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in philosophy, the theory that there are no innate ideas and that knowledge is derived solely from the sense data of experience. The idea was discussed by Greek philosophers and is shown variously in the works of Thomas HobbesHobbes, Thomas
, 1588–1679, English philosopher, grad. Magdalen College, Oxford, 1608. For many years a tutor in the Cavendish family, Hobbes took great interest in mathematics, physics, and the contemporary rationalism.
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, 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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, 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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, Julien de La MettrieLa Mettrie, Julien Offray de
, 1709–51, French physician and philosopher. On the basis of personal observation he claimed that psychical activity is purely the result of the organic construction of the brain and nervous system and developed this theory in
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, Baron d'HolbachHolbach, Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'
, Ger. Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach , 1723–89, French philosopher, one of the Encyclopedists. Although a native of the Palatinate, he lived in Paris from childhood.
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, Claude HelvétiusHelvétius, Claude Adrien
, 1715–71, French philosopher, one of the Encyclopedists. He held the post of farmer-general (i.e., tax collector), an exceedingly remunerative position.
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, Étienne de CondillacCondillac, Étienne Bonnot de
, 1715–80, French philosopher who developed the theory of sensationalism (i.e., that all knowledge comes from the senses and that there are no innate ideas).
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, Ernst MachMach, Ernst
, 1838–1916, Austrian physicist and philosopher, b. Moravia. He taught (1864–67) mathematics at Graz and later, until his retirement in 1901, was professor of physics at Prague and Vienna.
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, and others. See also empiricismempiricism
[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.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in the theory of knowledge, a school asserting that the senses provide the main form of knowledge. Unlike rationalism, sensationalism seeks to derive the entire content of knowledge from the senses.

In the history of philosophy materialist schools of sensationalism have been counterposed to idealist schools. In man’s sensory activity materialist sensationalism discovers a link between consciousness and the outside world, and in the reactions of man’s senses, a reflection of the world. In sensory activity idealist sensationalism sees an autonomous and self-sufficient sphere of consciousness.

Idealism was evident in the sensationalism of Protagoras. He proclaimed sensory perception the only source of knowledge, at the same time contending that the senses give people information only about their own states and by no means about the external causes underlying them. Epicurus formulated a system of consistently materialist sensationalism. The Stoics’ more moderate sensationalism recognized as genuine not every sensory perception but only those arising in the consciousness under certain conditions. The classical formula of sensationalism was coined by the Stoics: there is nothing in reason that has not first been experienced by the senses.

P. Gassendi, T. Hobbes, and J. Locke were outstanding representatives of materialist sensationalism in the 17th century. Taking as his point of departure the basic formulas of sensationalism, Locke endeavored to derive from sensory experience the entire content of human consciousness, but he admitted that a spontaneous force, independent of experience, is inherent in the mind.

Grappling with the inconsistency of Locke’s sensationalism, G. Berkeley completely discarded external experience and viewed sensations (“ideas”) as a property of human consciousness alone—that is, he gave an idealistic interpretation to sensationalism. However, in introducing the idea of god, Berkeleian subjective idealist sensationalism failed to support its own basic principle. According to Berkeley, the activity of god determines the appearance of every idea of the human spirit. D. Hume’s subjective idealist sensationalism, which was based on agnosticism, served as the foundation for subjective idealist phenomenalism, the basis of several 19th- and 20th-century bourgeois philosophical currents, including positivism, empiriocriticism and neopositivism.

The most outstanding representatives of materialist sensationalism were the 18th-century French materialists J. de La Mettrie, C. Helvétius, D. Diderot, and P. Holbach. Overcoming Locke’s inconsistency and rejecting Berkeley’s idealism, they linked sensations, the basis of all knowledge, with the objective world, the source of sensations. In opposition to the speculative idealism prevailing in German philosophy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the materialist sensationalism of L. Feuerbach affirmed the immediate certainty of sensory knowledge. At the same time, Feuerbach realized that the senses are only a point of departure for knowledge, the complexity of which necessarily incorporates the activity of understanding and reason. However, the sensationalism of Feuerbach and the French materialists was flawed by a narrowness stemming from a failure to understand the specific character of the rational phase of knowledge.

By starting with a recognition of the practical, social character of knowledge, dialectical materialism brings together the sensory and rational forms of knowledge and reveals the dialectic of their interaction.


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


1. Philosophy
a. the doctrine that knowledge cannot go beyond the analysis of experience
b. Ethics the doctrine that the ability to gratify the senses is the only criterion of goodness
2. Psychol the theory that all experience and mental life may be explained in terms of sensations and remembered images
3. Aesthetics the theory of the beauty of sensuality in the arts
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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