Meaning of EMPIRICISM in English


in philosophy, the attitude that beliefs are to be accepted and acted upon only if they first have been confirmed by actual experience. This broad definition accords with the derivation of the name from the Greek word empeiria, experience. More specifically, however, Empiricism comprises a pair of closely related, but still distinct, philosophical doctrinesone pertaining to concepts and the other to propositions. The first of these doctrines, a theory of meaning, holds that words (e.g., the word substance) can be understood or the concepts requisite for any articulate thought possessed only if they are connected by their users with things that they have experienced or could experience (e.g., pieces of wood, or the gases in a gasoline engine). The second doctrine, a philosophical theory of knowledge, views beliefs, or at least some vital classes of beliefs (e.g., that Jane is kind), as depending ultimately and necessarily on experience for justification (Jane is seen performing acts of kindness). It is not obvious, however, that either of these two doctrines strictly implies the other. Several recognized Empiricists have admitted that there are a priori propositions but have denied that there are a priori concepts. The reverse disconnection between the two forms of Empiricism, however, has no obvious exponents, since there are hardly any philosophers who totally deny a priori propositions and certainly none who would at the same time accept a priori concepts. Stressing experience, Empiricism is thus opposed to the claims of authority, intuition, imaginative conjecture, and abstract, theoretical, or systematic reasoning as sources of reliable belief. Its most fundamental antithesis is with the latter (i.e., with Rationalism, also called intellectualism or apriorism). A Rationalist theory of meaning asserts that there are concepts not derived from or correlated with experienceable features of the world, such as cause, identity, or perfect circle, and that these concepts are a priori (Latin: from the former) in the traditional sense of being part of the mind's innate or natural equipmentas opposed to being a posteriori (Latin: from the latter), or grounded in the experience of facts. On the other hand, a Rationalist theory of knowledge holds that there are beliefs that are a priori (i.e., that depend for their justification upon thought alone), such as the belief that everything must have a sufficient reason or that a process cannot exist by itself but must occur within some substance. Such beliefs can arise either from intellectual intuition, the direct apprehension of self-evident truth, or from purely deductive reasoning. (from Greek empeiria: experience), in philosophy, an attitude expressed in a pair of doctrines: (1) that all concepts are derived from the experience to which they are applied; and (2) that all knowledge of matters of fact is based on, or derived from, experience. Accordingly, all claims to knowledge of the world can be justified only by experience. Empiricism argues that knowledge derived from a priori reasoning (involving definitions formed or principles assumed) either does not exist or is confined to analytical truths, which have no content, deriving their validity merely from the meanings of the words used to express them. Hence a metaphysics that seeks to combine the a priori validity of logic with a scientific content is impossible. Likewise there can be no rational method; the nature of the world cannot be discovered through pure reason or reflection. In practice three different types of Empiricism are recognized, depending on the degree to which adherents admit a priori concepts or propositions. Absolute Empiricists admit neither a priori concepts nor a priori propositions, although they may recognize such analytical a priori truths as tautological definitions. Substantive Empiricists distinguish between formal and categorial a priori concepts. The existence of formal a priori concepts is admitted, provided such formal concepts are confined to the way ideas interact; categorial a priori concepts such as causation are denied. Substantive Empiricists argue that every a priori proposition is virtually a tautology, although it may take deduction to reveal this. Partial Empiricists claim that certain non-formal ideas may be a priori. Examples include the concepts of natural cause and effect, morality, etc. After granting this, however, the Partial Empiricist verifies everyday propositions about matters of fact by empirical means. Historically, the first Western Empiricists were the ancient Greek Sophists, who concentrated their philosophical inquiries on such relatively concrete entities as man and society, rather than the speculative fields explored by their predecessors. Later ancient philosophers with Empiricist tendencies were the Stoics and the Epicureans, although both were principally concerned with ethical questions. The majority of Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages were Empiricists. A notable thinker of the 14th century, for example, was William of Ockham, who argued that all knowledge of the physical world is attained by sensory means. In the 16th century another English Empiricist, Francis Bacon, believed in building up observed data about nature so as to arrive at an accurate picture of the world. To this extent he laid the foundations of the scientific method. John Locke in the 17th century was probably the leading Empiricist of the late- to post-Renaissance era. Later philosophers who subscribed to some degree of Empiricism included the Irish-born Bishop George Berkeley in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Scot David Hume in the 18th century, and the Britons John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Mill (who denied that he was an Empiricist) and Russell on occasion even claimed that mathematical truths or logical concepts are essentially Empirical. The antithetical position to that of Empiricism in philosophical arguments over theories of knowledge has usually been the Rationalist one. Discussion centres on the extent to which concepts are innate or acquired. Another group of Empiricists, but one that operated outside the Anglo-Saxon tradition, consisted of the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. Logical Positivists hold that metaphysical statements are meaningless because they are inherently unverifiable. The following ideas may be attributed to Empiricist influence, although not all of them need be held by any particular Empiricist thinker: (1) Experience is intelligible in isolation, or atomistically, without reference to the nature of its object or to the circumstances of its subject. Hence an experience can be described without saying anything about the mind that has it, the thoughts that describe it, or the world that contains it. (2) The person who undergoes experience is in some sense the recipient of data that are imprinted upon his intelligence irrespective of his activity; the person brings nothing to experience, but gains everything from it. (3) All method is scientific method. To discover the nature of the world it is necessary to develop a method of experiment whereby all claims to knowledge are tested by experience, since nothing but experience can validate them. (4) Reductionism: All facts about the world can be reduced to what are facts inasmuch as experiences confirm claims to knowledge as facts; hence no claims to knowledge of a transcendental world can have any foundation. Empiricism's influence may be seen in the broad thesis of Nominalism, according to which reality is held to reside in the particular rather than in the universal. Nominalists argue that the whole has no reality that is not derived from that of its parts. In the metaphysical sphere Empiricism generates a characteristic view of causation, seemingly an almost inevitable consequence of the Empiricist theory of knowledge. According to Empiricist metaphysics the world consists of a set of contingently connected objects and situations, united by regularities rather than necessities, and unrelated to any transcendental cause or destiny. Science, according to this view, investigates connections, and its aim is to make predictions on the basis of observed regularities. Furthermore, judgments of value have no place in science, say the Empiricists, as such judgments are subjective preferences of the investigator. Additional reading Classic texts for Empiricism include John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vol. (1690); David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book 1, pt. 1 (1739); Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Eng. trans., Critique of Pure Reason, 1929); and John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, books 1 and 2 (1843). W.H. Walsh, Reason and Experience (1947); and H.H. Price, Thinking and Experience, 2nd ed. (1969), are good general surveys. For a comprehensive selection of standard works from Locke to J.S. Mill, see A.J. Ayer and R. Winch (eds.), The British Empirical Philosophers (1952). Modern works in the Empiricist tradition include Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge (1948); W.T. Stace, Theory of Knowledge and Existence (1932); Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt (1928; Eng. trans., The Logical Structure of the World, 1967); and A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd ed. (1946), a short exposition of the extreme Empiricist position. Harold Morick (ed.), Challenges to Empiricism (1980), is a collection of essays.

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