to present the second half of the seventeenth century as waiting in anticipation of empiricism. Since modern philosophers continue to live in an intellectual universe where empiricist assumptions predominate and because they can look back and see this universe being born in the second half of the seventeenth century, it is useful to appreciate how empiricism fit with the European cultural sensibilities that were emerging in the seventeenth century in ways that no philosophical tradition has before, or since, been able to match. The key assumption of empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes through sensory experience. In contrast to rationalism's affirmation of innate ideas, empiricism insists that a reality exists outside and beyond the human mind, and that it is through the senses that humans gain an understanding of this reality. Like rationalism, empiricism's roots can be traced back to ancient Greek thought, specifically to the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (361–270 b.c.e.). Two of his conclusions were especially important to the later history of European empiricism. First, Epicurus recognized that the universe was made up of matter. From Democritus (460–370 b.c.e.) he derived a conception of the universe as a void or vacuum populated by atoms, which both figures understood to be irreducible, microscopic bits of matter. These atoms combined to create the macroscopic entities perceivable in the world. Epicurus added to Democritus the ideas that atoms have weight and thus naturally move in a downward direction, and that when atoms come together to form macroscopic entities, they coalesce in recognizable patterns that grant those entities discernible qualities such as the sweetness of honey or the whiteness of snow. It is worth stressing that the materialism implicit in Epicurus' notion of the universe also proved attractive to later seventeenth-century European thinkers. But Epicurus rejected the existence of a spiritual world. As noted before, many commentators recognize Francis Bacon's ideas as the source from which early-modern European scientists drew inspiration. This argument is true in the sense that Bacon's ideas provided a rationalization of scientific investigation upon which both scientists and the public could agree. On the epistemological level, however—that is, the level of the theory of knowledge—it was Epicurus who provided scientists with direction. His materialism, though, was an obstacle to the reconciliation of his ideas with Christianity. Many of the charges of atheism leveled at early-modern scientists and philosophers can be traced back to their use of the ideas of Epicurus. The second idea of importance from Epicurus is that human understanding comes via the senses. The patterns in which atoms configured themselves grant them qualities discernible only through the five senses. Epicurus affirmed that the senses never lied. Any confusion concerning sensory input takes place in the human mind. Thus the way to knowledge is through using the senses to correct the mind.

Gassendi and Boyle.

For most of the twentieth century scholars recognized John Locke as the initiator of the empiricist movement. Over the past few decades, however, the significance of the ideas of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) as shapers of Locke's thought has been increasingly appreciated. Gassendi suffered from physical infirmities like his contemporary Malebranche, and like Malebranche opted to enter the priesthood, though he never ministered a parish. Gassendi was the first person to record the orbital progression of a planet (Mercury), and thus provide evidence in support of Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He was also the first scientist to identify and name the Aurora Borealis. It is perhaps revealing of the degree to which mathematics had taken over the debate concerning astronomy that in 1645, when Gassendi was honored for his achievements, he received a chair in mathematics at the College Royal of France. Gassendi was recognized as a scientist in his own day. History has remembered him, however, first and foremost as the individual who reintroduced Western civilization to the thought of Epicurus. Gassendi was one of the men invited to write comments on the first edition of Descartes' Meditations. Gassendi took exception to Descartes' appropriation of the methods of geometry and their application to the human quest for truth. For him, Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" proved nothing. Rejecting Descartes' claim that the pathway to truth traveled through the layers of the mind, Gassendi turned to the writings of Epicurus for proof that truth was something humans could only approximate. According to Gassendi, truth was reached through an inherently opposing process by which the senses acted against the mind to misinterpret the knowledge to which they were exposed. Gassendi believed in a "voluntarist" versus an "intellectualist" God, in other words, a God who does not just make laws but who actively shapes and reshapes those laws as he sees fit. From this perspective, Gassendi attacked Descartes' argument that mathematical forms such as triangles are eternal. As Gassendi understood it, if triangles were eternal, they would then stand as something external to God and his creation, a possibility Gassendi totally rejected. Triangles, therefore, must be part of the world God created. And as Gassendi cautioned, "Don't tell me if God destroyed it or established it otherwise, it would no longer be a Triangle." From this direction, Gassendi saw the atoms of Epicurus as serving God's command, and he sought to Christianize Epicurus, that is, to insert the Christian God as the animus or spirit in the materialistic universe that Epicurus had originally articulated. Thus whatever laws dictated the ways in which atoms came together, those laws had to be regarded as works in progress by God, who could and did, rework them over time according to his will. Gassendi's ideas were eagerly embraced in England by Robert Boyle, best remembered as the discoverer of the law that bears his name that summarizes the relationship between pressure and the volume of gases. A point of contention among seventeenth-century scientists was whether the universe consisted of a vacuum—a void—or a plenum—a filled space. Seeking to avoid a stand on the issue, Boyle labeled the irreducible bits of matter that make up the world "corpuscles," not atoms. But his corpuscles, like Gassendi's atoms, were God's building blocks. And while few people read Boyle for his corpuscular theory, the fact that Boyle explained his innumerable experiments based upon his corpuscular theory helped to diffuse his ideas among a broad readership.

John Locke.

Among the young men who helped Boyle with his many experiments was an aspiring medical student named John Locke (1632–1704). Although his skills as a medic were what brought Locke to the attention of his eventual patron, Lord Shaftesbury, Locke spent very little of his adult life practicing medicine. Eventually, his medical research provided him with qualifications for entering into the Royal Academy of Science, but Locke spent most of his time engaged in politics. Shaftesbury was a leader of the Whig party, which for most of the 1680s stood in opposition to King Charles II and his brother, who eventually took the throne as James II. Having failed in his effort to have the English Parliament exclude James from the succession to the English throne, Shaftesbury escaped England for exile in Holland in 1682, where he died less than a year later. As a close associate of Shaftesbury, Locke also felt it prudent to follow him into exile, and he remained in Holland until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced James from the throne. During the 1680s, while he was on the run from agents of the English crown, Locke composed An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), the source text from which modern philosophical empiricism developed. In the Epistle or "Letter" that Locke provided as a prologue to this work, Locke treated his philosophy as deriving from the "scientific" ideas of figures like Boyle and Newton, the "master builders" he argued that had left "lasting monuments" for "posterity." His ideas were also shaped by the nature of the political-philosophical discourse that had occurred in England to this time. Although Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) remained fresh in the memory of English readers in Locke's day, this later philosopher came to far more optimistic conclusions than his predecessor had concerning the nature of humankind in a primitive state. His view of human psychology discarded the essential distrust and pessimism that had characterized Hobbes's earlier work. Locke portrayed his own work as an "under-laborer," inferior to the great achievements of Boyle and Newton. He was content, he wrote, to help "clear the ground" of some of the "rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge." In making this statement Locke expressed a sensibility that remains alive in the modern social sciences: the idea that the methods of investigation and analysis developed in the study of nature can be less loftily but still usefully applied to the task of clearing up some of the confusion or "rubbish" concerning humans and their behavior.


introduction: In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690, John Locke discounted the notion of innate ideas, and set forth the idea that the mind was a "blank slate," or tabula rasa, at birth, upon which experience wrote its teachings. The idea was to become tremendously influential during the Enlightenment and to spark a great eighteenth-century inquiry into the nature of empirical knowledge.

For, first, it is evident, that all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them [innate ideas]. And the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent which must needs be the necessary concomitant of all innate truths: it seeming to me near a contradiction to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul, which it perceives or understands not: imprinting, if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain truths to be perceived. For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind's perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible. If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? and if they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown? To say a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing. No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of. For if any one may, then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the mind is capable ever of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and to be imprinted: since, if any one can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the mind is of all truths it ever shall know. Nay, thus truths may be imprinted on the mind which it never did, nor ever shall know; for a man may live long, and die at last in ignorance of many truths which his mind was capable of knowing, and that with certainty. So that if the capacity of knowing be the natural impression contended for, all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate; and this great point will amount to no more, but only to a very improper way of speaking; which, whilst it pretends to assert the contrary, says nothing different from those who deny innate principles. For nobody, I think, ever denied that the mind was capable of knowing several truths. The capacity, they say, is innate; the knowledge acquired. But then to what end such contest for certain innate maxims? If truths can be imprinted on the understanding without being perceived, I can see no difference there can be between any truths the mind is capable of knowing in respect of their original: they must all be innate or all adventitious: in vain shall a man go about to distinguish them. He therefore that talks of innate notions in the understanding, cannot (if he intend thereby any distinct sort of truths) mean such truths to be in the understanding as it never perceived, and is yet wholly ignorant of. For if these words "to be in the understanding" have any propriety, they signify to be understood. So that to be in the understanding, and not to be understood; to be in the mind and never to be perceived, is all one as to say anything is and is not in the mind or understanding. If therefore these two propositions, "Whatsoever is, is," and "It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be," are by nature imprinted, children cannot be ignorant of them: infants, and all that have souls, must necessarily have them in their understandings, know the truth of them, and assent to it.

source: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Thomas Basset, 1690): 5–6.

Scope of Locke 's Essay.

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding is divided into four books. In the first book, Locke runs through the arguments for the existence of innate ideas in order to disprove them; he calls attention to the fact that children are not born knowing the rules of logic. The second book of the Essay is the most important, for it is here that Locke presents the empiricist model of human cognition still embraced today. Locke argues that all knowledge comes through ideas, ideas being defined as the "objects" about which humans think. Introducing a metaphor still much in use, Locke pictured the human mind as a "blank page" that is filled through experience. There are two sorts of experience: "sensory," involving the acquisition of knowledge from the outside world, and "reflective," involving the manipulation within the mind of ideas already present. Likewise, there are two sorts of ideas: simple ideas having to do with the outside world that can only be received through the senses, and complex ideas that are the products of the mind's treatment and refinement of simple ideas. While humans cannot know the "essence" of things, they can come to an approximate understanding of them. Through the senses, humans can gain an idea of the primary qualities of things—their shapes, their sizes—and also the secondary qualities of things—their smell, their taste, etc. Through reflection humans can then build complex notions about things humans can then test against further sensory experiences.

Berkeley and the Christianization of Empiricism.

