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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 Science Education

Keywords Analytic/synthetic, Constructivism, Perceptions, Propositional perception, Reductionism, Scientific revolution, Seeing as/seeing that

Empiricism is a part philosophical and part psychological doctrine about the origin (psychology) and evaluation (philosophy) of ideas and concepts. At an everyday level, empiricism maintains that “there is nothing in the mind but that comes from the senses; and ideas or propositions are true in as much as they conforcprm to the evidence of the senses.” At a more sophisticated level, empiricism is an epistemological doctrine about the formulation and truth testing of claims, propositions, hypotheses, and theories in all branches of inquiry – mathematics, psychology, social science, history, and so on.

Empiricism has for centuries been an influential doctrine about knowledge-seeking inquiry into the natural world; it has long been an influential philosophy of science since Aristotle's refutation of Platonic rationalism. Understandably, over its 2,500-year history, the doctrine has waxed and waned in response to philosophical challenges. Since the Scientific Revolution its main challenge has been to reconcile itself with modern, post-Galilean science, so much of which seems to contradict its core convictions.

It is important for science teachers to appreciate just what is living and what is dead in the empiricist tradition because debates about it have dominated philosophy of science and thus provide the philosophical background or context for science teachers’ own understanding of the discipline they are teaching. Further, empiricism has also had remarkable wider educational and pedagogical impacts. This can be traced from the time of John Locke's 1693 Thoughts Concerning Education with its famous (but now mostly infamous) metaphor of the mind as a tabula rasa, through to B.F. Skinner's mid-twentieth-century accounts of language learning and subject-matter teaching in which he describes the goal of science teachings as simply “successful behavior in the environment” because such behavior is what is meant by knowledge. And in the current period, the empiricist tradition can also, surprisingly, been seen as providing the psycho-philosophical foundation for much of constructivist pedagogy and theory, especially in the version championed by the late Ernst von Glasersfeld.


For the pre-Socratics, Democritus, Epicurus, and others, sensory evidence or experience – empeira – was a requirement or hallmark of claims to knowledge. Aristotle continued this epistemological tradition with his rejection of Platonism. For Aristotle knowledge was not about the sensory input, or what was seen; it was about universal features or principles, but the senses were the “windows” to the world; they were what enabled knowledge of universals; the senses could not be bypassed.

Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274), the enormously influential medieval theologian and philosopher, despite ecclesiastical warnings, continued and built upon Aristotle's realism and empiricism. Concerning the natural world, the mind could only work with experience, which was constituted by sensation and memory of such sensation. This remembered sensation he labeled a phantasm; it is what we might call “experience.” The crucial point is that there was already a mental element in experience; the epistemologically significant phantasm was both sensation and sensory activation, plus memory's “packaging” of this.

British Empiricists

The eighteenth-century trio of British empiricists – John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume – laid down the foundations of modern empiricism. They were all intimately involved with the epochal Scientific Revolution associated in the first instance with Galileo, Huygens, Boyle, and Newton. Locke famously cast himself as an “under-laborer” in Newton's vineyard and saw his chief philosophical task as “clearing away rubbish and weeds” and making intellectual space for the expansion of the New Knowledge.

Within just a few years of Newton's Principia being published, Locke published what was in his view the philosophical underpinnings of the New Science – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Some 80 years later, David Hume adopted and elaborated Locke's psycho-philosophical account of the origin and testing of ideas. Hume referred to the contents of the mind as “perceptions” and said they are divided into two broad classes: impressions and ideas. The former are sensations, feelings, emotions, and others such primitives; ideas are copies or reflections of these primitives. Some ideas are simple copies or reflections – “red,” “heavy,” “hard,” or “tree”; other ideas are compound or aggregates – “red box,” “hard tree,” and so on. Some compound ideas are fanciful – “diamond box,” “weightless tree,” or “unicorn.” They are fanciful because although the constituents have their origin in simple ideas, there is no impression that the compound can be traced back to; the mind creates the compound from simples, but it is a fanciful creation.

This distinction and causal mechanism provides Hume with the materials for his “philosophical microscope,” for the means of examining and separating among the host of ideas entertained by people and cultures those that are “sensible” and those that are “nonsensible.” He writes:

When we entertain, therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but inquire from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will confirm our suspicion. By bringing ideas into so clear a light we may reasonably hope to remove all dispute, which may arise, concerning their nature and reality.

(Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section II, #17; Hume 1777/1902, Affect in Learning Science)
Empiricism and the New Science

It seemed obvious that when Hume's microscope was trained upon Newtonian science, many core ideas would be rendered “nonsensible” or fanciful. So “attraction at a distance,” “corpuscules,” “gravity,” “magnetic fields,” and so on all supposedly would be placed in Hume's rubbish bin. And the more that science developed, the greater became the number of “fanciful” and “nonsensible” ideas destined to be put in the bin – atoms, electric fields, electrons, and so on.

Contemporary Criticism

Since the 1950s empiricism has been in philosophical retreat. The bugle was blown by Quine when he wrote in his “Two Dogmas” that:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independent of matters of fact, and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill-founded.

(Quine 1951/1953, p. 20)

Wilfrid Sellars closely followed up this critique with his 1956 Empiricism and the philosophy of mind paper. The long paper was originally given as three lectures with the title The myth of the given. This title conveys the core of the modern argument against empiricism: there is no given, objective, sensory foundation for knowledge of the world, much less for scientific knowledge of the world. Sellars carefully picked apart the psycho-philosophical theory of sensations and ideas that had been elaborated in such detail by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Of the supposed foundation of experience, Sellars wrote that:

For although seeing that x over there, is red is an experiencing - indeed a paradigm case of experiencing - it does not follow that the descriptive content of this experiencing is itself an experiencing.

(Sellars 1956, p. 282)

Sellars’ more general point was that experience has to be articulated, described, and conveyed before it has any role in knowledge creation. Ideas or thoughts have to have names or descriptions; and the link between sensation and verbalized idea is simply not automatic, direct, and given as the founding eighteenth-century empiricist trio, and all subsequent exponents of the tradition, thought that it was. As others noted (Hanson 1958), there is a fundamental distinction between seeing as and seeing that. The former is a visual sensation. The latter is propositional perception: “I see that the apple is red,” “I see that the acid reacts with metal,” “I see that the stone weighs two kilos,” and so on. The structure of propositional perception is “I see that p,” where p is any verbalized proposition. Propositional perception depends on already having words, concepts, and language being part of a community and culture. You cannot see that the acid reacts with metal unless you know what an acid and a metal is (Mandelbaum 1964).

  • Hanson, NR (1958) Patterns of discovery: an inquiry into the conceptual foundations of science. Cambridge University Press Cambridge UK.
  • Mandelbaum, M (1964) Philosophy, science and sense perception. The Johns Hopkins Press Baltimore.
  • Quine, WVO (1951) ‘Two dogmas of empiricism’, philosophical review. Harper & Row New York, pp 20-46, Reprinted in his From a Logical Point of View, 1953.
  • Sellars, W (1956) Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Minn Stud Philos Sci 1:253-329.
  • Michael R. Matthews
    (9) School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW, Australia
    © Springer Science+ Business Media B.V. 2015

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