There are several theories in epistemology also known as the study of human knowledge and one of the theories states that sense experience is the only source of knowledge. Also known as empiricism, this theory is one of numerous contending observations that dominate various fields such as history, science, and philosophy in the study of human knowledge.
The theory gives emphasis to experience and substantiation sensory participation and awareness in particular, in the development of thoughts and ideas. Empiricism however challenges the concept of innate ideas which may in unique cases be deduced from empirical reasoning for instance in hereditary bias.
In addition, the philosophy of science which is a comparatively unrelated sphere of knowledge, integrates empiricism extensively by underscoring the view that that all assumptions and conjectures have to be tested against interpretations of the natural world, instead of being created only through an innate way of thinking, perception or disclosure.
The theory therefore asserts that the features of scientific knowledge in particular as discovered in research, be directly correlated to the evidence and hence science is perceived as a methodologically empirical form of study.
Empiricism in philosophy
Empiricism is a philosophical theory that connects knowledge to experience where experience is regarded as the sensory component of perception. The theory disagrees with other theories that support the notion that knowledge in any form exists outside experience (Walter 2008, 82).
Theories such as rationalism the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis which support the notion that there is the existence of intrinsic or instinctive knowledge or the subsistence of a priori knowledge, knowledge of necessary truths or any common ideologies that claim knowledge in any form is acquired through the use of reason are of an opposing essence to the empiricism theory of philosophy (Maxwell 1998, 56).
The theory’s primary argument is that nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses and hence human thoughts are regarded to be completely dependant upon experience.
Various philosophers agree with the empiricism theory though suggesting that rationalism and empiricism are not mutually exclusive thus reason can be used to acquire knowledge though it has to utilize the information provided by the senses(Ward, n.d). For instance we can be rationalists in art, arithmetic, music or a particular area of the given subjects while at the same time we can still be empiricists when it comes to the physical sciences or history (Walter 2008, 83).
If philosophers can be rationalists and empiricists at the same time then the organizational formats frequently used in philosophy need restructuring since early philosophers were either grouped as rationalists or empiricists but the two different categories are now shared among philosophers with a common agenda (Markie, 2008).
Fundamental empiricists on the other hand argue that experience is the only source of knowledge and have a different opinion of the relationship between experiences and thoughts that suggests that thoughts are themselves subjects of examination, perceived by the senses in their categorization (Maxwell 1998, 59).
Two of the most prominent empiricists namely John Locke and David Hume both held that all thoughts and ideas developed from sensual cues are gained through experience and human beings are all are born without any form of knowledge inspiring Hume to state that “all ideas derive from the sense experiences which they copy” (Hume, 2006).
Sense experience is the only source of knowledge due to the fact that we cannot conceive ideas devoid of an equivalent sense impression. This notion is supported by Hume’s observation that, “A blind man can form no notion of colors; a deaf man of sounds” (Hume, 2006).
In addition, human imagination without any sensory foundation is limited and hence human beings cannot visualize perpetuity since we have never experienced it or a similar event to it. However, it is easy for us to imagine a blue lion although we have never seen one because we are able to combine ideas and thoughts to form a more intricate thought (Ward, n.d).
Empiricism about a given area under discussion for instance history discards the analogous theories that support the notion that such knowledge is innate due to the fact that as long as we have knowledge in history, our knowledge is a posteriori meaning acquired and is reliant upon sense experience such as reading, listening and observation(Walter 2008, 84).
Markie, (2008) states that; “reasoning can make us realize the connection present between our ideas though the ideas themselves as well as any truths in relation to the external reality the ideas represent can only be achieved due to sense experience”. Hume adjusts the comprehension of the content of our thoughts to simplify the empiricism theory by associating thoughts with experience hence explicating the origin of our thoughts.
Through the study of Hume’s work, it is easy to tell between the two types of mental contents which are impressions and ideas (Ward, n.d). According to Walter 2008, impressions are the contents of our experiences that are currently in progress such as desires, way of thinking, emotions, needs among others, whereas ideas are the mental contents developed from impressions. Ideas are however not similar with the existence of both simple and complex ideas.