Although his ideas were sometimes perceived as an attack on the traditional Orthodox notion of the pervasiveness of Original Sin, Locke himself was a devout Christian who passed away while being read to from the Bible. Theologians attacked his Essay, but much of the venom of their criticism arose, not so much from Locke's work, but from the way in which his ideas were being used. In 1696, John Toland (1670–1722) published his Christianity Not Mysterious. Toland based many of his observations on the empiricist arguments in Locke's Essay, and used its reasoning to demonstrate that there was no validity at all in traditional revealed religion. Locke himself attempted to disown such a reading, but Edward Stillingfleet, the bishop of Worchester, argued after reading the Essay that it was a fair extrapolation. In a series of letters published between 1696 and 1702, Locke and Stillingfleet engaged in a polemic over whether the Essay undermined Christian faith. The point of contention was the distinction Locke insisted existed between knowledge, for which the criterion of truth had to be certainty, and faith, which by definition for Locke could only be accepted as probable. The demarcation of knowledge as something that could be only understood as true or untrue was the innovation for which Locke was being challenged. Locke was separating the understanding of the natural world and its societies from the understanding of God. As a result, he argued that the understanding of the world could be arrived at only by following empiricist procedures, while the understanding of God could never be arrived at with certainty following empiricist procedures. It was exactly upon this last point that George Berkeley (1685–1753), Anglican bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, also challenged Locke. Following Gassendi's reading of Epicurus, Locke had granted the material world a charter of independence from the spiritual world. The material world, Locke argued, could only be approached from a materialist perspective, an argument Berkeley rejected. Instead Berkeley denied the existence of a material world altogether, and denied the existence of any concrete realities outside the mind that human beings might attain some level of certainty in understanding. Whatever was out there existed solely as ideas and nothing more as they were brought within the compass of human understanding. Berkeley modified Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am") to read, "Esse est percipi" ("to be is to perceive"), his point being that the one certainty humans can have is that the act of being empirical—the act of receiving information through the senses—is the validation of their conscious existence. Berkeley was a man of considerable intellectual powers. He had sufficient command of mathematics, in fact, to expose errors in Newton's calculus. It is thus significant that he turned away from science and back toward religion. His career both before and after his appointment as bishop of Cloyne can be characterized by his concern to stop what he took to be the erosion of collective belief. He identified philosophical materialism as the source of that erosion, and sought to make the case against its integrity. Berkeley's empiricism thus represented a break with the empiricism of his predecessors in that instead of attempting to free the scientific study of the physical universe from the oversight of theologians, he sought to demonstrate that whatever insights scientists gleaned about the physical universe were gifts from God. They were, in other words, signs of God's benevolence similar to the gifts the divinity had also given humankind through his revelation. In his youthful writings Berkeley had emphasized that insights about the physical universe came through the senses; now in his latter works, he articulated a Neo-Platonic position that allowed for some ideas to be innate in the human mind. Berkeley's efforts at Christianizing empiricism thus ended with a negation of the empiricist elements in his philosophy.

Condillac and Sensationism.

British empiricism had a powerful impact on intellectual thought everywhere in eighteenth-century Europe, but only one thinker on the continent made an original contribution to the empiricist school of thought. In 1688, William Molyneux, secretary to the Royal Irish Academy, sent a philosophical problem to John Locke that Molyneux hoped Locke would try his hand in solving. Suppose, Molyneux's problem began, a man born blind was trained to recognize a sphere and a cube by touch. Suppose then that this individual was granted sight. Would the individual then be able to identify a sphere and a cube by sight correctly without touching them? Locke concluded that the answer was "No." Later, when he took up the same problem, Berkeley reached the same conclusion. Both men saw this problem as turning on the issue of depth perception, and concluded, albeit with different justifications, that the circle and square that would confront the untrained eye would not immediately be recognized as a sphere and cube. Depth perception was not innate. The French empiricist Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1714–1780), writing after Locke and Berkeley, suggested that Molyneux's problem was not about depth perception, but about the connections between the senses and the mind, and that Locke and Berkeley did not go far enough in their conclusions. To Condillac's mind, the question of depth perception took for granted that the mind was aware that there is a world outside the body where there are some things that are closer and some things that are further away. How did the mind, Condillac pondered, first come to realize that a world existed outside itself? Like Malebranche and Gassendi, Condillac was a sickly child who turned to scholarship and then to the priesthood. Condillac lived a much more varied life than either of these men, however. As a young man, he was part of an intellectual circle that included Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. And for ten years of his life he served as the private tutor of the duke of Parma, the grandson of Louis XV (r. 1715–1774). Condillac's brand of empiricism has been labeled "sensationism." Sensationism moved beyond other forms of empiricism in insisting that all attributes of consciousness are the products of the senses. Whereas Locke's idea of empiricism maintained that ideas were derived from experiences, it took for granted that the mental processes through which experiences were turned into ideas were themselves innate. Condillac argued, by contrast, that mental processes were themselves the results of experience. In his Treatise on Sensations (1754) Condillac went Molyneux one better and asked his readers to imagine what would happen if an inanimate statue came to consciousness, acquiring the five senses either in isolation or in various sequences. As


introduction: In his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge the Anglo-Irish bishop George Berkeley examined the empirical basis of human understanding. Berkeley keenly sensed some of the problems inherent in John Locke's notion of the mind as a tabula rasa. In his Treatise he outlined a thorough-going idealism—all reality is defined in the mind working in tandem with the senses. But such a commonsensical idea also had its quizzical features in Berkeley's thought. He suggested that if objects were not perceived, then they did not exist.

25. All our ideas, sensations, notions, or the things which we perceive, by whatsoever names they may be distinguished, are visibly inactive—there is nothing of power or agency included in them. So that one idea or object of thought cannot produce or make any alteration in another. To be satisfied of the truth of this, there is nothing else requisite but a bare observation of our ideas. For, since they and every part of them exist only in the mind, it follows that there is nothing in them but what is perceived: but whoever shall attend to his ideas, whether of sense or reflexion, will not perceive in them any power or activity; there is, therefore, no such thing contained in them. A little attention will discover to us that the very being of an idea implies passiveness and inertness in it, insomuch that it is impossible for an idea to do anything, or, strictly speaking, to be the cause of anything: neither can it be the resemblance or pattern of any active being, as is evident from sect. 8. Whence it plainly follows that extension, figure, and motion cannot be the cause of our sensations. To say, therefore, that these are the effects of powers resulting from the configuration, number, motion, and size of corpuscles, must certainly be false.

26. We perceive a continual succession of ideas, some are anew excited, others are changed or totally disappear. There is therefore some cause of these ideas, whereon they depend, and which produces and changes them. That this cause cannot be any quality or idea or combination of ideas, is clear from the preceding section. I must therefore be a substance; but it has been shewn that there is no corporeal or material substance: it remains therefore that the cause of ideas is an incorporeal active substance or Spirit. …

28. I find I can excite ideas in my mind at pleasure, and vary and shift the scene as oft as I think fit. It is no more than willing, and straightway this or that idea arises in my fancy; and by the same power it is obliterated and makes way for another. This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active. Thus much is certain and grounded on experience; but when we think of unthinking agents or of exciting ideas exclusive of volition, we only amuse ourselves with words.

29. But, whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other Will or Spirit that produces them.

source: George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), in The Works of George Berkeley. Vol. 1. Ed. A. C. Fraser (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910): 51–53.

Condillac saw it, the consciousness of the statue—that is, what it would know itself to be—would be a function of the combination of senses available to it. Condillac saw the human mind as passive and immobile. All it could do was react to the sensations, the impulses of data that flowed into it from the senses. Gradually, it learned to manipulate the data, to compare and contrast the latter, to arrange the latter in patterns, these acts signaling the acquisition of the mental processes earlier empiricists took as innate. As for the question of how the human mind first realized that a world existed outside itself, according to Condillac that discovery was a product of the sense of touch. Only after a human has touched an external object is it brought home to the mind that something exists that is not an extension of it.

Hume and the Secularization of Empiricism.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Condillac's contemporary David Hume (1711–1776) was pushing empiricism in yet another direction. Like Locke, Hume was a thinker whose ideas have continued to influence the discussion of a number of topics. In the twentieth century Hume was celebrated by the philosophical naturalists, thinkers who argued that while science does not supply all the answers, its methods of investigation remain the best starting point for deriving answers. They recognized Hume as their distant forebear, an identification for which there is some justification. Hume saw himself as applying the "experimental method of reasoning" demonstrated by Newton to the "science of human nature." At the same time he has been seen as an important force that kept alive philosophical skepticism. Just as Hume reinforced the dichotomy Locke postulated between knowledge of the material world and belief in God, so Hume used Bayle's skepticism as a scalpel to slice away at the arguments through which the discussion of the physical universe had long been kept within a Christian intellectual framework. Whether Hume saw skepticism as an end in itself or merely as a tool to clear the way for his scientific philosophy remains an open question. Hume, though, more than any other figure in the empiricist movement, led the charge to secularize, that is, strip away the religious dimension from Europe's philosophical discourse. While he took up this mission in almost all his writings, the subject of all his thinking can be gleaned in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739–1740). Hume complained about the lack of public approval his treatise generated, remembering it later as having "fell dead-born from the press." So he spent the rest of his career re-packaging the ideas in the Treatise, and nowhere did he do so more effectively than in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume recognized the twofold distinction that Locke had argued existed between sensory inputs and the mental representations they triggered. Hume labeled the former "impressions," the latter "ideas." Hume's first insight is that ideas are only "copies" of impressions. His second insight is what has been called his "liveliness" thesis: the notion that what separates ideas from impressions is the vividness of the copies. To use a modern analogy, if an image is photocopied, and then the photocopy is photocopied, each successive image will have less and less of the detail of the original. The difficulty with understanding Hume often resulted from his attacking and dismissing the "useless" ideas that he was trying to replace with his own theories. His attacks on traditional received wisdom, in other words, can be so vitriolic and entertaining that they sometimes cloud over what he had to say that was new. Using his two insights, Hume argued that all knowledge should be scrutinized to determine its factual versus its fictional character. The question concerning every idea that must be asked is "from what impression did it derive." If the source of the impression cannot be determined, Hume contends, it has no empirical validity. Hume skewered ideas concerning faith, miracles, and the supernatural because they possessed no empirical validation. Having dismissed the possibility of any spiritual basis for morality, Hume sought to establish an Epicurean notion of human ethical conduct: the pursuit of pleasure versus the avoidance of pain should be, he argued, the yardstick against which all human actions are judged. In this way, he helped to set the stage for philosophical utilitarianism in the nineteenth century.


introduction: In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding David Hume examined the long-standing claims of religion to be verified by miracles. He concluded that since miracles were violations of nature, and since experience taught that natural laws could not be violated, miracles were, in fact, impossible. His cool and detached reasoning displays one direction that Enlightenment philosophy took in the eighteenth century as it strove to prune away long-held superstitions.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation; And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle …

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

source: David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co, 1926): 120–122.


