4 September 2016

Empiricism: the one legged philosophy

Empirical observation alone cannot provide the basis for knowledge.

The term empiricism (adjective empirical) is used in two senses. As a philosophy, it means that all knowledge is acquired by means of the senses (sight, sound, taste touch and smell). According to this view, any search for knowledge is only meaningful if it uses terms and statements which relate to things that are experienced. Put simply, the exclusive empiricist believes that all valid knowledge is reducible to the formula OBSERVATION + LOGIC BASED ON OBSERVATION.

An empirical statement on the other hand is merely a chunk of information (e.g. The cheese is on the table) which can be deemed true of false by empirical enquiry. One doesn’t need to embrace the whole philosophy of empiricism to accept that testing against the world can verify, qualify or falsify a statement. In other words, it is possible to believe – and rightly so – that the tools and methods for acquiring knowledge include, but are not limited to, empirically acquired information plus logical analysis.


The problem with empiricism as an exclusive philosophy of knowledge is that it is incomplete. The point can be made with a simple example. Of course we cannot know in the stranger's house whether the cheese is on the table or not without looking or being informed by a reliable source. But in order to ask the question or understand the answer we must have pre-observation notions of at least three things: what cheese is, the concept of “on-ness” and an understanding of “table.” In other words, any information coming from the world to be held in the knowledge seeker's head requires the observer to have pre-existing concepts in his or her head, if he or she is to understand it.

Taking a step backwards, we can also pose another problem for empiricism. True, the cheese may be on the table, but that observation is only one of thousands that we could have made when we looked at the room. The very fact that we asked that question and not another (e.g. Is the table square?) is determined by considerations which are not themselves empirical. It is foolish to think that anyone can understand something simply by amassing millions of facts without being guided in the search or by prioritising the relevance of such facts.

Anything in the world which we seek to understand does not just consist of static imagery but is in a state of movement and change. For that reason, the knowledge seeker is interested in the cause of change; e.g. why did the ball bounce when dropped. The mere fact that X is followed by Y cannot prove cause: night follows day but is not the cause of it. Theory is always required to explain causal connections because cause itself can never be observed. (Of course empirical observation and testing can disprove a cause, but not establish one)

It follows from what has been said above that theory must provide at least three things to supplement empirical observation. First theory must develop a network of concepts which are capable of representing things in the world; second theory must select the kind of information we need to look for, if we are to understand the world or some part of it; and thirdly, it must attribute causes to phenomena. Empirical observation on the other hand fills our conceptual categories with meaning as well as confirming, qualifying and falsifying any statements we make about the world.

Theory, then, enables empirical observation, but it is also the case that empirical observation enriches and develops our theoretical knowledge. Thus just as there is no such things as an empirical statement which does not embody theoretical ones, so every concept and theoretical statement contains elements of empirical observation.

The practical result of all this is that a proper methodology for the investigation of phenomena in the world has to get the facts and the theory right.

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