Empiricism (from Latin empiricus, der. from the Greek ἐμπειρία, empeirìa, ‘experience’), is the philosophical movement, born in the second half of the seventeenth century in England, according to which human knowledge derives exclusively from the senses or from experience. See also: Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism
It opposes ‘innatism’ and ‘rationalism’, which derive knowledge by deduction from rational principles evident a priori, and distinguishes itself from ‘sensism’, which admits only one source of knowledge (the external sense or sensation), as it also admits the internal sense or reflection (in Philosophy, the term a priori is used especially by Immanuel Kant to indicate what does not depend on experience, as opposed to what is defined as a posteriori). Empiricism is not opposed to reason but recognizes the limits of human possibilities of knowing the truth. Man must use his own reason but not pretend to possess absolute truths, which do not tolerate criticism: every theory must be tested by experience (and therefore confirmed, modified or refuted).
The modern current was born in the second half of the seventeenth century in England, and the greatest exponents of Anglo-Saxon empiricism were John Locke and David Hume, and in Germany Immanuel Kant, with important developments in the 19th century thanks to the research of John Stuart Mill: they denied that humans had innate ideas, or that something was knowable regardless of experience. However, empiricism has much older roots, which go as far as ancient Greece, with philosophers such as Epicurus and Aristotle.
Today, the term “empiricism” is referred to a practical and experimental approach to knowledge, based on research and a way of proceeding a posteriori, preferred to pure deductive logic.
The adjective “empirical” is often associated with the term science and is used both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences, and this means the use of working hypotheses that can be denied by observation or experiment (that is ultimately from experience).
Empiricism was a precursor to logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism. Empirical methods have dominated science to the present day: they laid the foundation for the scientific method, which is the traditional conception of theory and progress in science.
However, recent theories in recent decades such as quantum mechanics, constructivism, and Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) have questioned empiricism as the exclusive mode in which science works and should work. On the other hand, some argue that theories like 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.
In Epicurus’ thought, which will later be called “sensism”, developing Democritean themes, he made sensation the fundamental criterion of knowledge: all ideas are the result of sensation, indeed, they are themselves sensations, that is, material configurations of atoms that detach themselves from physical bodies and enter in our body through the channels constituted by the sense organs.
In his “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), Immanuel Kant, in discussing the controversy as to whether pure knowledge of reason derives from experience or if it rather has its source in reason itself, indicated in Aristotle “the head of the empiricists”. However, it is also true that Aristotle’s conception of true science remains tied rather to the Platonic approach based on dialectics, the deductive procedure, and the concept of innate ideas, later taken up again in the modern age by Descartes and the Cambridge Platonists.
Scholasticism and Renaissance
Even St. Thomas Aquinas, while reevaluating empirical knowledge, remains faithful to the Aristotelian assumption that only the intellect allows us to grasp the first principles. Famous is its peripatetic axiom, “Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu” which means “In the mind, there is nothing that has not already been in the senses”.
Against the exaggerated dogmatism of the scholastic metaphysics and the abuse of the schemes of the logic of the fourteenth century, the Renaissance encamps the certainty and fruitfulness of experience for knowledge and for life: theGalilean school, in fact, was fundamental in this field with the creation of the scientific method, which was subsequently adopted by the whole community of science. Along with Galileo Galilei, other exemplary protagonists of the scientific revolution were also Francis Bacon and Descartes, who, however father of modern idealism, aimed at a method for explaining the world of experience in the service of science.
John Locke is the initiator of the English branch of Empiricism. In his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689), the reader is warned that the author’s intent is to proceed with a “simple descriptive method” to establish the conditions, limits, and possibilities of knowledge, to ascertain which truths can be known with certainty and which are the object of probability and of conjectures, because if the claim to know everything is unreasonable, so is renouncing in the name of absolute skepticism knowledge that is instead accessible to man. its position is therefore that of refusing dogmatism, scholastic metaphysics, and the principle of authority. Therefore, Locke refutes the belief that innate and absolutely certain ideas exist, without needing to be examined. This belief causes intolerance and fanaticism. Reference points are the inductive method and the hypothesis testing procedures typical of the experimental method.