M. W. Cranston, John Locke: A Biography (London: Longmans, 1966).

W. Doney, Berkeley on Abstraction and Abstract Ideas (Hamden, Conn.: Garland Science Publishing, 1989).

A. C. Grayling, Berkeley: The Central Arguments (London: Duckworth, 1986).

E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

D. F. Norton, The Cambridge Companion to Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

J. C. O'Neal, The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

—, Changing Mind: The Shifting Perception of Culture in Eighteenth-Century France (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2002).

S. Priest, The British Empiricists: Hobbes to Ayer (London: Penguin, 1990).

S. Shapin, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985).

B. S. Tinsley, Pierre Bayle's Reformation: Conscience and Criticism on the Eve of the Enlightenment (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2001).

R. Whelan, The Anatomy of Superstition: A Study of the Historical Theory and Practice of Pierre Bayle (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1989).


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Empiricism is a family of theories of knowledge (epistemology) claiming that all knowledge about the extant universe is based on experience, primarily on perception via the five senses. Some empiricists add introspection, a moral sense, or a special sensitivity to religious or aesthetic experience. Strong empiricists claim that all knowledge whatever derives from experience. They must show how empiricism can handle apparently a priori knowledge, including logic, mathematics, and ordinary truths such as "Bachelors are unmarried males." Empiricism also provides an account of mind, language, and learning. The traditional contrast of empiricism is with rationalism and nativism, the view that we do possess a priori knowledge, either furnished by reason alone or innate. Empiricists tend to perceptualize the mind and its operations, while rationalists tend to intellectualize it. With its down-to-earth emphasis on concrete experience and clarity, empiricism has flourished in Anglophone countries, whereas the more speculative rationalist and Kantian ideas have flourished on the Continent. This is one aspect of the divide between Continental philosophy and Anglo-American, "analytic," and "linguistic" philosophies.

In the twenty-first century nearly everyone is an empiricist in the everyday sense of taking experience seriously as a basis for knowledge claims about the natural world and human behavior, but most philosophers reject traditional, doctrinaire empiricismthe view that human sense experience provides a special connection of the knowing mind to the world and thus provides a foundation on which knowledge can build, step by step.

A Thumbnail History

In ancient times Aristotle was an empiricist relative to Plato's other-worldly rationalism. Modern empiricism began around 1600 with Francis Bacon (15611626), who promoted a new, experimental philosophy combining experience and reason, and with Galileo Galilei (15641642), who united experimental observation with a Platonic mathematical framework. Thomas Hobbes (15881679) further enriched early empiricist thinking, but the "big three" British empiricists were John Locke (16321704), George Berkeley (16851753), and David Hume (17111776). Locke first systematically expounded modern empiricism (see below). He was followed in the eighteenth century by Berkeley, notorious for his subjective idealism, the radical empiricist view that there are no material objects, that everything can be analyzed into minds and their ideas. Hume then took the further step of denying that there is even a substantial mind or ego. We introspect only a bundle of passing impressions. The mind is governed by natural laws of association, analogous to Isaac Newton's (16421727) law of gravitation, without needing an executive overseer. Hume also denied that inductive inference can be justified by logical argument, but he defended a wider conception of rationality (or at least sensible action) based on our natural impulses to believe and act. As he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (17391740) and its popularization, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), passion or custom, not reason, is "the great guide of human life."

The leading nineteenth-century empiricist was John Stuart Mill (18061873), who developed a full-fledged phenomenalism. Mill held that simple induction by enumeration (ravens 1, 2, 3, n are black; therefore all ravens are black) is sufficient to support both science and mathematics: even the principles of logic and mathematics are very general empirical laws. Twentieth-century empiricists such as Bertrand Russell (18721970), George Edward Moore (18731958), and Alfred Jules Ayer (19101989) denied this, as did the logical empiricists of the Vienna Circle, who contended that the laws of logic and mathematics are both a priori and analytically true, that is, true by virtue of logical form and our linguistic conventions, hence completely empty of empirical content. By contrast, many twentieth-century thinkers, following Willard Van Orman Quine (19082000), have returned to a more naturalistic pragmatism.

The most damaging criticisms of British empiricism were leveled first by Immanuel Kant (17241804) and by the German and British idealists who followed him, then by Ludwig Wittgenstein (18991969), Gilbert Ryle (19001976), Quine, Wilfrid Sellars (19121989), Thomas Kuhn (19221996), and other twentieth-century figures, who attacked the entire Cartesian-Lockean conception of mind, experience, and language. Shocked by Hume's apparent skepticism about causality and Newtonian science, Kant synthesized rationalism and empiricism, while critically transcending both. The human mind itself furnishes the conceptual and rational apparatus necessary to organize our experience, as he argued in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). "Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind." Kant retained a vestige of the rationalist idea that we possess a special sort of intuition that enables us to make substantive, "synthetic" claims about the world that are nonetheless known a priori. He held that Euclidean geometry and the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics are such "synthetic a priori" truths. Post-Kantian empiricists deny this.

Foundational Empiricism

The traditional empiricists and rationalists were foundationists in epistemology. Foundationism postulates a base set of propositions that play a distinctive epistemic role plus a superstructure (comprising the bulk of our knowledge) appropriately related to the base. The empiricists and rationalists added the constraints that the basic statements must be certain and self-justifying (self-evident to reason for the rationalists and evident to the senses for the empiricists) and that the relation of base to superstructure be one of logical inference: deductive and perhaps inductive logic must suffice to generate the superstructure from the base. The justification is one-way or "linear" in the sense that the various layers of superstructure depend only on lower layers and, hence, ultimately on the base for their justification. Euclidean geometry provides the intellectual model. In this case the inferences are strictly deductive.

Given such a Euclidean geometryinspired model, one wants the largest possible superstructure from the narrowest and most certain possible base. Two main problems stand in the way: the base problem (whether the base itself can be adequately justified) and the superstructure problem (whether the inferential resources are sufficient to support the desired superstructure on the base). From the beginning, empiricists have addressed the second problem by restricting the super-structure to claims within reach of observation and experiment and by developing the resources of logic, probability theory, and statistical inference. The British empiricists did not fully recognize the seriousness of the first problem.

Within this foundationist framework, Locke established the overall structure of a specifically empiricist theory in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), one of the founding works of the Enlightenment:

  1. All simple ideas come from experience. There are no innate ideas. Contrary to nativists such as René Descartes (15961650), the mind is a tabula rasathat is, a blank slateat birth.
  2. Ideas of solidity, movement, number, and so forth, resemble features of the real world (primary qualities), whereas sensations of color, sound, taste, and so forth, do not resemble the physical powers (secondary qualities) in objects that produce these sensations in the mind. They are mind-dependent.
  3. Complex ideas are compounds of simple, atomic ideas, and, so, are image-like.
  4. Thus knowledge, which is the intellectual recognition of the agreement or disagreement of ideas, cannot go beyond the limits of experience. (Locke's is an "idea empiricism," but knowledge requires an operation of mind in addition to the presence of ideas.)
  5. Neither can meaningful language transcend experience, since the meaning of a word is an idea in the mind. Having the appropriate idea in mind is what distinguishes a person's from a parrot's uttering, "I want a cracker."
  6. We each learn our native language by attaching public noises or marks (words) to ideas. We can then communicate our ideas to others by making the appropriate noises or marks.
  7. Thought is a connected sequence of ideas.
  8. The immediate objects of perception and thought are ideas in the mind, which in turn represent external things and situations (doctrine of representative perception, two-object theory of cognition).
  9. All existing things are concrete and particular.

Empiricists immediately encountered the superstructure problem. Locke recognized that most meaningful words are general and many are abstract (rather than proper names of concrete objects, e.g., canine versus Lassie ), so how do we get the corresponding ideas (meanings) from experience, which furnishes only particular ideas? From an image of a particular triangle, said Locke, we can abstract from its being equilateral, isosceles, or scalene, and thus construct a general idea of a triangle that is "all of these and none of these at once." Berkeley and Hume improved on this unsatisfactory solution, but to this day empiricist abstraction accounts face serious difficulties. Hume added to the superstructure problem by denying the adequacy of reason alone to produce, from particular experiences, either (a) moral judgments, about what one ought to do, or (b) inductive conclusions, such as "All ravens are black" and Newton's laws. The former is his point that one cannot deduce "ought" from "is" or value judgments from objective facts, and the latter is the aforementioned problem of induction. Meanwhile, Berkeley had challenged Locke's empirical base by rejecting his distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

The Appearance-Reality Distinction

The two problems resurrect the old difficulty of bridging the gap between appearance and reality. Seventeenth-century advocates of the new science joined Plato in sharply distinguishing the world of everyday experience from underlying reality. Empiricists, with their limited resources, have tended to stick close to the experiential surface of the world by either narrowing the gap between appearance and reality, denying the existence of an underlying reality altogether, adopting the skeptical position that we simply cannot know it, or rejecting all talk of a reality beyond experience as "metaphysical" and hence meaningless. In short, they have wavered over commitment to the reality of unobservable entities and processes.

