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(ĕmpĭr`ĭsĭzəm) [Gr.,=experience], philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience. For most empiricists, experience includes inner experience—reflection upon the mind and its operations—as well as sense perception. This position is opposed to rationalism in that it denies the existence of innate ideas. According to the empiricist, all ideas are derived from experience; therefore, knowledge of the physical world can be nothing more than a generalization from particular instances and can never reach more than a high degree of probability. Most empiricists recognize the existence of at least some a priori truths, e.g., those of mathematics and logic. John Stuart MillMill, John Stuart,
1806–73, British philosopher and economist. A precocious child, he was educated privately by his father, James Mill. In 1823, abandoning the study of law, he became a clerk in the British East India Company, where he rose to become head of the examiner's
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 was the first to treat even these as generalizations from experience. Empiricism has been the dominant but not the only tradition in British philosophy. Among its other leading advocates were John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
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, George BerkeleyBerkeley, George
, 1685–1753, Anglo-Irish philosopher and clergyman, b. Co. Kilkenny, Ireland. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, he became a scholar and later a fellow there. Most of Berkeley's important work in philosophy was done in his younger years.
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, and David HumeHume, David
, 1711–76, Scottish philosopher and historian. Educated at Edinburgh, he lived (1734–37) in France, where he finished his first philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40).
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. See also logical positivismlogical positivism,
also known as logical or scientific empiricism, modern school of philosophy that attempted to introduce the methodology and precision of mathematics and the natural sciences into the field of philosophy. The movement, which began in the early 20th cent.
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See L. Bonjour, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (1985); A. H. Goodman, Empirical Knowledge (1988).

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  1. the doctrine that all knowledge derives from experience as against a priori categories (the epistemological position of Hume, Locke, the Logical Positivists, etc). Compare IDEALISM, EPISTEMOLOGY, POSITIVISM.
  2. (pejorative) the use of empirical methods at the expense of a more adequate theoretical approach (see also ABSTRACTED EMPIRICISM).
  3. (especially in MARXISM and the recent philosophy of science) the failure to recognize the theory-laden and the socially constructed, and reconstructable, character of concepts, and thus of‘facts’ (see also THEORY RELATIVITY).
The ‘problems of empiricism’ in philosophy and the scientific method have long been recognized as the ‘problem of induction’: the provisional status of any universal generalization based only on a finite sequence of empirical observations (see INDUCTION AND INDUCTIVE LOGIC).

A further aspect of philosophical empiricism, given the lack of any clear solution to the problem of induction, is that it can lead to scepticism or RELATIVISM, for example, when formulated as a doctrine that we can only have a knowledge of our own sensations, with no necessary relation to a reality beyond this. In this form, empiricism becomes conjoined with IDEALISM, and both can end in scepticism or relativism.

Faced with such difficulties, many philosophers and sociologists have emphasized the importance of concepts, hypotheses and theories in science and sociology, and have asserted a realist, rather than an empiricist, methodology (see REALISM). However, there are problems in the outright assertion of any overall philosophical or methodological position (see METHODOLOGY, SCIENCE).

While the importance of empirical methods and empirical knowledge finds wide acceptance within sociology, this does not imply ‘empiricism’ in the senses specified. see also EMPIRICAL SOCIOLOGY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a school of epistemology that recognizes sensory experience as the source of knowledge and according to which the content of knowledge either may be represented as a description of sensory experience or may be reduced to such experience. As opposed to rationalism, empiricism reduces rational cognitive activity to different kinds of combinations of the material provided by experience, maintaining that such activity adds nothing to the content of knowledge.

Empiricism was formulated as an integrated epistemological concept in the 17th and 18th centuries. It emerged in the form of (1) materialist empiricism, which asserted that sensory experience reflects the characteristics of objectively existing things (F. Bacon, T. Hobbes, J. Locke, and E. de Condillac), and (2) subjective-idealist empiricism, which admitted subjective experience as the only reality (G. Berkeley and D. Hume).

It is in 20th-century bourgeois philosophy that idealist empiricism is first combined with ontologism—that is, with certain assumptions about reality; the fundamental empiricist concept of the elementary data of the senses is now interpreted as relating not to the subject’s mental experiences but rather to some sensory essences that exist objectively (that is, independent of individual cognition), such as E. Mach’s “neutral elements” of the world, the neorealists’ “sensory data,” and B. Russell’s “sensibilia.” This type of empiricism combines the features of both subjective and objective idealism. Logical empiricism (or logical positivism) classifies all meaningful propositions as either synthetic (that is, empirical) or analytic; it asserts that synthetic propositions may be reduced, through a set of logical procedures, to the registration of the evidence of sensory experience, maintaining that analytic propositions have no content.

Empiricism is faced with the insoluble difficulties of identifying the original components of experience and using them as the basis for reconstructing all the various types and forms of knowledge. In order to explain the cognitive process as it occurs in reality, empiricism is forced to go beyond the boundaries of sensory data and examine them in conjunction with the characteristics of consciousness (such as memory and the spontaneous operation of reason) and logical operations (such as inductive generalization); it must turn to the apparatus of logic and mathematics in order to describe experiential data and to construct theoretical knowledge. Furthermore, the function of memory cannot be reduced to the passive preservation of previously received impressions. The adherents of empiricism have failed in their attempts to substantiate induction on purely empirical grounds and to represent logic and mathematics merely as the inductive generalization of sensory experience.

While recognizing sensory experience as the source of our knowledge, dialectical materialism does not reduce the entire content of knowledge to such experience, and it emphasizes the active function of thought. In Marxist philosophy, sensory experience is regarded not as the effect of passive imprints of the external world but as a socially and culturally mediated cognitive process effected by an active subject. The dialectical interrelatedness of sensory and rational cognition is a basic principle of Marxist epistemology.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Philosophy the doctrine that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience
2. medical quackery; charlatanism
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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