As a branch of epistemology, empiricism ignores the concept of instinctual ideas and focuses entirely on experience and evidence as it relates to sensory perception. Empiricism is a philosophical school that maintains that knowledge can only (or is obtained mainly) from sensory experience. Consequently, it rejects any (or much) use of a priori reasoning in the collection and analysis of knowledge.

It competes with rationalism according to which reason is the ultimate source of knowledge. The philosophy of empiricism was first presented in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke argued that the only way humans acquire knowledge is through experience. Locke strongly argued that humans are incapable of formulating or possessing inherent ideas. To do this, traditional empiricist methods must be supplemented with extra-logical principles that are not strictly empirical.

Rationalism and Empiricism

The mathematical "laws of motion" of the new science are generalizations that are reached inductively by reasoning from an enormous number of particular statements to universal conclusions.

Descartes's contemporary Thomas Hobbes, also a proponent of the new mechanistic science, was in many ways an empiricist, but the tradition of "classical British empiricism" is considered to begin with John Locke because it was he who tried to bring the empiricist approach to life. to do philosophy to the new "modern" way - to Descartes - starting from the certainty of our own ideas.

Since (according to the mechanistic world view) reality is held to be very different from its appearance to our senses, the rationalists concluded that sensory perceptions cannot be the basis of scientific knowledge.

Empiricism and Scientific Knowledge

Therefore, scientific knowledge must rest on ideas supplied not by the senses but by the "mind" or - as they say - by "Reason." For the typical rationalist, mathematics (particularly geometry) exemplified exactly this characteristic: the objects of mathematics are not perceived but are conceived; they are not objects of the senses but thoughts of the mind. Therefore, the judgments of mathematics have a universality and a necessity that judgments based on sensory perceptions lack.

The obvious dependence of the new mechanistic science on the mathematical description of bodies in motion is thus seen as what gives certainty to the new science; it is the bridge that connects the rationalist epistemology with the mechanistic vision of the world. Descartes claimed that the key ideas showed "clarity" and "distinctness" for the attentive mind, and claimed that his notion of "thinking substances" ("minds") and "extended substances" ("bodies") had precisely this clarity and distinction.

Apart from Descartes himself (a French Catholic), the brightest philosophical lights in this tradition were Spinoza (a Jew living in Holland) and Leibniz (a German Protestant). It provided the philosophical background for much of the brilliant mathematical physics made in France, Holland, and Germany throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. That is why we speak of the tradition of the "continental rationalists".

Locke and the Construction of the Empirists Theory

Locke wants to defend the mechanistic worldview of the new science - in his case, Newton's achievement - and, in doing so, his supposed empiricism includes many rationalistic "impurities." Since every idea is, by definition, the "private" possession of the mind that thinks it, there is no way to show that any (supposedly) innate idea actually displays the characteristics of clarity and distinction. In fact, empiricists considered the entire hypothesis of innate ideas to be improbable, incoherent, and unnecessary for an adequate explanation of knowledge.

Thus, the empiricists proposed to show how all the ideas necessary for the kind of knowledge provided by the new science could be derived from sensation. For epistemologists of this conviction, the certainty accorded to the new science is based on the claim that its description of nature is based on observational evidence that, in the last analysis, boils down to an enormous number of particular sensations of particular subjects.

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Empiricism and its limitations

Traditional empiricists emphasized that sensory experience is the only guide in our understanding of the world; which is the only method and criterion of knowledge and truth.

This opinion or judgment cannot be established on the evidence of experience, it must be treated as uncertain, false or even superstitions, there are no ideas that are not manageable in terms of sensory experience. "Man is the measure of all things"; the ancient Greek sophists can be referred to as the forerunner of the modern empiricists, particularly of Locke's "mind" as the "Tabula rasa" (Locke, 1959). According to them, man obtains knowledge through the five sensory experiences: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.

Of course, one can distinguish between direct and indirect experience. Direct experience means that one becomes familiar with an object through physical contact with the object, such as A smells the rose, D touches the table, and Z hears a sound. Gains knowledge about the object by listening to someone or reading a book. However, direct or indirect experiences do not make an essential difference in terms of the means through which knowledge is acquired.

Empiricism led to subjectivism

Empiricism would deprive philosophy of any kind of search to know "reality." He would only analyze objects and leave the study of reality (Lenin, 1967). But it is very necessary to have some knowledge of the whole when we try to know the parts analytically. An empiricist can still insist that the statement is a posteriori in the sense that it is known on the basis of experience and that we have to wait for the verdict of experience to determine whether the statement is true or false (Hospers, 1967) . In this case, the empiricist must hold that the statement can be true or false. But perhaps few people accept this point of view. Even a skeptic who has doubts as to whether the sun will rise in the east. You are not likely to deny that our statement is necessarily true.


We have tried to show how in our everyday reasoning we unconsciously take synthetic statements a priori for granted without being aware of it. If the empiricism is correct, no statement that has a factual content can be necessary or true. Consequently, there are two ways of approaching the truths of logic and mathematics that are open to the empiricist.

Being inductive generalizations, they were not true, but highly probable, and the difference between them and the hypotheses of the natural sciences was a difference of degree and not of kind, in Mills's view. Through detailed discussion or critical examination of the theories mentioned above, knowledge includes a dialectical unity of subject and object.

Empiricism cannot provide us with the certainty of scientific knowledge in the sense that it denies the existence of objective reality, it ignores the dialectical relationship of the subjective and objective contents of knowledge.

Bibliographic References

Hume, D. (ed.) (1960). A Treatise of Human Nature (pp. 47-63). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. (1902). An Enquires Concerning the Human Understanding (pp. 54-59). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. (1966). Enquires Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (pp. 160-163). London: Oxford University Press.

Lenin, V. I. (1967). Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (p. 17). Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Locke, J. (1959). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Vol. ii, pp. 122-126). New York: Dover Publications.

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What is Empiricism

What is Empiricism

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