Locke denied that we can know the real essences of things. Our classifications are not natural but artificialconventions made for human convenience. Hume and the later positivists, with their verifiability theory of meaning, ruled out metaphysics as meaningless. Ernst Mach (18381916), the Viennese physicist and positivist, denied the existence of atoms and developed a phenomenalistic account of the world. Berkeley had denied the existence of matter with his principle, "To be is to be perceived or to perceive" (Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710). Only minds and ideas exist. Does the cat then go out of existence when it disappears beyond the sofa? No, because God (the biggest mind) still perceives it, replied Berkeley. Mill later used a logico-linguistic device to remove the need for God and thus obtain a full-fledged phenomenalism. In An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), he attempted to reduce physical objects to "permanent possibilities of sensation," expressible by (impossibly) long series of statements about what a person would experience or would have experienced in such-and-such a situation. Russell, using the new symbolic logic to the same end, attempted to reduce mind itself to a logical construction out of experiences. He took the same line for the postulated theoretical entities of physics: "Wherever possible, logical constructions out of known objects are to be substituted for inferred entities" ("The Relation of Sense Data to Physics," in Mysticism and Logic, 1917). This was a halfway house between realism and instrumentalism or fictionalism. If electrons are logical constructions out of actual and possible laboratory operations and the resulting observations, then they are not real entities of underlying reality; but neither are they complete fictions. Rather, electron talk is a convenient, economical façon de parler.

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Twentieth-century thinkers abandoned or at least transformed British empiricism for its failure to solve the base and super-structure problems. These developments include: (1) The linguistic turn. Linguistic philosophers speak about terms in a language rather than, vaguely, about ideas in the mind. They also employ the full power of symbolic logic or the subtle devices of ordinary language to address the twin problems of relating subjective experience to basic statements and basic statements to superstructure. (2) The holistic turn. This is a further shift from the atomism of individual ideas or terms to whole statements, representing completed thoughts, and even to entire languages and conceptual frameworks. In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), Quine argued that neither individual terms nor even full statements (not even basic observation statements) can be directly correlated with experience. Moreover, the data of experience logically underdetermine our theoretical claims. (3) Rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction, also by Quine. We cannot factor theories into purely empirical and purely analytic components, only the first of which is vulnerable. "No statement is immune to revision," come what may, not even the statements of mathematicsfor example, it is now known that Euclidean geometry is not the only conceivable geometry and that it is not even true. Quine's work called into question not only the concept of analytic statement but also that of analysis as a philosophical method, for no one has provided an adequate analysis of analysis! (4) Rejection of the scheme versus content distinction by Donald Davidson, who proclaimed this the third and last dogma of empiricism. (5) Rejection of the correspondence theory of truth and of (6) the linear-foundational model of justification. These doctrines give way either to a weaker, nonlinear and fallibilist foundationism or to a coherence theory of justification based on the idea of a mutually supporting network of claims and practices. For some, pragmatic problem-solving supplants truth as a goal of research. (7) Anti-Kantian Kantianism. Despite the rejection of Kantian intuition and synthetic a priori claims, logical empiricists Hans Reichenbach (18911953) and Rudolf Carnap (18911970) and historian Kuhn in different ways defended the need for larger structures, at least temporarily immune to serious revision, in order to make sense of the history of science as well as individual cognition. These structures are not mere hypotheses up for testing, alongside the others, for they are constitutive of experience and of normal scientific practice, in a quasi-Kantian way. To reject them would be to throw out the baby with the bath water. (8) Rejection by Karl Popper (19021994) and the positivists of the traditional identification of empiricism with inductivism, the view that we must gather and classify facts prior to theorizing. They developed a sophisticated, hypothetico-deductive model of scientific research, which was in turn subjected to severe criticism.

(9) Rejection of the imagist tradition that treats cognitive states or contents as little pictures before consciousness, and of (10) "the myth of the given," by Sellars and others, the idea that subjective experience provides a special, direct, infallible, nonnatural connection of knowing mind to known world. These difficulties highlight the problem of the empirical base. Insofar as our experiential claims are certain they are not about physical reality (because we have had to retreat into the certainty of our subjective sense data of the moment), and insofar as they are about reality, they are not certain (because they are now subject to override by other observers or even by widely accepted theories). The price of relevance is fallibility. Thus accepting a basic statement is a social decision. All conceptual thinking, including perception, is mediated by language (a further phase of the linguistic turn). There is no prelinguistic cognitive (conceptual) awareness. There is no thought, no fully human perception or scientific observation, prior to language. Roughly, "language games" (Wittgenstein's term) take over the role played by Kant's categories. All inquiry is thus fallible and mediated by language and by participation in an appropriate community of inquirers. The isolated Cartesian inquirer is a myth. The result is (11) the failure of phenomenalism and sense datum theories of perception and, more generally, (12) rejection of the whole Cartesian-Lockean conception of cognition and language. This conception is based on a Cartesian dualism of mind and body and, specifically, upon the privacy, immediacy, and alleged epistemological privilege of one's current mental contents. Philosophical and psychological behaviorism provided strong arguments against the Cartesian conception even for those thinkers, such as Sellars, who went beyond behaviorism.

(13) The failure of attempts to define knowledge precisely as justified true belief, which inspired (14) externalism versus internalism in epistemology. Internalism is the Cartesian-Lockean view that a person's knowledge claims must be justified in terms of the beliefs to which that person has access. The most popular form of externalism is reliabilism. According to process reliabilists, knowledge or justification consists of true beliefs formed by a reliable process whether or not the believer has sufficient Cartesian access to that process to justify it internally. Virtue epistemology, analogous to virtue ethics, is a variant of this idea: reliable beliefs are those formed by an intellectually virtuous process. (15) Recognition of the importance of tacit versus explicit knowledge (knowledge-how vs. knowledge-that) and of embodied knowledge, for example, skilled practices that we cannot fully articulate. (16) The feminist introduction of gender variables into epistemology. (17) Competing attempts to naturalize and socialize epistemology. Increasingly, empiricist philosophers work in the cognitive sciences, although few share Quine's view that epistemology will simply become a branch of psychology. Meanwhile, sociologists of knowledge regard their sociological approach as more fundamental than psychological studies of cognition. (18) The postmodern critique of empiricism. Postmodernists, including Richard Rorty and radical feminists and sociologists, regard empiricism, epistemology in general, and, indeed, the entire Enlightenment project to replace a tradition-bound life with modern life based on empirical science as a "modern" enterprise whose time is past. It is a mistake, they say, to abstract from sociohistorical contexts with their specific power and gender relations to seek the "one true account" of the world, as if there were a determinate world out there waiting for us to provide a correct description in its own language. Rather, say the critics, the world and our modes of inquiry are all socially constructed, as is empiricism itself. It is now time to deconstruct it. These controversial oppositions have generated "the science wars."

Although philosophical thinkers have abandoned both traditional rationalism and empiricism and although Quine, Davidson, and others have rejected the "dogmas" of empiricism and hence empiricism itself as a technical philosophical doctrine, there is a wider sense in which empiricism wins. For everyone is an empiricist in regarding observation and experience as crucial to justifying claims about the world, while almost no one believes that such claims can be defended purely a priori or on the basis of some kind of nonempirical intuition. However, this is no longer an empiricist epistemology in the old sense, for gone is the idea that epistemology commands special resources that can provide external or transcendental justification for any enterprise. The sciences, for example, can only justify their claims internally, by applying further scientific tests and by their own fruits.

See also Knowledge ; Positivism ; Rationalism ; Realism .


Alston, William P. Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Barnes, Barry, David Bloor, and John Henry. Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Dancy, Jonathan, and Ernest Sosa, eds. A Companion to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Goldman, Alvin I. Epistemology and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Kornblith, Hilary, ed. Naturalizing Epistemology. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Longino, Helen E.. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." Reprinted in his From a Logical Point of View: Logico-Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Schmitt, Frederick F., ed. Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Van Fraassen, Bas C. The Empirical Stance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Woolhouse, R. S. The Empiricists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Thomas Nickles


views updated May 21 2018




Empiricism can be traced back to Aristotles dictum, there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses, although Aristotle himself is not usually regarded as an empiricist in the modern sense. The theoretical foundations of modern philosophical empiricism are found in the works of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, and in the nineteenth-century philosopher William James. These philosophers inquired about the limits and scope of the human mind, and argued that experience itself is the primary source of all knowledge. Empiricism is thus a theory of knowledge that highlights the importance of experience. The term experience can be defined minimally, as in terms of the senses, or expanded to include all forms of consciousness.

Lockes project in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to set out to enquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge (Locke 1975, p. 43). Locke argued that knowledge is restricted to ideas generated by objects that one experiences through the senses (ideas of sensation) or by reflection upon our mental operations on those ideas (ideas of reflection). In this complex sense, knowledge and human understanding in general (including unscientific beliefs such as justice) originate in experience, as the origin of all ideas is in experience, which involves two logical levels, sensation and reflection. Each persons mind can be thought of as initially a blank tablet (tabula rasa) first written upon by the sensations of experience (ideas of sensation), which can then be manipulated in various ways, the ideas of which the ideas of reflectionbeing the second level of experience.

Berkeley argued in both Principles (1710) and Dialogues (1713) against the actual existence of matter, and claimed in his dictum to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). This means that objects can never be understood independently of their ideas since, for Berkeley, the object and sensation are the same thing. Berkeley maintained that there are only ideas and minds, or the location where ideas occur. Thus a thing is understood as the sum of perceived qualities. Although for Berkeley it is impossible to think of anything except as it related to the mind, both Berkeley and Locke believed that all knowledge about the existence of things and the reality of matter depends on visual and sensory experience.

In his work Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1784), Hume claimed that human senses allow people to perceive, and these perceptions (made up of impressions and ideas) are the contents of the mind. The original thought itself, according to Hume, is an impression, and an idea is only a copy of an impression. The difference between the two is their vividness, for when one reflects upon these impressions one has ideas of them. Humes work does not ground impressions to a material world, and argues instead that impressions are internal subjective states that do not provide evidence of an external reality.

In his metaphysics, James wrote in a tradition that focuses on the process of consciousness based in experiencea process metaphysics. For James, humans have a continuous development of thought that is based in interpretations of the experiences themselves. In this way, human consciousness consists of experienced relations (a stream of thought), which are themselves experienced (affectively and effectively), as one both transforms and is transformed by these experiences. Indeed, Jamess radical empiricism is pluralistic in that it allows for different points of viewdifferent givennessesof reality. Because James allowed for individual perspectives of experience, it follows that ones epistemologies themselves are informed by ones experiences. Absolute unity of reality, for James, is ever not quite, as fact is based on experience, and the multiple experiences of experience itself. Thus there is no objective truth, as Jamesian truth is experientially cognized at the level of subjective/individual perception.

