The Theory of Empiricism

The Theory of Empiricism is a subject of philosophy. It is a theory that argues that knowledge can only come out of actual experience.

What is the Theory of Empiricism?

In philosophical terms, this actual experience is called the ‘Empirical Evidence’. Empirical Evidence is a piece of information received by means of seeing, hearing, speaking, smelling or touching a particular subject.

concept of empiricism
The Concept of Empiricism

It is the study of documentation and patterns of a particular action that is being experienced in real time. It disagrees with traditional ideas or customs that come out of an unrealistic belief or faith. In short, it is the opposite of Rationalism.

It is simply any knowledge that is based on real experience. Empiricism is the driving force behind scientific methods and experimentations. It is also known as the Theory of Knowledge and the Theory of Justification.

History of the Theory of Empiricism

The history of empiricism is a broad concept and can be divided into 3 subconcepts – Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. The beginning of any knowledge is the use of a working hypothesis of observations and experimentations.

However, earlier rationalism was more favored. Opinions of people and beliefs that were based on weak insights were taken into better considerations. Let’s discuss the three phases in detail.

The Theory of Empiricism in the Ancient Age

In a world that was superstitious and rational, the imparting of the Theory of Empiricism was absolutely essential. Thinkers and philosophers that were with rationalism had started to write about their theory. The most prominent one among them was Plato.

image of plato
An Image of Plato – Greek Philosopher

Plato lived from 428 BC until 328 BC. He was regarded to be one of the greatest rationalist philosophers. He had a theory of the human mind that regarded it as an entity in the heavens that existed before taking a human form on earth or rather joining a human body.

Theory of Empiricism Based on Potentiality and Actuality

However, Aristotle opposed this theory. His theories weren’t entirely empiricist but they were based on potentiality and actuality using sense and perception.

As theories came from all thinkers, it evolved from cosmology to astronomy to mathematics. Therefore, the Pythagorean theory of the right-angled triangle provided the basis for the calculation of an actual distance. All this, in turn, made Mathematics become the ultimate truth.

image of the ornaments worn by sophists
An ornament was worn by the Sophists

Even the Sophists, teachers of the Greek Civilisation always kept humanity before any social traditions. The ‘Stoics’ – people who studied at a school in Athens in the early 3rd century BC., believed that the human mind in its early stage is like a clean slate.

It takes in sensory information and records experiences from its surrounding then comes to a conclusion that shapes his beliefs and in turn a person’s personality.

The Theory of Empiricism in the Middle Ages

This Age experienced the beliefs of unseen things such as Angels and Spirits. Through these theories, the concept of God was derived from analogy. St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas were known philosophers of the Middle Age that studied empiricism.

In the 13th century, Roger Bacon emphasized considering observations over deductive reasoning. He embarked empirical knowledge over the natural world. In the 14th century, there came a systematic approach to empiricism given by William of Ockham, the nominalist.

prayer-by-st-thomas
Grace by St Thomas Aquinas

He stated that all information known to man came from the senses and the truths that man had in his mind were ‘abstractive’ in nature. They were in existence in his head and were purely hypothetical.

Further, his followers went further to study radical empiricism and rationalism began to weigh low on the balance. However, the churches and traditional societies favored rationalism over empiricism.

The Theory of Empiricism in the Modern Age

In the Modern time, empiricism began to flourish more, evidently during the Renaissance in Europe. The biggest Empiricist was Francis Bacon who gave his theory of knowledge that came from an aware and mindful state of a human mind was the only knowledge worth conceiving.

Based on Empiricism, he further produced the principles of Scientific Induction. The most detailed elaboration of the theory of Empiricism was made by John Locke (1632 – 1704).

His “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” that was a series of books that explained various philosophical topics came out in 1690. The first two volumes studied Empiricism in great detail. According to him, all knowledge came from sensation or reflection in an aware and working mind.

portrait-of-john-locke
A portrait of John Locke

He was more concerned and concentrated more on the empirical idea of a concept rather than beliefs and opinions. Unity, existence, and number were according to him empirical concepts. He considered these only from sensation and reflection.

A Scottish Philosopher

A Scottish philosopher – David Hume studied John Locke’s Theory of Empiricism and used it to prove his theory that no information that comes from other than mind, senses and a causal connection (connection between behavior and actions of a person) should be considered.

portrait-david-hume
A portrait of David Hume

Similarly, Voltaire introduced the Theory of Empiricism in France after studying the theories given by John Locke. To him, empiricism became the basis of sensationalism, and sensationalism, the science behind experimentation.

voltaire-portrait
A portrait of Voltaire

Another influential philosopher that studied the theory of empiricism was Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). In his early career, he admitted to a priori knowledge and unobservable entities like most philosophers but later he became convinced of the truths of logic and mathematics.

Empiricism Philosophy

He determined that the analysis of a subject is the basis of philosophy. Thus, he started analyzing concepts that were ‘directly’ acquainted with experience only. He used only data that came from awareness and sensation.

bertrand-russel-british-philosopher
An image of Bertrand Russell, British Philosopher

Conclusion and Applications of the Theory of Empiricism

Therefore, the Theory of Empiricism was studied by many savants and scientists and has been revised ever since. The basis of experimentation was empiricism which has given an impetus to a number of inventions and innovation to date.

It’s study enabled people to accept the known factors in day to day life and concentrate on making them better. It suppressed rationalism to some extent which was necessary in the Medieval and Modern times.

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