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Empiricism is the philosophy of knowledge by observation. It holds that the best way to gain knowledge is to see, hear, touch, or otherwise sense things directly. In stronger versions, it holds that this is the only kind of knowledge that really counts. Empiricism has been extremely important to the history of science, as various thinkers over the centuries have proposed that all knowledge should be tested empirically rather than just through thought-experiments or rational calculation.
Empiricism is an idea about how we know things, which means it belongs to the field of epistemology.
II. Empiricism vs. Rationalism vs. Constructivism
Empiricism is often contrasted with rationalism, a rival school which holds that knowledge is based primarily on logic and intuition, or innate ideas that we can understand through contemplation, not observation.
Rationalists hold that you don’t have to make any observations to know that 1+1=2; any person who understands the concepts of “one” and “addition” can work it out for themselves. Empiricists argue the opposite: that we can only understand 1+1=2 because we’ve seen it in action throughout our lives. As children, empiricists say, we learn by observing adults, and that’s how we gain abstract knowledge about things like math and logic.
Of course, ideally, knowledge consists of both observation and logic; you don’t have to choose between the two. It’s more a matter of which one you emphasize.
There is a combined philosophy, called constructivism, which represents one way to get the best of both worlds. Constructivists, like empiricists, argue that knowledge is based, first and foremost, on observing the world around us. But we can’t understand what we see unless we fit it into some broader rational structure, so reason also plays an essential role. Constructivism is a high-profile idea in the philosophy of education, and many teachers use it to design their lessons: the idea is to present information in an order that builds on previous information, so that over time students “construct” a picture of the subject at hand, and at each step they are able to “place” the new information in the context of old information.
III. Quotes About Empiricism
“Although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises from experience.” (Immanuel Kant)
Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential philosophers in European history, and part of the reason for his fame was that he tried to synthesize empiricism and rationalism into a single, combined philosophy. Kant argued that all of our knowledge comes from observations and experience, so in that sense he was an empiricist. But he also argued that those observations and experiences were constrained by the inherent structures of thought itself. In other words, the human mind is wired to make only certain kinds of observations — so, observation has limits. And those limits, Kant argued, are what we call logic and rationality. So in that sense he was a rationalist!
Confused? You’re not alone! Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about whether Kant’s point of view makes sense. Kant was in many ways an early constructivist.
“The bottom of being is left logically opaque to us . . . something we simply come upon and find, and about which (if we wish to act) we should pause and wonder as little as possible. In this confession lies the lasting truth of empiricism.” (William James)
William James was as major empiricist thinker who lived in America around the turn of the century (c. 1900). This quote is a little obscure, but James is basically saying that no philosophy can ever hope to understand the “bottom of being,” or the most basic truths about reality. Since it seems impossible to prove our most fundamental observations through reason (such as “I seem to exist”), it makes more sense, in these cases, to rely on empirical observation. Many philosophers recoil at this suggestion, since they think of philosophy as being all about analyzing and proving deeper and deeper truths. But James argued that, at a certain point, this is a waste of time — like trying to look into your own eyeball without the aid of a mirror.
IV. The History and Importance of Empiricism
Philosophers have long tried to arrive at knowledge through some combination of observation and logic — empiricism and rationalism. For example, the ancient rivalry between Plato (rationalism) and Aristotle (empiricism) shaped the future of philosophy not only in Europe but also throughout the Islamic world, stretching from Africa to India and beyond. European and Islamic philosophers argued for centuries about whether the best sort of knowledge was deduction from abstract principles (following Plato) or observing the world around us (following Aristotle).
The debate is even older than ancient Greece, as empiricism and rationalism had already appeared in Indian philosophical texts dating back centuries before Plato and Aristotle were born. Most Indian philosophers, however, took the view that both empiricism and rationalism were necessary, whereas European philosophers tended to argue that one had to be victorious over the other.
Empiricism really took off in Europe during the Scientific Revolution, when scholars began conducting systematic experiments and observations of the world around them. These observations led to earth-shattering discoveries, such as the fact that our planet revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. However, the Scientific Revolution also owed a lot to rationalism, which is involved in coming up with experiments to begin with, and deriving knowledge from their results. Rationalism was especially influential in promoting mathematical reasoning as an essential part of deriving scientific conclusions.
V. Empiricism in Popular Culture
Many RPGs (role-playing games), such as Skyrim, give players the ability to combine various items to make potions, weapons, armor, etc. In many cases, you have to get there by pure trial-and-error because there’s very little rhyme or reason — no patterns. These games encourage empiricism because you have to learn by repeated experiments and observation rather than abstract reasoning.
“Call it what you will, it’s about getting up off your chair, going where the action is, and seeing things firsthand.” (David Sturt)
David Sturt is a self-help author and motivational speaker. In this quote, he’s promoting a kind of empiricism as a philosophy of life. See things for yourself! Experience the world directly! This is similar to the epistemological empiricism that we’ve been discussing in this article. However, it’s a little different in that true empiricism is a theory of where knowledge comes from. In other words, empiricism is a theory about how best to know reality (through direct experience).
Empiricism and Skepticism
Many empiricists are also skeptics: they argue that many common-sense ideas are not empirically observable, and therefore that either those ideas are not true or, at best, we can’t know whether they’re true. For example, David Hume, one of the most famous empiricists, argued that we could not empirically demonstrate the existence of causality! His argument went something like this:
- You see a baseball flying towards a window.
- Moments later, you hear a crash and see the window break.
- You infer that the ball caused the window to break.
David Hume argued that only (1) and (2) are empirical; they’re observations. But (3) isn’t an observation; it’s an inference (technically, an inductive inference). Therefore, according to Hume’s empiricism, we can’t really know whether the ball caused the window to break! We only know for sure that certain things happened, not whether they’re connected! Therefore it’s impossible to know whether any event causes another or whether they just occurred one after the other. In other words, we can observe separate events, but we can never observe a causal link between them.
Later empiricists would question Hume’s argument. For example, William James argued for what he called “radical empiricism,” or the view that you can actually observe causality. He argued that Hume was being overly reductive about what counts as “observation,” and failing to account for more abstract observations that we make all the time.
For example, we might say “I saw the ball break the window.” This is more than just an observation of two separate events; it’s also an observation of one event, an event involving causation, which we directly observe.