The empirical tradition runs counter to rationalist philosophy, which poses that knowledge can be derived through the exercise of reason alone, and in terms of a persons rational power. All of the aforementioned philosophers wrote in a tradition that opposes the rationalist view, represented most notably by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, that humans enter the world with innate ideas built into the mind itself. Instead, these philosophers argue that persons must rely on experience itself to inform knowledge claims.


Within the social sciences, empiricism describes research methods that depend on the collection of facts and observations, some of which require verification, counting, and measuring. Although a researcher may use empirical methods, it does not follow that he or she is a philosophical empiricist, and does not make one an empiricist per se. There are thus many forms of empirical research methods.

Auguste Comte, a sociologist and philosopher, held that knowledge of the world arises from observation, and conceived of positivism as a method of study based on the strict use of the scientific method. He asserted that authentic knowledge (or all true knowledge) is scientific knowledge that is objective, predictable, and has logical structures. Logical positivism (or logical/rational empiricism) combines positivism with a verifiability criterion for meaningfulness. For logical positivists, all knowledge should be based on logical inference, justification, and verifiability through experience or observation. Meaningful statements fall into two categories for the logical positivist, a priori analytic knowledge (necessary truths that are knowable prior to experience; for example, all circles are round) and a posteriori synthetic knowledge (or contingent knowledge that is verified by sensory experience; for example, it is raining outside). Quantitative methodology is a kind of scientific empiricism and refers to the compilation and analysis of numerical data, which for the social scientist is empirical in nature since it can be tested and verified (validated or falsified) by empirical observation. Moreover, quantitative methodology is positivistic since it relies on scientific and systematic observation and experiment, and can be thought of as the scientific approach to the study of sociocultural life.

Nonetheless, although social scientists do not ask underlying metaphysical questions about the actual existence of objects, they are indeed concerned with the experience of social objects and phenomena. For example, the first professor of sociology, Émile Durkheim, in his book The Rules of Sociological Method (1938), enshrined this idea with his conceptualization of a social fact, which is as objective as facts are in the natural sciences.

For Thomas Kuhn, empirical methods are capable of elucidating and eradicating problems within paradigms during periods of normal science. Interestingly, Kuhn shows how this science is reflective of ones theoretical connectedness to a specific paradigm itself, and is not the reflection of any truth-claims to knowledge.

Social constructivism is a philosophical theory of knowledge that states that knowledge itself is contingent upon social experience, context, convention, and human perception. Some examples of socially constructed knowledge are gender (feminine and masculine), sexuality, and racial categories. This theory of knowledge does not necessarily reflect any external transcendent metaphysical reality, and is instead based on a socially constructed reality as opposed to an ontological reality. However, the notion of experience is still important for a constructivist, as experiences between and among individuals differs within and outside of varying contexts, thereby allowing for different realities, some of which are based in oppression (for example, women, minorities, and homosexuals).

Empirical methods have been used to study race, gender, sexuality, and religion, among a plethora of other social phenomena such as crime, deviance, attitudes, and beliefs.

Considering race, there has been much research done in social science regarding migration, connections with class, connections to skin color, social surveys of self-image and self-regard among ethnic minorities, and measuring prejudice in terms of scales of social and ethnic distance. Additional quantitative studies concerning race have focused on social inequality, institutional racism, patterns of interaction and segregation, genocide, social standing, poverty, and assimilation of dominant culture patterns.

Gender has been studied in the social sciences through the analysis of images of women in media and culture. These empirical studies of symbols and images range from studies of archaeological statues of goddesses to contemporary studies of how women are portrayed in film or advertisements. Discrepancies in gender stratification and sexism can be analyzed from a quantitative approach, as can the important issue of violence against women. Additionally, empirical studies of gender also inform analyses of family relations, employment patterns, and distribution of wealth, education trends, and politics.

Using empirical methods to study sexuality, social scientists focus on topics such as sexual orientation, contraception, prostitution, gender identity, and attraction. Additional research can also be found on teen pregnancy, fertility, pornography, activist movements, sexual violence, sex education, and queer studies. One of the most important works in this area is The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Michel Foucault.

Religion has also been analyzed empirically in terms of socioeconomic status, the family, marriage patterns, social class, family violence, cohabitation, political affiliation, church attendance, opinions about religious matters, as well as feelings, beliefs, and behaviors pertaining to religion as measured by social surveys. This is especially evident in the work of Rodney Stark, but began as early as 1904 in Max Webers seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Louis Althusser critiqued empiricism as a methodological stance and argued against the empirical process of knowledge, claiming that theoretical discourse is a production, making empiricism itself ideological and dogmatic, and therefore not scientific. According to Althusser, facts of theoretical discourse are tied to theoretical practice, making knowledge itself a form of discourse.

SEE ALSO Kuhn, Thomas; Methodology; Methods, Research; Positivism; Revolutions, Scientific


Althusser, Louis. 1971. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Berkeley, George. 1988. Principles of Human Knowledge /Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonius. Ed. Roger Woolhouse. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Orig. pub. 1710).

Curd, Martin, and J. A. Cover. 1998. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. New York: W. W. Norton.

Durkheim, Émile. 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. New York: The Free Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hume, David. 1999. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press. (Orig. pub. 1748).

James, William. 1977. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Orig. pub. 1690).

Locke, John. 1995. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Roger Woolhouse. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Orig. pub. 1690).

Mills, C. Wright. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1992. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge.

Ryan Ashley Caldwell


views updated May 23 2018


EMPIRICISM is best understood not as a single doctrine but as a cluster of theses, each of which affirms the primacy of human experience in the general area of epistemology. As used here, the term experience refers primarily to sense experience, but it must also be extended to cover introspective experience. Insofar as other types of awarenesses, such as feeling states, pains, pangs, and so forth, are not already included in one of these categories, they too should be separately included in the general class of experiences. Following are discussions of three theses usually associated with empiricism. The first two have had considerable impact on the history of Christian theology; the third has not.

The first thesis is that ideas are derived entirely from experience. For example, the idea of red is derived entirely from experiences of red thingsin this case visual sense perceptions or impressions of red objects. A complex idea such as the idea of a desk or of a unicorn may be derived directly from complex sense impressions (e.g., perceptions of desks), or may be constructed out of other ideas that are, in turn, derived entirely from sense impressions. Assuming, for instance, that no one has ever seen (i.e., had a complex sense impression of) a unicorn, still there are no elements of this idea that are not themselves derived from sense impressions.

That ideas have their origin in perception is a view worked out in some detail by Epicurus (341270 bce) in his work On Nature. It is also a thesis held by Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae 1.84.3, 6, 7) who in turn claimed to find it in Aristotle. As a doctrine of importance in modern philosophy, however, it is identified primarily with the classical British empirical tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as represented in the epistemological writings of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In contrast to the doctrine of innate ideas held by Descartes and other so-called rationalists, such as Leibniz, Locke insisted that all ideas are derived from experience. In its original state, Locke said, the mind is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) and, as such, does not possess ideas. Ideas are acquired either as a result of the operation of the sense faculties (the idea of red); or as a result of the mind's operation on the data supplied by the sense faculties (the idea of a unicorn); or as a result of introspection (what Locke called "inner sense"), observing the mind as it operates on materials supplied by the sense faculties (for instance, the idea of mind).

In Hume, the claim that all ideas are derived entirely from impressions served as the cornerstone of his empirical theory of meaning. Hume held that a word has meaning only when it is (to use his phrase) "annexed" to an idea. A term's specific meaning can be decided only by consulting the content of the idea annexed to it. But because, as Hume claimed, the content of any given idea is completely determined by the impressions from which it is derived, the meaning of a given word can be exhaustively analyzed by itemizing the impressions from which the idea annexed to that word is derived. Hume relied on this theory of meaning when he dismissed as meaningless a host of traditional metaphysical items such as the Aristotelian doctrine of substratum. With respect to the latter, Hume argued that because one has no impression of substratum, one has no such idea; thus the operative term used by metaphysicians when formulating this doctrine is without meaning. An argument of this sort was used to establish virtually all the doctrines usually associated with Hume's "skeptical" philosophyfor instance, his well-known analysis of "causation" and his highly controversial analysis of "mind."

In Alciphron, one of his last major works, Berkeley reviewed with approval a theory concerning the origin of the idea of God. According to the theory in question, the idea of God is a complex having as ingredients ideas generated from one's experience of creatures. Thus, for example, the idea of a being who has knowledge is derived from one's experience of finite beings like one's self. Though one does not have any direct experience of the perfect case, one can construct the idea of perfect knowledge by imagining away the imperfections (e.g., limited scope) that invariably attach to knowledge in imperfect cases. This provides the idea of omniscience, the exemplary version of knowledge. Ideas of the other so-called perfections standardly attributed to God (omnipotence, eternity, etc.) are derived by a similar process from the ideas one has of attributes possessed by finite beings. Berkeley said that this account of the idea of God is precisely the one given by Thomas Aquinas and developed by the Schoolmen under the title "analogy by proportionality." This interpretation of Thomas's doctrine of analogy is supported by a number of contemporary commentators as well (e.g., Copleston, History of Philosophy, vol. 2, chap. 38). It is an account that fits well both with Berkeley's and with Thomas's general empiricist stance concerning the origin of ideas.

Perhaps the most provocative empiricist account of the ideas operative in the area of religion is the one advanced by Friedrich Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (1830) and subsequently expanded by his student Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy (1917), which no doubt is the most influential study in the phenomenology of religion published in the twentieth century. According to Otto, the idea of God is derived from a complex "nonrational" (i.e., preconceptual) awareness that he referred to as "the experience of the Numen." Otto undertook to show how this primitive awareness is (as he said) "schematized" (i.e., conceptualized) in standard theological doctrines that give expression to its various ingredient feelings. Following Schleiermacher, Otto insisted that the content of the concept of God is determined by the preconceptual religious phenomena of which that concept is the schematization. Although this theory differs from the one given by Berkeley, it clearly reflects the influence of classical empiricist thought. Framed in the language of Locke or Hume, the claim is made that the idea of God comes directly from religious experiences. Berkeley (and Thomas) would disagree only with respect to the claim that the experiences in question are of a specifically religious nature.

