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Empiricism comes from the Greek word εμπειρισμός, a noun meaning a "test" or "trial". The -pir- is ultimately related to the -per- of the Latin words experientia and experimentum, both of which mean "experiment," and from which our words "experiment" and "experience" come. (Interestingly, it is also related to the Latin word periculum, "essay, trial, danger," which gives the English word "peril".) Empiricism is therefore the philosophical doctrine (-ism) of "testing" or "experimentation," and has taken on the more specific meaning that all human knowledge ultimately comes from the senses and from experience. Empiricism denies that humans have innate ideas or that anything is knowable without reference to experience.

Empiricism is contrasted with continental rationalism, epitomized by René Descartes. According to the rationalist, philosophy should be performed via introspection and a priori deductive reasoning. Names associated with empiricism include St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes (also see naturalism), Francis Bacon, John Locke (who originally developed the doctrine during the 17th and early 18th centuries), George Berkeley, and David Hume.

It is generally regarded as the heart of the modern scientific method, that present theories should be based on our observations of the world rather than on intuition or faith; that is, empirical research and a posteriori inductive reasoning rather than purely deductive logic.

Empirical is an adjective often used in conjunction with science, both the natural and social sciences, which means the use of working hypotheses which are capable of being disproved using observation or experiment (ie: ultimately through experience).

In a second sense "empirical" in science may be synonymous with "experimental". In this sense, an empirical result is an experimental observation. In this context, the term "semi-empirical" or "semiempirical" is used for qualifying theoretical methods which use in part basic axioms or postulated scientific laws and empirical (experimental) results. Such methods are opposed to theoretical ab initio methods which are purely deductive and based on first principles. This terminology is particularly important in theoretical chemistry.


Empiricism and Science

Empiricism was a precursor of logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism. Empirical methods have dominated science until the present day. It laid the groundwork for the scientific method, which is the traditional view of theory and progress in science. However, in the past couple of decades quantum mechanics, constructivism, and Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions have created some challenges to empiricism as the exclusive way in which science works and should work. On the other hand, some argue that theories such as quantum mechanics provide a perfect example of the solidity of empiricism: the ability to discover even counter-intuitive scientific laws, and the ability to rework our theories to accept these laws.

Empiricism in history

Within historiography, empiricism refers to empiricist historiography, a school of documentary interpretation and historical teleology derived from the works of Ranke.

Classical Empiricism

Refers mostly to the epistemological work of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. Aristotle argued that all forms of knowing come from induction. Aquinas wrote the famous peripatetic axiom, "Nihil in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu" which means "Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses."

Modern Empiricism

Also known as traditional empiricism. David Hume, John Locke and George Berkeley were among the British philosophers who rejected the theory of innate ideas. Theories of the existence of innate ideas were the subject of much debate between the Continental rationalists and British empiricists in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century David Hume was critical of Immanuel Kant's doctrine of the a priori as positing innate ideas, while proponents of innate ideas rejected Kant's doctrine of intuition and deduction as not innatist, but part of a rationalist doctrine. Modern empiricism contends that all knowledge must be attained through internal and external sensations.

Radical Empiricism

Radical empiricists believe that all human knowledge is purely empirical. William James was a proponent of one form of radical empiricism.

Moderate Empiricism

Moderate empiricists believe that all human knowledge of "matter of fact propositions" is purely empirical. This is the view that David Hume held.

Other forms

Naïve Empiricism: Our ideas and theories need to be tested against reality and not be affected by preconceived notions.

Constructive Empiricism: According to this view of science coined by Bas C. van Fraassen (The Scientific Image, 1980), we should only ask that theories accurately describe observable parts of the world. Theories that meet these requirements are considered "empirically adequate". If a theory becomes well established, it should be "accepted". What that means is the theory is believed to be empirically accurate, used to solve further problems, and used to extend or refine the theory.


Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

One of the most famous challenges against empiricism is Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which built upon Norwood Russell Hanson's Patterns of Discovery (1958). In this, he argues that theory change is actually developed through paradigm shifts, where a new idea is offered that doesn't follow on existing theories but instead offers a unique, creative solution to existing problems. Scientific thinking, in Kuhn's view, goes through revolutions, instead of gradual theory development through testing and experimentation. After the revolution occurs, scientists can see things they weren't able to see before in the former framework. Kuhn also questioned whether scientific experimentation is truly unbiased and neutral since the experimenter had previous theories and preconceptions which could affect what experiments are chosen and the way in which the results are interpreted. Kuhn also questioned whether we can trust the reliability of our senses, and cited the famous illusions printed in Hanson's 1958 book.


Knowledge and reality is actively constructed by the individual, not passively received from the environment. There are many forms of constructivism, such as social constructivism and cultural constructivism.

Quantum mechanics

Addresses the question whether experience can be used to determine an ontological reality. For example, the Many-worlds interpretation, one of the answers to the EPR paradox, argues that there are multiple versions of every observed object in every possible observable state, existing in a state of Quantum superposition. If every observable entity within our reality has a counterpart in an alternate state, then our experience of these entities does not indicate any ontological reality.

See also

External links


cs:Empirie da:Empiri de:Empirismus es:Empirismo eo:Empiriismo fr:Empirisme ko:경험론 he:אמפיריציזם nl:Empirisme ja:経験論 no:Empiri pl:Empiryzm pt:Empirismo sk:Empirizmus sv:Empiri tr:Ampirizm uk:Емпіризм zh:经验主义

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