What is empiricism?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Empiricism is a philosophical concept that goes well with modern attitudes -- attitudes, in particular, towards science.  It is the idea that we should base knowledge on what we can see, touch, or measure.  In other words, knowledge should be based on things that are empirically tangible.

This is as opposed to previous schools of thought that held that we know things by thinking about them.  This school of thought tried to understand things in terms of how they sounded theoretically or how well they conformed to accepted thoughts.  An example of this is how some people thought the planets moved in perfect circles simply because that is how it should be.

Empiricism, by contrast, demands that things be measured and proven.  Empiricists pointed out that observation does not bear out the idea that planets moved in circles.  So an empiricist would say that we should not believe that planets move in circles because tangible observations show that they do not (no matter what theories say they should do).

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fact-finder | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Empiricism is the philosophical concept that experience, which is based on observation and experimentation, is the source of knowledge. According to empiricism, only the information that a person gathers with his or her senses should be used to make decisions, without regard to reason or to either religious or political teachings. Empiricism gained credibility with the rise of experimental science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it continues to be studied by many scientists today. Empiricists have included English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), who asserted that there is no such thing as innate (having at birth) ideas—that the mind is born blank and all knowledge is derived from human experience. Another prominent empiricist, Irish clergyman George Berkeley (1685–1753), believed that nothing exists except through an individual's own perceptions, and that the mind of God makes possible the apparent existence of material objects. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) expanded empiricism to the extreme of skepticism, asserting that human knowledge is restricted to the experience of ideas and impressions. Therefore it is impossible to state truth with absolute certainty.

Further Information: Empiricism. [Online] Available http://www.infoplease.com/ce5/CE016849.html, November 7, 2000; "Empiricism." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?ti=00D8C000, November 7, 2000.

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