The second thesis associated with empiricism is that human knowledge concerning matters of fact is grounded ultimately in experience. Because there is a distinction between an idea (e.g., the idea of red) and a statement (e.g., "Apples are red"), and because knowledge is formulated in statements, one must distinguish a theory concerning the origin of ideas from a theory concerning the source of knowledge. Unlike the former, the latter specifies conditions under which it can be legitimately claimed that a statement is true. These are conditions under which a knowledge claim is warranted. According to this second thesis, whatever may be the origin of one's ideas, one's knowledge of facts about the world is formulated in statements supported entirely by empirical evidence. This claim stands opposed to one made by Kant (and a number of other modern and medieval thinkers such as Descartes and Thomas Aquinas), namely, that some statements that describe facts about the world (e.g., "Every event has a cause") are known to be true a priori, that is, prior to or independent of experience. Such statements are sometimes described as self-evident. The empiricist's claim is that all factual knowledge is, by contrast, a posteriori, that is, posterior to and consequent upon experience. No factual statement is self-evident, if this means that the statement in question can be known to be true without consulting observational evidence.

It is important to note that the thesis just reviewed is explicitly restricted to knowledge about the world, that is, to knowledge of what Hume called "matters of fact." It is thus not extended to knowledge formulated in what Kant labeled "analytic" statements, that is, to statements whose truth values depend entirely on word meanings. As regards these latter statements, empiricists acknowledge that they are a priori. They add, however, that such statements are empty of factual content. This is to say that, while a priori statements may reveal something about the way one uses words or about what Hume referred to as "relations between ideas," they reveal nothing about the objects or circumstances to which these words presumably refer or to which one's ideas presumably correspond. This dichotomy between the factual a posteriori and the analytic a priori remains to this day a point of embarrassment for empiricists. The problem is not that the distinction is unintelligible or inapplicable, but rather that some knowledge statements do not fit comfortably into either class. As mentioned above, Kant thought that the statement "Every event has a cause" is of the kind last mentioned. He also thought that mathematical knowledge such as that formulated in the statement "2 + 3 = 5" defies classification in either of these categories.

The idea that knowledge about the world is grounded in experience is the hallmark of what is usually thought of as the "scientific" mentality. As such, it is antithetical to the traditional Christian insistence that revelation is the ultimate source of the factual knowledge codified in theological doctrine. Still, in the three centuries that have elapsed since the publication of Newton's Principles, Christian theology has exhibited some affection for the scientific style of theory construction. Largely inspired by the theological writings of Newton, eighteenth-century England was crowded with advocates of what Hume called "experimental theism," that is, theism entertained as a hypothesis and supported by reference to evidence provided by the appearance of design in nature. This trend stood in contrast to medieval methods for proving the existence of God by purely a priori considerations, as in Anselm's ontological argument, or by arguments making use of a priori (self-evident) factual premises such as the first three of Thomas's five proofs for the existence of God. Theism cast as a scientific theory and supported by the abductive logical procedures characteristic of the natural sciences reached its climax in the nineteenth century in William Paley's monumental work Natural Theology (1825). Although this approach to Christian apologetics is still practiced (witness Robert Clark's The Universe: Plan or Accident, Oxford, 1961), it is not widely held to be effective. A great many contemporary philosophers of religion think that Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) constitutes the definitive critique of theism as an explanatory hypothesis.

The third thesis associated with empiricism is that factual statements are meaningful only insofar as they are verifiable. If one assumes that all knowledge concerning matters of fact is ultimately grounded in experience, it follows that, except for statements whose truth values can be determined by reference to the meanings of the terms they employ, any statement known to be true is so only because it has been verified by experience. Given the same exclusion, it follows that, insofar as a statement affirms something knowable, to that extent it affirms something verifiable. Anything that cannot be verified cannot be known. Let a second assumption now be made, namely, that a statement is meaningful insofar, but only insofar, as it has a discoverable truth value. Restricting attention to statements whose truth values cannot be determined by reference to the meanings of their constituent words, this second assumption reveals that all meaningful statements affirm something that is knowable. This is so because, for any meaningful statement that is not contradictory (in which case its truth value can indeed be determined by reference to the meanings of its constituent words), there is some possible world in which it is true and in which it has been discovered (i.e., is known) to be true. It is, then, in principle knowable. But if a given statement is in principle knowable, then, by one's first assumption, it is also in principle verifiable. By this sequence of reasonings, the second empiricist thesis discussed above yields the following theory: The meaning of any statement whose truth value cannot be determined by reference to the meanings of its constituent words consists entirely of its empirically verifiable content. Of course, given this theory, any statement about the world for which no verifying observations could in principle be specified would not count as a genuine statement: it would be devoid of meaning. This is because according to the principle before us, any purported statement about the world is meaningful only to the extent that it is empirically verifiable.

This last principle, usually referred to as the verifiability principle, became the centerpiece of empiricismcalled logical empiricism or more often logical positivismduring the second quarter of the twentieth century. It is important to see that it connects not only with the second of the empiricist theses treated above (as indicated in the last paragraph), but with the first as well. Here, for the second time, one is confronted with a theory of meaning. Of course the verifiability principle is not the same as the theory used by Hume. In fact, it differs on two counts: (1) it takes statements rather than individual words as the meaningful units; and (2) it requires empirical consequences rather than antecedently acquired empirical ideas as the conditions of meaning. Still, the verifiability principle is a recognizable cousin of Hume's empirical theory of meaning. It was also utilized by positivists such as A. J. Ayer, in a characteristically Humean program, to dismiss as meaningless a whole range of traditional metaphysical doctrines. At its height, positivism dominated the philosophical community, influencing as well trends in psychology (behaviorism) and in the physical sciences (operationalism). Burdened, however, by its own inability to provide a version of the verifiability principle acceptable to philosophers of science, at the end of the 1950s this theory vanished quite abruptly from the philosophical scene. It is now deador at least as dead as any philosophical theory can be.

As for the impact of logical positivism on theology or on religious studies more generally, there is little to say. That there exists a transcendent being who created the universe is one of the metaphysical doctrines that positivists typically dismissed as meaningless. Of course this was not atheism, if one understands atheism to be the view that God does not exist, that is, that the statement "God exists" is false. To have a truth valuethat is, to be either true or falsea statement must have meaning. For positivists, the words "God exists"being, as A. J. Ayer used to say "nonsensical"simply did not have credentials enough to be false. As yet few (if any) religious thinkers have found this position worthy of serious attention.

See Also

Logical Positivism.


Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic. 2d ed. London, 1946. See also Logical Positivism (Glencoe, Ill., 1959), edited by Ayer, which contains essays by most leading positivists such as Carnap, Neurath, Schlick, and Ayer himself. It also contains essays by other important twentieth-century empiricists such as Russell and Stevenson. The bibliography is amazingly complete.

Epicurus. On Nature. In Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford, 1926.

Paley, William. Natural Theology (1802). Edited by Frederick Ferré. Indianapolis, 1963.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Translated from the second German edition. New York, 1963. Schleiermacher's best-known student and disciple was Rudolf Otto, whose study of the nature of religious experience in Das Heilige (Breslau, 1917), translated by John W. Harvey as The Idea of the Holy, 2d ed. (1950; New York, 1970), is a modern classic in religious studies.

Taylor, Richard, ed. The Empiricists. Garden City, N.Y., 1974. Contains a handy collection of the writings of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Unfortunately, Taylor's text does not include Hume's Treatise, which is available in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3d ed., edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1975).

Thomas Aquinas. "Treatise on Man," Summa theologiae 1.7589. In Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, edited by Anton C. Pegis. New York, 1945. Helpful studies of Thomas's theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind can be found in Frederick C. Copleston's History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (Westminster, Md., 1952), chapter 38; and in chapter 4 of Copleston's Aquinas (Baltimore, 1967).

New Sources

Carruthers, Peter. Human Knowledge and Human Nature: A New Introduction to an Ancient Debate. New York, 1992.

Dupre, John, ed. Human Nature and the Limits of Science. New York, 2002.

Kitcher, Philip. Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Science. New York, 2001.

Roth, Robert. British Empiricism and American Pragmatism: New Directions and Neglected Arguments. New York, 1993.

Searle, Jonathan. The Construction of Social Reality. 1995; reprint New York, 1997.

Solomon, Miriam. Social Empiricism. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

Van Fraasen, Bas C. The Empirical Stance. New Haven, 2002.

Nelson Pike (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018


Empiricism, more a philosophical presupposition than a definitive system, insists in general that knowledge begins with the senses and with sense experience. Some empiricists limit all knowledge to sense knowledge and deny the reality of universal ideas, necessary truth, and innate or a priori ideas (see sensism). This form of empiricism is opposed to rationalism and idealism, which attempt to deduce the nature of reality from the intelligible content of ideas in the mind. A less radical form of empiricism insists that experience be the final test for the validity of any idea or proposition, or holds that any knowledge transcending the data of experience can be only probable. experience itself has different meanings for empiricists. It may refer exclusively to sense data or to man's existential contact with external objects. For Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, it meant the impressions and ideas generated either by external objects or by the mind itself.

This article describes the various forms that empiricism takes in philosophical and scientific thought, surveys the historical development of empiricist attitudes, and concludes with a critical evaluation from the viewpoint of moderate realism.

Types of Empiricism. The principal positions that can be classified as empiricist include strict and relative empiricism, metaphysical empiricism, scientific empiricism, and logical empiricism. These may be characterized in summary fashion as follows:

Strict and Relative Empiricism. A strict or thoroughgoing empiricism refuses to recognize the validity of any knowledge that is not grounded in and verified by sense experience. Denying the validity of metaphysics, it substitutes association and habit for causality, and collections of secondary qualities for substance, tending in general toward skepticism and agnosticism. As opposed to this, relative empiricism holds that while sense experience gives rise to ideas, such experience can be intelligently grasped by the intellect to furnish a metaphysical insight into the nature of reality as such.

