Empiricism is an epistemology. It holds that there is no basis for belief but that of the senses. Materialism is the metaphysical analogue of empiricism. Since it is by no means clear how the evidence of the senses could lead to belief in anything that is not material, the obvious conclusion is that nothing exists that is not material. It is typically opposed to wild flights of fancy and idealism (which some strange people (e.g., empiricists) think are the same thing).

Universal Concepts Being Established in the Intellect- Aristotle

Aristotle, known for his development of classical empiricism, once drew an analogy between the process of universal concepts (as opposed to platonic pure forms) being internalised by the mind and a company of soldiers retreating.

As they leave, in great disorder, they try to form a united company again, but have a great bit of difficulty doing so. What changes this is one soldier halting (an individual experience irrelevant of a platonic Form) and making a stand. Then another sees him, and does the same (a second experience reinforcing the creation of a universal concept) and then a third, etc., etc., until a generalisation is created, and the company is in formation again, and ready for battle.

This offers the reader an easy way to visualise Aristotle's concept of empirical concept-forming. Human beings, he thought, derived their universal ideas from experience, and then these would become the tools, brick, and mortar of all reasoning and intellect.

Empiricism is a philosophical system based on methods of inquiry that are grounded in experience, primarily that of scientific inductive reasoning. Discounting reason as the source of knowledge, empiricists hold that careful observation of natural phenomena is necessary for forming all systems of understanding and that all principles and laws are derived from these observations.The western tradition of empiricism arose from the idea that the universe is governed by a fixed set of laws which can be observed and understood by the human mind without recourse to any supernatural source.

One of the earliest empiricists was Francis Bacon. Living at the beginning of a revolution of discoveries in the physical sciences, Bacon sought to outline a new method of inquiry based in experimentation with physical properties and oberservations. His most famous work, Novum Organum looks at that subject in depth. Particularly noteworthy is his discussion on debunking common prejudices associated with scientific study. Until these are eliminated from the mind of the scientist, according to Bacon, they will constantly interfere with an objective approach to his work. These prejudices, called "idols" in his work, are as follows:

The Four Idols of Scientific Study:

  • Idols of the Tribe: These are any prejudices that arise from human nature:
    "... [they] take their rise either from the homogeneity of the substance of the human spirit, or from its preoccupation, or from its narrowness, or from its restless motion, or from and infusion of the affections, or from the incompetency of the senses, or from the mode of impression." 1
  • Idols of the Cave: Any prejudices that come from the psychological state of the human mind:
    "And generally let every student of nature take this as a rule - that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion, and that so much the more care is to be taken in dealing with such questions to keep the understanding even and clear." 2
  • Idols of the Marketplace: Prejudices that result from social relationships:
    "Now words, being commonly framed and applied according to he capacity of the vulgar, follow those lines of division which are most obvious to the vulgar understanding. And whenever an understanding of greater acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist the change." 3
  • Idols of the Theater: These are prejudices that derive from false ideological systems:
    "For where it not that now for many ages men's minds have been busied with religion and theology ... there would have arisen many other philosophical sects like to those which in great variety flourished once among the Greeks." 4

Bacon admired the great scientific thinkers of his day, but abandoned the work of such philosophers as Aristotle. He thought that the essence of any object could be determined by scientific investigation into the nature of that object. All these essences, called "forms" 5 by Bacon, are what the world is comprised of; and therefore the entire world can be known by the scientist through experimentation and inductive reasoning.The "forms" resemble Anaxagoras' qualitative atoms, which are related and external.

Further development of the empiricist philosophy was done by Thomas Hobbes. He thought that all of reality was a system of matter and energy, and by extension, intellectual and political life could be reduced to the same basic elements. His work, The Leviathan, was instrumental in explaining his philosophy:

"For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata have an artificial life? For what is the heart but a spring; and the nerves but so many strings; and the joints but so many wheels, giving motion ot the whole body such as was intended by the artificer." 6

Hobbes' foundation lies in his assumption that everything consists of measurable amounts of material and energy. In terms of man, thoughts and emotions are derived from the motion of energy within the material of the brain. Because of the nature of such sensations as pleasure, man seeks them out. Hobbes believes that the maximization of this pleasure can only be achieved by the formation of a society, which leads into his political theory.

John Locke was another one of the most influential empiricists in history. His contribution to the philosophical system was in denying the existence of innate ideas, but instead making the claim that the mind upon birth is tabula rasa, or as a blank slate. This was revolutionary; not only are all ideas a direct result of observable phenomena, but they are also not from any supernatural source. They must be acquired through scientific inquiry. According to him:

"For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot be but pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unkown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily and scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work to find and follow truth, will not miss the hunter's satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight, and he will have reason to think his time not ill-spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition." 7

Locke's delineation of thought process is inspiring; it represents the empiricist ethic perfectly in a few short sentences. No matter what specific discoveries are made, or what errors are happened upon, the scientist will be satisfied in knowing that it was his efforts, his mind, that brought him to his conclusions. Locke was a fierce proponent of independent scientific thought, having to combat the dogmas of religion that saturated society in the wake of the The Great Awakening.

Another one of the most important contributors to the empiricist philosophy was David Hume. He thought that the only knowledge possible to human beings was through sensory perception. All ideas exist as complex associations between these percepts, both as copies and aggregates of them. The "impression" is a real perception according to Hume, and it includes with it an idea which is an element derived directly from the impression. It is therefore less vivid than the impression itself, because it is simply a copy of the original sensory experience. These impressions are not separate from each other, they are all tied together by the mind's tendency to recall them all when faced with new percepts. This is how ideas become classified; they form larger and larger groups in the mind, eventually forming such a complex body of representations of impressions that an underlying belief is formed that these ideas correspond to a reality external to the mind that mirror the sets of ideas held in the brain.

These philosophers formed the basis for empiricism as such, though many others have contributed ideas to this system, such as George Berkeley, William James, and John Dewey, among others. The tradition continues to be understood as any philosophical system that takes experience to be the basis for all knowledge.

1 Francis Bacon. Novum Organum. The Idols: 52.
2 The Idols: 58.
3 The Idols: 59.
4 The Idols: 62.
5 Similar to Anaxagoras' notion of qualitative atoms, which exist as part of an interrelated system in reality.
6 Thomas Hobbes. The Leviathan. "The Artificial Man."
7 John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Written for E2 by me courtesy of my old philosophy notes.

Em*pir"i*cism (?), n.


The method or practice of an empiric; pursuit of knowledge by observation and experiment.


Specifically, a practice of medicine founded on mere experience, without the aid of science or a knowledge of principles; ignorant and unscientific practice; charlatanry; quackery.

3. Metaph.

The philosophical theory which attributes the origin of all our knowledge to experience.


© Webster 1913.

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