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Definition: Empiricism from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

The epistemological view that knowledge must originate in sensory experience. Empiricists deny that knowledge may originate through nonsensory channels such as intuition or innateness. The scope of empiricism can vary. For instance, concept empiricism maintains that sense experience is our only source of our knowledge of concepts. Belief empiricism maintains that all propositional knowledge, that is, knowledge expressible in sentences that can be true or false, must originate in experience.

See also

Essentialism, Idealism, Ontology

Summary Article: Empiricism from Encyclopedia of Human Memory

Empiricism is a school of thought in philosophy based on the idea that all knowledge derives from experience and from direct observation. It stands in contrast to other schools of philosophy that hold that knowledge is innate, that people are already born with the roots of everything they will come to know. Empiricism has come to be the basis of the scientific method that psychologists rely on. Fundamental to this is the belief that all that can be known about human behavior, including thinking and memory, must be based on hypotheses and theories, which must be tested against observations rather than relying on individual preconceptions or beliefs. The “science” in psychological science largely derives from psychology's roots on empiricism.

One of the first empiricists was Aristotle (ca. 350 BC), who believed that all learning was determined by association and that sense perceptions were of primary importance. Aristotle's perspective was an active one: people seek and actively engage in experiences to foster their development of knowledge. Aristotle developed several principles by which individual sensory perceptions become associated with one another, in order to form larger perceptions. These perceptions came to be known as ideas. Hence the principles of association included similarity, which is the belief that one idea leads to the memory for another similar idea; contrast, which is the belief that one idea leads to another idea that is its opposite; and contiguity, which is the belief that two ideas that co-occur in time and space are more likely to become associated into a single idea. Aristotle's teachings contrasted with those of Plato, who believed that the mind originated in the heavens.

Following Aristotle, another important development of empiricist thought occurred among Arab philosophers and theologians throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These philosophers presaged later ideas of the tabula rasa. Somewhat simultaneously in the twelfth century, Thomas Aquinas (the Catholic philosopher and theologian) also promoted the importance of sensory and environmental experiences on the development of the mind. For all of these theologians, this was a significant departure from the prevailing beliefs in divine intervention in the development of mind.

The largest elaboration of empiricism, however, came from a school of philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries known as the British empiricists. These philosophers included David Hume (1711–1776), whose writings fostered logical positivism (the belief that all knowledge must have objective proof); George Berkeley (1685–1753), who wrote extensively on the importance of sensations and perceptions to human mental development; and John Locke (1632–1704), who suggested that all knowledge is acquired through experience and that we are born with a blank slate, a tabula rasa, onto which are written all of our experiences. With each experience, our underlying knowledge changes so that simple ideas, which come from sense impressions, combine to form more complex ones by association. For Locke, the distinction between simple ideas and complex ideas was fundamental to the development of knowledge. Locke expanded on Aristotle's three principles of association as the primary principles but also expanded into secondary principles such as duration (the longer an idea is present, the stronger it becomes), frequency (the more often an idea occurs, the stronger it becomes), liveliness (more vivid ideas become stronger), and recency (more recent ideas are more likely to come to mind).

The British empiricists introduced introspection as a method to study ideas. Researchers would sit around together and compare their inner insights into what was going on when they were thinking, perceiving, sensing, attending, remembering, and so on. Unfortunately, different individuals perceived different things somewhat differently. For example, if a person is asked to lift two weights, it is fairly easy to determine which is the heavier of the two weights as long as they are very different in weight; however, if the two weights are fairly close together, it is common for different individuals to be split on which is the heavier of the two. This lack of precision eventually led to an even stricter emphasis on exclusively externally observable behaviors.

Psychology eventually emerged as a blending of two disciplines of study in the nineteenth century: physiology and philosophy. The big picture of the philosophical roots of all psychology in general is a picture of empiricism, of associationism (the idea that knowledge proceeds by associating sensory impressions) and of rationalism (the idea that phenomena can be understood by careful thinking and logical proof). Both Wilhelm Wundt (often called the father of psychology) and William James (often called the father of American psychology) had strong empiricist beliefs, both philosophically and in their beliefs of what constitutes “proof” in terms of human thinking and behavior. Both focused on experimentation as the purest form of proof. James focused extensively on the importance of individual experiences in the development of mental faculties.

Therefore, empiricism had a strong influence on the development of early psychology and on the path that it has taken even through modern times. The field continues to emphasize a reliance on observations and on the effects of experience on development of mind. Thus, psychology prefers to rely on experimentation as the main method of proof because experimentation allows for the greatest control of all extraneous variables and allows for the greatest elimination of alternative explanations for behavior.

Research into human memory exemplifies this tradition, beginning with the work of Herman Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus was one of the earliest scientists, in the 1880s, to study human memory using stringent scientific methods to measure memory. He used nonsense syllables in the form of consonant-vowel-consonant trigrams (CVCs), in order to have a “pure” stimulus that would not be contaminated by prior knowledge and associations, and the process of savings was his preferred method of measurement.

In later years, an example of how scientists have applied empiricism to human memory research can be found in network models of semantic memory. The premise of such models is that information is organized in memory in a way that links elements of memory, called concepts, together in some meaningful way. By doing so, later retrieval is facilitated. Furthermore, once a given concept is activated, that activation flows to nearby concepts, activating them as well. One type of network model of semantic memory is the associative network model. Associative network models propose that information in semantic memory is organized in terms of the connections between concepts or categories, called nodes. Links interconnect these nodes such that the length of a link dictates the distance between concepts and reflects the degree of association between the items. Information is stored by placing it a proper distance from related concepts. Information is accessed by moving through the network. Concepts may be strongly connected, in which case the link between nodes is short. Alternatively, the connection may be weak, in which case the link between them is long. Associative network models provide a good example of how empiricism as a philosophical school of thought continues to influence modern investigations into cognitive science because the principles described by Aristotle and the British associationists have been applied to describe the length of links between concepts. Thus, similarity, contrast, contiguity, repetition, frequency, vividness, and other secondary principles all affect whether people closely or distantly associate concepts together within the network.

Further Reading
  • Hale, J. (2011). Understanding research methodology 2: Systematic empiricism. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  • Hardcastle, G. L. (2007). Logical empiricism and the philosophy of psychology. In A. Richardson; T. Uebel (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to logical empiricism (pp. 228-249). Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Lipton, P. (2001). History of empiricism. International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Elsevier Science Oxford. Accessible at
  • McLeod, S. (2008). Psychology as a science. Simply Psychology. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  • Raaijmakers, J. G.; Shiffrin, R. M. (1981). Search of associative memory. Psychological Review, 88 (2), 93-134.
  • Taylor, Annette Kujawski
    Copyright 2013 by Annette Kujawski Taylor

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