Metaphysical Empiricism. Relative empiricism can also be termed metaphysical empiricism, although the latter expression has a somewhat different meaning in contemporary philosophy, where it designates a limited metaphysics of finite being growing out of sensible experience. Such a metaphysical empiricism grants the quasi reality of universal ideas or categories, together with the reality of cause and effect, possibility and existence, and substance and accident. At the same time it restricts such categories to the area of finite being and is content with a limited and relative truth about this area. It is strictly opposed to any sort of transcendent metaphysics or to claims for absolute and unchanging truth.

This empiricism purposes to be objective and realistic, and attempts to escape from the skepticism generated by the strict empiricism of Hume and from the subjectivism of kant. At the same time it refuses to trust the ability of the human mind to rise above the finite and the temporal.

Scientific Empiricism. Scientific empiricists seek to unify the laws of science so as to deduce the laws governing particular sciences from unified principles. Behind this enterprise lies the conviction that only natural science can provide certain knowledge. Scientific empiricism is closely allied to logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and contemporary British and American analytical philosophy.

Logical Empiricism. This is the logical counterpart of scientific empiricism. The movement began in the 1920s at the University of Vienna with a group known as the Vienna Circle, composed of men such as M. Schlick, R. Carnap, L. Wittgenstein, P. Frank, and H. Reichenbach. Their aim was to construct a theory of meaning and knowledge that would reconcile the valid elements of rationalism and empiricism through the use of logic and the procedures of natural science. Mathematical or symbolic logic and linguistic analysis were their chief tools. Most logical empiricists adopt Hume's notions of causality and induction, insist on the tautological nature of mathematical and logical truth, and conceive of philosophy as a clarification of everyday language. They usually reject metaphysics as a pseudo-science based on pseudo-problems, having their source in linguistic confusion. One of their principal commitments is to the verifiability principle, which states that only those propositions can be held as true that are capable of actual or possible experiential verification.

Historical Origins. epicurus of Athens (341270 b.c.), from whom epicureanism takes its name, was probably the first radical empiricist. For him, the criteria of truth are sensations, preconceptions, and feelings; and all knowledge is based on sensation. The universe is a void in which atoms move and combine with one another to form material things. These things continually emit minute particles that impinge on the corporeal soul of man and, forming images of themselves there, produce knowledge. His is a crude materialism, basically reducible to sensism. Zeno of Citium (c. 336264 b.c.), the founder of stoicism, conceived of the universe as matter penetrated with and guided by an eternal fire. This fire he identifies with nature, the touchstone and key to all knowledge and wisdom.

Medieval Empiricism. The conflict between Platonic and Aristotelian thought was repeated in medieval thought in the persons of St. Augustine (a.d. 354430) and St. thomas aquinas (122574), respectively. For St. Thomas, as for Aristotle, everything in the intellect is somehow grounded in sense experience; thus, Aquinas finds in the sensible world principles that explain the structure and intelligibility of all being. More empiricist in mentality was william of ockham (1290?1349), who restricted human certitude to propositions having direct experiential reference. Since only singulars exist, and since all the singulars with which man makes contact are sensible, it is to the sensible world and to the concepts that stand for it that he goes for certitude. All other knowledge, for him, is abstractive and can give no real idea of existence. For example, Ockham sees no way in which either the existence of God or the existence and spirituality of the human soul can be rationally demonstrated. He does admit, however, that one can make an act of faith in the existence of realities transcending sensible experience.

Renaissance Period. The empirical tradition was carried on during the Renaissance chiefly by four thinkers. leonardo da vinci (14521519) conceived of nature as a product of the divine mind. For him, only by an investigation of nature can man return to its source and learn something of divinity. "Wisdom is the daughter of experience" was a favorite saying of his, and it is mathematics that enables one to interpret experience and come to an understanding of the rational order operative in nature. Juan Luis vives (14921540) is often credited with being the father of experimental psychology, since his approach to the human soul was based on introspection and experience. Tomasso campanella (15681639) was especially interested in harmonizing the new science with both a philosophy based on experience and the teachings of Christianity. He wrote a defense of Galileo in which he stated that if Galileo was to be proved wrong, it must be done by new observations and not by a priori judgments. Galileo galilei himself (15641639) can be considered an empiricist insofar as he held sense experience to be necessary for ascertaining the existence of objects before mathematical method could be applied to them. Yet experimental verification of mathematical conclusions, while helpful in some cases, was not regarded by him as necessary for those who understood his mathematical method.

British Empiricists. Francis bacon (15611626), dissatisfied with rationalism and scholastic philosophy, pleaded for a new system of education based on factual data and conclusions derivable from such data by strictly empirical and scientific methods.

John locke (16321704) used a psychological approach, his investigation of experience taking the form of an examination of consciousness. He held that what is known are ideas, and that the whole knowledge process consists in reflecting on the content of these ideas and in discerning their relationships. His empiricism, therefore, is primarily subjective. Locke had to assume a world of things with the power to cause sensible changes in a knowing subject. This world of things he reduced to a minimum of so-called primary qualities, viz, motion, rest, extension, magnitude, and number. Secondary qualities, for him, were the impressions made on the knower, viz, color, taste, sound, odor, resistance. Behind qualities there might be substance; but, since this was never directly sensed, the knowing subject could never account it as more than a collection of secondary sensible qualities. Locke thus thoroughly undermined the foundations of realism, and his successors were not slow to remove those foundations entirely.

George berkeley (16851753) concluded from this that, since man could never know things, but only ideas of things, there were no things at all. God could just as well cause the ideas of things within us as the things themselves.

In his own way, David hume (171176) was no less drastic. Never denying a reality independent of mind, he nonetheless reduced that reality to the barest minimum. Since the human intellect could make no contact with substance, the most that could be asserted was that there were ideas of events, and that these ideas were more or less vivid, more or less closely associated in the human mind. The mind itself was nothing more than a series of ideas, all following each other successively. Since only substance can exercise causality, he argued that causality could mean only a habitually constant association of ideas. This process led him to a hesitant skepticism about the validity of all knowledge.

American Development. In the United States the empirical movement developed chiefly under the influence of Charles Sanders peirce, William james, and John Dewey. Peirce (18391914) is generally considered the founder of pragmatism, a form of empiricism in which the emphasis is on activity. According to Peirce, the purpose of thought is to produce belief, and belief has three characteristics: (1) it is something of which man is aware; (2) it appeases the irritation of doubt; and (3) it involves man in establishing habits of action. Thus, beliefs are ordered to action, and different beliefs are distinguished by the diverse actions to which they lead. Hence, sensible effects become the criterion of the content value of any idea. Yet Peirce does attempt to account for abstract and class concepts. The concrete object of experience is for him an exemplification of the possible and as such is able to refer the knower beyond itself; this reference is not sufficient, however, to transcend the order of experience as a whole, and Peirce makes no attempt to do so.

With William James (18421930) a more radical form of empiricism appeared, affirming that the only way to settle metaphysical disputes is to refer them to action and practical consequences. James advocated a deemphasis of principles in favor of consequences and facts. He went further than Peirce in stating that its results not only give a proposition meaning, but even make it true. Hence, for him, truth is any activity that enables one to get into practical harmony with his experiential situation. In his preface to The Meaning of Truth (New York 1909), James describes his empiricism as consisting of (1) a postulate, (2) a statement of fact, and (3) a generalized conclusion. The postulate states that only those things that can be defined in terms drawn from experience should be debated by philosophers. The statement of fact is that the relations between things are as much part of experience as the things themselves. The conclusion is that the parts of experience are held together by relations that are themselves parts of experience. Thus does James reduce both knowledge and the object of knowledge to the flux of experience.

John Dewey (18591952) applied the teachings of Peirce and James to history, sociology, politics, and education. He taught that philosophy must grow out of the philosopher's personal experience in the cultural and historical situation in which he finds himself, this alone being of the real and constituting the real. Yet for Dewey such experience takes place in the naturalistic context of the 19th century, which accepted the Darwinian theory of evolution and regarded mind and man as climactic processes emerging out of the universal dynamism of nature. Experience, in his understanding, cannot be distinguished from nature, and reality is a series of events acting and reacting on one another on a purely physical level. In such a universe, truth is only a precarious balance of interconnecting events that constitute a situation, this situation being constantly modified from within and without. Natural science provides man with the most stable sort of knowledge possible. And faith becomes an act of trust and hope in science, in human intelligence, and in man's quest to unite himself ever more perfectly with the flow of events of which he is a part.

Critical Evaluation. Empiricism is forced to limit knowledge to the order of experience and to treat the human intellect simply as a more powerful sense faculty. Yet there is evidence, found in experience, that the intellect transcends the material order. Man does form class concepts, or universals; and, while sense experience may be needed in order to begin, the term of the process, the concept, is free from the limitations that matter everywhere imposes. A material thing is always individual, and so is a sensation. The intellect, however, forms concepts that are predicable of many different individuals in exactly the same way; such concepts abstract from individual differences and particularizations (see abstraction). Since the principle of particularity is matter, to be free from such limitation is to be free from matter (see individuation).

The fact of intellectual reflection also indicates that there is more to knowledge than what the senses provide. The intellect is aware of its own act as it places it, but the eye, for example, cannot see itself seeing. Intellectual reflection, too, can identify the principles that structure a sensible thing. There must be more than matter in a material thing; how else can the evident difference between one material thing and another be explained? Material things exist, yet existence and matter are not synonymous; otherwise how can thought that transcends the limitations of matter, but is just as real, be explained?

Empiricism emphasizes a truth without admitting its full implications. The need of experience in the knowing process must be recognized, but it must be recognized too that knowledge cannot be adequately explained merely in terms of the sensible. In fact, the human intellect finds in experience the need to transcend the sensible order and arrive at truths that alone make such experience intelligible.

See Also: knowledge; knowledge, theories of; phenomenalism.

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, Contemporary Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1956). j. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). g. faggin, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:187894. É. h. gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York 1960). s. h. hodgson, The Metaphysic of Experience, 4 v. (New York 1898). g. p. klubertanz, The Philosophy of Human Nature (New York 1953). g. de santillana and e. zilsel, The Development of Rationalism and Empiricism (Chicago 1941). r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (Berlin 192730) 1:334336.

