Empiricism: What It Is, Characteristics, and Examples

Empiricism is a philosophical movement that attempts to explain the formation of ideas and the acquisition of knowledge. According to this position, these processes originate only through sensory experience.
Empiricism: What It Is, Characteristics, and Examples

Last update: 27 July, 2022

Since the times of ancient Greece, many philosophers have wondered how human beings perceive and get to know reality, whether through the senses or through reason? This has led to the formulation of various theories, such as empiricism, rationalism, skepticism, and others.

Throughout the centuries, questions about knowledge have been raised by philosophers, and the way in which human beings approach reality seems to be one of the most talked about topics. We’ll now talk about one of the most influential currents that has tried to give an answer to the problem of knowledge acquisition.

What is empiricism?

Empiricism is a philosophical current that emphasizes the role of experience and evidence (especially sensory perception) in the formation of ideas and acquisition of knowledge. Empiricists believe that we’re born with an empty mind and the mind acquires content as we perceive and experience through the senses.

This means that there would be no mental content created exclusively by the intellect or creativity. Consequently, products of our imagination and creativity, such as mythological beings, works of art and even mathematics, would have their origin in experience.

For example, an empiricist would say that a dragon is not a concept that originated in the mind of a person. Rather, through perception and experience with reptiles, flying animals, and fire, this non-existent being could be created.

The origin of empiricism

This philosophical movement has its roots in Greece, especially in the works of Aristotle, the Sophists and the Skeptics.

They understood the empirical as the useful and technical knowledge of physicians, architects, and craftsmen in general, as opposed to the theoretical knowledge of the speculative and reflective spheres of the sciences in general.

However, empiricism as a philosophical current arose in the Modern Age, between the 17th and 18th centuries. The term, etymologically speaking, comes from the Greek emperiria, which means experience, and the suffix -ism, which indicates that it’s a doctrine.

Representatives of empiricism

The main exponents of empiricism were English philosophers such as:

  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626): He defended that scientists should be first and foremost skeptical and not accept explanations that cannot be proven by observation and sensible experience.
  • John Locke (1632-1704): He proposed that the human mind was a tabula rasa (an empty slate), on which knowledge is imprinted a posteriori through experience.
  • George Berkeley (1685-1753): He proposed a subjective or immaterialist idealism, whose main postulate was that matter itself doesn’t exist, but rather its perception. The world exists only as long as we perceive it, he believed.
  • David Hume (1711-1776): He brought the idea that knowledge derives from sensory experience and reduces all knowledge to “impressions” or “ideas”, from which two possible types of knowledge arise: factual truths and related ideas.
Aristotle.
Aristotle is the Greek figure associated with empiricism, although he wasn’t established as such until the Modern Age.

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What are the main characteristics of empiricism?

To understand this philosophical stance a little better, here are its essential characteristics:

  • Reason is limited by experience. In other words, for the formation of ideas and acquisition of knowledge, reasoning takes second place. In this case, the senses and evidence are the only reliable source of information.
  • It denies the existence of innate ideas. According to empiricists, people are not born with ideas in their minds. Instead, they claim that mental contents are created from sensory experience.
  • It’s opposed to rationalism. Empiricism and rationalism are conceived as two opposing positions. This is because the second affirms that knowledge is acquired through reason and that only through reason can universal truths be discovered. It also stresses that the senses are a deceptive source for acquiring knowledge.
  • It’s an inductive method. Also known as the scientific method, it’s based on the idea of experimental testing of hypotheses. In general terms, this methodology aims to obtain general conclusions from particular cases.

5 examples of empiricism

Throughout history and in everyday life we can find many examples that reaffirm the empiricist theory. Some of them are the following.

1. Learning the mother tongue

Learning to speak depends a lot on experience. The child gets to know the words within the environment, listening to them and learning the meanings that others attribute to each one.

2. Knowing that fire burns

It’s very likely that a child, upon seeing fire for the first time, would try to touch it to find out what it is. Despite being told not to touch it, it’s something that attracts a lot of attention. Sooner or later they will burn themselves trying to touch it and there they’ll learn that they shouldn’t do it anymore.

3. Weather hypothesis

Before meteorology existed, people already knew it was going to rain when gray clouds piled up in the sky. This is a clear example of hypothesizing by habit.

Black clouds.
Predicting weather by clouds or formations in the sky is an example of hypothesizing by habit.

4. Learning by trial and error

This occurs when an answer to a problem is tested as many times as necessary until the correct solution is found. For example, learning to walk or ride a bicycle is done through empirical knowledge. That is, you try it over and over again until you identify the way that gives the best result.

5. Scientific experiments

Science has recognized realities thanks to evidence. In these cases, scientists resort to observable facts to determine whether a hypothesis is true or not.

The importance of experience and reason in learning

Although it’s true that human beings learn many things through experimentation and their own experiences, we shouldn’t underestimate the role of human reason in these processes. It’s clear that people have a greater capacity for reasoning than other species. And, thanks to this, humanity has achieved great things.

Having said this, we consider that experience and reason should be treated on the same level as the acquisition of knowledge and ideas. The philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to do the same, attempting to reconcile rationalism and empiricism in his complex theory of knowledge.

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