Empiricism (greek εμπειρισμός, from empirical, latin experientia - the experience) is generally regarded as being at the heart of the modern scientific method, that our 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.

Empiricism is contrasted with continental rationalism, epitomized by Ren 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, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

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


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, recent theories in the past couple of decades such as quantum mechanics, constructivism, and Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions have created some slight 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 philosophers who rejected the concept of "innate ideas", as posited by Immanuel Kant and others (in actuality, Kant rejected the empiricism of the others). Innate ideas are knowledge that is present within our intellect prior to any sensory experience. Modern empiricism contends that all knowledge must be attained by our consciousness 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 David Hume held.

Other forms

Nave 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: 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.

Constructivism: 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: Views the Many-worlds interpretation question whether experience can be used to determine an ontological reality. For example, the Many-worlds interpetration, an answer 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

de:Empirismus bg:Емпиризъм es:Empirismo eo:Empiriismo fr:Empirisme he:אמפיריציזם no:Empiri nl:Empirisme ja:経験論 pl:Empiryzm pt:Empirismo sk:Empirizmus uk:Емпіризм


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