[h. r. klocker]


views updated May 29 2018


The term empiricism describes a philosophical position emphasizing that all concepts and knowledge are derived from and justified by experience. Empiricists disagree on the nature of experience, including whether it is individual or social and whether sense experience is to be emphasized. Empiricism often is associated with other positions, including nominalism, naturalism, materialism, atheism, secularism, humanism, behaviorism, and emotivism.

Empiricism usually contrasts with views that truths can be derived from tradition, Scripture, revelation, intuition, or reason. Empiricists often have a special attitude toward mathematics, acknowledging its role in understanding the world yet denying that it gives direct truths about the world apart from experience. In the last third of the twentieth century, Anglo-American discussion has tended to contrast empiricism with holism or coherentism.

Classic empiricism

Despite earlier roots, empiricism really began with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British philosophers John Locke (16321704), George Berkeley (16851753), and David Hume (17111776). Locke rejected the existence of innate ideas, including truths of religion and morals and held that the mind is a "blank slate" at birth. All of one's ideas are derived, either directly or indirectly, from either sensation (the source of one's knowledge of external objects) or reflection (the source of one's knowledge of one's mental processes). Berkeley, holding that perception requires a perceiver, developed a theory that required individual minds and God as perceivers of the world. Hume pushed empiricism in a skeptical direction, questioning beliefs in causation, self, and God.

Early in the twentieth century, the Vienna circle of logical positivists made a major impact on philosophy in England and the United States. They used empiricism as a criterion for meaning, holding that the only meaningful propositions are either tautologies (including mathematical statements), which tell nothing about the world, or else statements that are empirically verifiable. Logical positivism ran into two problems: It was difficult to state the principle of verification precisely, and it had a self-contradiction at its heart because the criterion of meaning is neither a tautology nor empirically verifiable. Thus the criterion of meaning seems to be meaningless. The later holism of American philosopher W. V. O. Quine (19082000) also challenged the positivist distinction between tautologies and empirical statements, pointing out that meanings may vary so much between contexts that the dichotomy is hard to maintain.

American empiricism

In the United States, William James (18421910) and John Dewey (18591952) developed an empiricism (called radical empiricism by James) that challenged some of the assumptions of British empiricism, especially the commitment to the existence of separate sensations. James held instead that people experience complexes of sensations in a matrix of relations. Thus they are not left with a choice between Hume's world of separate pieces and the non-empirical containers of these pieces (mind, God) of idealism. Values, the worth of things, can be perceived. Thus values are not subjective and arbitrary additions to empirical facts as held by most empiricists (and by modern culture generally). Dewey's subject-object transactionalism avoids the subject-object dichotomy. This more "generous empiricism" has influenced such thinkers as Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, William Dean, Nancy Frankenberry, and Jerome A. Stone. Later Quine held that since empirical propositions are embedded in a network of commonsense or scientific theories, no statement can be verified in isolation. Confirmation or disconfirmation always affects a range of theories.

That vast conglomeration of ideas typically labeled postmodern has also impacted empiricism. A common theme of postmodernism is that there is no theory-free observation, that theories are not completely determined by data, and consequently that science is merely one of the many stories that people can tell each other. A major task confronting people who value science is how to honor the insights of postmodernism, including the tentativeness of verification and the hegemonic motive of the Enlightenment grand narrative of progress toward rationality, while at the same time articulating the ways in which scientific procedures have a relative and tentative yet significant value. A number of thinkers work towards this, including Richard Bernstein, Frederick Ferré, Susan Haack, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Lynn Hankinson Nelson, and Robert Neville.

It has been asked whether human gender influences empirical procedures, either through biological or cultural factors. Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, Evelyn Fox Keller, Lynn Hankinson Nelson, and others have been pursuing this question from differing perspectives.

Cross-cultural perspectives

To turn to a cross-cultural analysis, it should be observed that in developing their various technologies all cultures seem to have pursued empirical methods, sometimes in combination with nonempirical approaches. However, only the Western philosophical tradition seems to have developed the exclusiveness of empiricism as a theoretical option. In South Asia the Carvakas, Nyaya-Vaisesikas, and early Buddhists might be classified as empiricists. In China, Korea, and Japan the principle of "the investigation of things" occasionally took an empiricist direction, although not with the exclusiveness of European empiricism. "The investigation of things" usually included an investigation of the worth of things. One might speak of the empiricism of Mozi, Xunzi, Wang Fuzhi, Yan Yuan, Dai Zhen, and others of the "Investigations Based on Evidence" movement, and of the Korean Yi Yulgok.

Empiricism in the science-religion dialogue

As for science-religion issues, the topic of empiricism relates to virtually every question. For example, ideas on God, the soul, heaven, or reincarnation will be greatly influenced by a person's stance toward empiricism. That stance will also affect a person's ideas on the questions of the worth of tradition, revelation, scripture, or reason in religion and ethics. Related questions are whether the divine or the sacred as a quality of natural processes can be appreciated or responded to, as some "religious naturalists" hold, and whether such awareness is a complement to or an extension of a more strict empirical method. Another approach is to ask whether religious ideas can be vetoed by empirical procedures, whether they must be strictly based on or may be more loosely informed by them, or whether science and religion are such distinct orientations that neither can interfere with the other. Writers such as Douglas Clyde Macintosh and Henry Nelson Wieman have attempted to treat theology as an empirical study. The success of this depends on how one conceives God and also empirical method.

See also Coherentism; Positivism, Logical


ayer, alfred jules. language, truth, and logic. new york: dover, 1952.

ferré, frederick. knowing and value: toward a constructive postmodern epistemology. albany: state university of new york press, 1998.

frankenberry, nancy. religion and radical empiricism. albany: state university of new york press, 1987.

locke, john. an essay concerning human understanding (1690), ed. p. h. nidditch. oxford: clarendon press, 1975.

nelson, lynn hankinson. who knows: from quine to a feminist empiricism. philadelphia: temple university press, 1990.

quine, w. v. o. "two dogmas of empiricism." in from a logical point of view. new york: harper, 1963.

stone, jerome a. the minimalist vision of transcendence: a naturalist philosophy of religion. albany: state university of new york press, 1992.

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. the shaping of rationality: toward interdisciplinarity in theology and science. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1999.

jerome a. stone


views updated Jun 11 2018

empiricism In sociology, the term empiricism is often used, loosely, to describe an orientation to research which emphasizes the collection of facts and observations, at the expense of conceptual reflection and theoretical enquiry. More rigorously, empiricism is the name given to a philosophical tradition which, in its modern form, developed in the context of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Though by no means all of the early empiricists were advocates of the new science, empiricism subsequently developed in close symbiotic association with modern science. In sociology, empiricism has been widely adopted as a philosophical approach by those who advocate methodological naturalism: the development of sociology as a scientific discipline.

In its early forms (in the work of John Locke, David Hume, and others) empiricism was primarily an epistemology: a theory of the nature, scope, and limits of human knowledge. As such, it included a theory of the mind and its workings which has subsequently been displaced by the development of cognitive psychology. What remains of empiricism as a philosophical theory is primarily the thesis that substantive human knowledge is limited to what may be tested (confirmed or validated) by empirical observation. What may be known a priori, or independently of all experience, is restricted to analytical statements—for example, statements that offer definitions of technical concepts, or, as Hume put it, which state ‘relations of ideas’. Empiricism defended the privileged status of science as the only form of human enquiry in which knowledge-claims were based upon, or were permanently open to, testing in terms of empirical observation and experiment. Theology and speculative metaphysics, by contrast, made bogus claims to knowledge on the basis of faith, intuition, or ‘pure’ reason.

Though empiricists are keen to demonstrate their opposition to metaphysics, it may be argued that empiricism itself carries an implicit metaphysics: namely, that the ultimate (knowable) realities are the fleeting sensory impressions (or ‘sense-data’) against which all genuine knowledge-claims are to be tested. The most radical forms of empiricism, then, are liable to be sceptical about the knowability not only of the objects of scientific knowledge, but also the things and beings of common-sense experience. Thus, the distinctive twentieth-century form of empiricism, the logical empiricism or positivism of the Vienna Circle, followed upon the deep uncertainties of the turn-of-the-century revolution in physical science. In general, empiricists have raised the standard of empirical testability as a means of defending science, and combating the claims of, first metaphysics and theology, and more recently pseudo-sciences such as Marxism and psychoanalysis. Their difficulty has been to do so in a way which does not rule out all, or most, genuine science by the same criterion.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Type of research that is based on direct observation.

Psychologists prefer to learn about behavior through direct observation or experience. This approach reflects what is called empiricism. Psychologists are well-known for creating experiments, conducting interviews and using surveys, and carrying out case studies. The common feature of these approaches is that psychologists wait until observations are made before they draw any conclusions about the behaviors they are interested in.

Scientists often maintain that empiricism fosters healthy skepticism. By this they mean that they will not regard something as being true until they have made the observations themselves. Such an approach means that science can be self-correcting in the sense that when erroneous conclusions are drawn, others can test the original ideas to see if they are correct.

Empiricism is one of the hallmarks of any scientific endeavor. Other disciplines employ different approaches to gaining knowledge. For example, many philosophers use the a priori method rather than the empirical method. In the a priori method, one uses strictly rational, logical arguments to derive knowledge. Geometric proofs are an example of the use of the a priori method.

In everyday life, people accept ideas as being true or false based on authority or on intuition. In many cases, people hold beliefs because individuals who are experts have made pronouncements on some topic. For example, in religious matters, many people rely on the advice and guidance of their religious leaders in deciding on the correct way to lead their lives. Further, we often believe things because they seem intuitively obvious. Relying on authority and intuition may be very useful in some aspects of our lives, like those involving questions of morality.

Scientists prefer the empirical method in their work, however, because the topics of science lend themselves to observation and measurement . When something cannot be observed or measured, scientists are likely to conclude that it is outside the realm of science, even though it may be vitally important in some other realm.

Further Reading

Carruthers, Peter. Human Knowledge and Human Nature: A New Introduction to an Ancient Debate. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Grossmann, Reinhardt. The Fourth Way: A Theory of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.