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Empiricism is a theory which holds that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. The term also refers to the method of observation and experiment used in the natural sciences. Often, empiricism is contrasted with rationalism, a theory which holds that the mind may apprehend some truths directly, without requiring the medium of the senses.

Empiricists tend to emphasize the tentative and probabilistic nature of knowledge, while rationalists tend to be dogmatic and assert they have found a method to discover absolutely certain knowledge. Empiricists see philosophical skepticism as limiting what the human mind can hope to accomplish and as a guide to those areas of inquiry we can usefully apply our talents towards. Rationalists see skepticism as something which must be refuted on every count in order to establish a sure footing for absolutely certain knowledge.

There is great irony here since historically it was the rationalists (Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) who had the vision of a knowable universe, of laws governing all the parts of the whole, of a unified whole, of minds made for knowing this universe, which is essentially today's vision of science. On the other hand, the empiricists' (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) vision of subjective perceptions limiting knowledge, of the need for faith to believe anything beyond immediate perceptions, of minds incapable of knowing much of anything, of dire skepticism, is the vision of anti-science.

See also naturalism.

further reading


Meyers, Robert G. 2006. Understanding Empiricism. McGill-Queen's University Press.

Popkin, Richard H. and Avrum Stroll. Skeptical Philosophy for Everyone (Prometheus Books, 2001).


Rationalism vs. Empiricism

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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