On the other hand, another important contribution was that of David Hume‘s skepticism. For the Scottish philosopher, the causal connections and the principle of uniformity of nature, which is based on them, cannot be derived either from reason or directly from experience: their origin should rather be sought in a sort of natural instinct, which is the task of the “anatomist of human nature” to analyze, reconstructing the psychological mechanisms that operate on the imagination through procedures that Hume defines with terms such as “custom”, “habit”, “belief”. Hume’s thought is part of an attempt to extend the procedures of new experimental physics to the study of human nature.
To Immanuel Kant, however, the thesis of the only sensitive origin of knowledge seemed untenable, not so much because of the difficulty of deriving complex contents of knowledge from simple and immediate sensitive data, but rather because at least a part of the propositions of which our knowledge consists (above all scientific knowledge) has characteristics of universality and necessity, which the constancy of certain relationships between sensations is not sufficient to justify. He, therefore, defined experience as the organization of sensations, operated by certain a priori functions
Referring to the 19th-century philosophical debate, John Stuart Mill saw it essentially animated by the clash between two schools: the “a priori school”, or intuitive school, which supported the presence in every act of thought of original and non-derived mental elements, such as the notions of time, space, extension, solidity, and the “a posteriori school”, or school of experience, whose representatives did not deny the importance of those notions at all, but contested their character of truth which cannot be further analyzed. Reconstructing the processes through which the alleged a priori truths are formed is the task that Mill set himself in the “System of Logic” (1843), resorting to the analytical tools of associational psychology.
The outcome of the British economist’s research goes in the direction of a radical form of empiricism, in which not only the fundamental logical relationships arise from generalizations of data ultimately coming from empirical inductions, but the same mathematical axioms, the strength of each intuitionistic position, have a similar origin, in that they arise from our interactions with the world.
From the twentieth century, new currents of thought were born that refer to innatist positions, in particular cognitive psychology. It should also be noted that today no one radically denies the existence of innate factors, or vice versa acquired, in the genesis of behavior. The difference between empiricists and innatists should be seen rather on the basis of the emphasis that is put on the first factors rather than on the second. The twentieth-century rebirth of empiricism will take the name of logical empiricism and will have the logic-formal techniques of language analysis as verification tools.
Method and sources of knowledge
Empiricism affirms that knowledge is the acceptance of sensory data in their concrete and particular immediacy. In human knowledge we therefore always start from the particular: there are no universal notions that condition the movement of thought, but the universality of the notions – obtained through generalizations – is only a point of arrival, an achievement. The method of empiricism is therefore induction (by definition, induction is the logical procedure by which one passes from the consideration of particular cases to a universal conclusion.)
Empiricism does not recognize any knowledge that does not derive from an immediate contact of the subject with the object. The primary source of all knowledge is the empirical data which takes the name of sensations, perceptions, impressions, but also of ideas.
Stoics and Epicureans argued that external objects leave a “footprint” through sensations in the mind of man and used this term to highlight the receptive and passive aspects of the subject. To repeat St. Thomas Aquinas, “there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses”. This concept was also taken up by Locke and states that the man knows and elaborates on the abstract level (in the intellect) only what he has experienced on the level of sensitivity.
Broadening the discussion beyond the problem of knowledge, it can be said that empiricism inserts and solves the intellectual and spiritual life of man in the set of contacts and relationships that it has with the outside world: Hume explains all the feelings of man (including religious ones) in very close dependence on sensitive experiences; in evolutionary positivism, the genesis of human intelligence is explained by environmental conditions.
Empiricism limits the realm of knowledge to empirical data and denies the possibility of going further, thus denying the possibility of metaphysics (part of the philosophy that deals with the theoretical aspects and the absolute values of reality, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space, regardless of the data of experience). If all our ideas derive from sensitive experience, none of them can lead us beyond their content. Thought can only affirm what falls under the senses, that is, what is relative to the subject it perceives.
The idea of substance understood as “what exists in and of itself” has no counterpart in a given experience, nor is it the conclusion of a rational demonstration, because existence gives itself, it does not prove itself. It is only a metaphysical proposition that contrasts with the demands of empiricism. The substance thus becomes a simple mental construction, to which no data corresponds.