Simple ideas are basically replications of impressions while complex ideas are compounded or expanded forms of impressions. Consequently, provided that all our ideas are accordingly achieved through experience, various techniques can be used to establish the content of any idea in addition to the implication of any expression in use to articulate it (Maxwell 1998, 60).
For instance by regarding a philosophical term to be without a meaning or idea, then by finding out the impression that is the supposed source of the idea will substantiate the sense experience (Markie, 2008).
“Therefore, as long as experience is the source of all ideas, then our experiences also establish the contents of our knowledge, such as our knowledge of right and wrong as well as our knowledge of substance have their content verified by the experiences” (Maxwell 1998, 60). Furthermore, empiricists do not support the connotation of the subsequent Innate Concept thesis that suggests that we have innate ideas in any subject area hence concluding that sense experience is our only source of ideas and knowledge.
Empiricism compared to other theories
According to Maxwell 1998 (62), Empiricism and Rationalism differ fundamentally in principle though it has been deduced that the two theories simply diverge whenever they are set up to construe a similar subject.
For instance when discussing the truths about the external world, a rationalist with will claim that some external world truths are and have been known a priori since various ideas essential for that knowledge are and have to be innate moreover that this knowledge is more advanced than any knowledge that experience could offer(Ward, n.d).
An empiricist in contrast would argue that experience is the only source of information regarding the truths about the external world. However, the observations of philosophers are more refined and multifaceted and hence the annotations of the philosophers need to be viewed in isolation rather than categorize them as either empiricism or rationalism (Hume, 2006).
Locke for instance discards rationalism but also acknowledges the significance of the Intuition theory which supports our inherent knowledge of God and his being (Walter 2008, 85). Hume however states that our failure to give explanation as to how some thoughts with contents that can be characterized as rationalists though they are obtained through experience should not present the Innate Concept thesis as a viable option (Ward, n.d).
Such experiences are not able to sustain the content that various rationalists attribute to the consequent ideas and hence we should acknowledge a more restricted outlook of the contents for the thoughts and in so doing a more narrow view of our ability to explain and identify with the world (Markie, 2008).
There is also the Superiority of Reason thesis which empiricists adamantly decline to recognize due to the fact that reason does not offer any knowledge exclusively and hence it does not give more advanced knowledge. The Empiricism theory does not demand that we have empirical knowledge rather it involves the view that sole acquisition of knowledge can only be through experience.
Inconsistencies in the Empiricism theory
There are a number of errors which have been identified to be within the Empiricism theory the first discrepancy being in the statement itself due to the fact that we can in reality obtain some knowledge without the necessarily incorporating experience and this is referred to as a priori.
A priori is therefore the knowledge that can be gained without experience while the converse posteriori, is the knowledge that is obtained through experience. Supporters of rationalism argue against empiricism due to the fact that the hypothesis fails to offer provisions for the manner in which thought affords one with compartments which are used to systematize and process the thoughts, a process which is not necessarily derived from experience (Maxwell 1998, 63).
Priori knowledge which is the central form of knowledge in the Empiricism theory is conferred in three dimensions, intuition being one of the means by which such knowledge can be acquired (Ward, n.d). Intuitive knowledge is the understanding gained through instinct as we as reflexively without the necessity of reasoning.
The assumption for instance that wherever there is no property, injustice cannot exist there is not conceived through reasoning and is rather through natural feeling (Markie, 2008). Demonstration is also another source of a priori knowledge and the implication is that knowledge by conclusions is developed through arguments and subsequent agreements, for example it can be proven that a vehicle moves because of the engine (Walter 2008, 87).
Finally, innate knowledge is also a way in which priori knowledge can be obtained and hence human beings are not born as “Tabula rasa” or as a blank slate but instead human beings posses a little innate knowledge during birth. For instance after birth, humans have knowledge about the rational connectives as well as the aptitude to develop verbal communication (Hume, 2006).
According to Hume, 2006 “Words in their primary or immediate signification stand for nothing in the mind of him that uses them.” The underlying significance of this statement is that since words have their meaning rooted in selected sense impressions, a speaker never has the same meaning when he think he is communicating(Ward, n.d).
This argument is erroneous for the reason that a speaker’s words stand for his sense impressions which a listener cannot obtain while the listener’s words represent his sense impressions which are different from the speaker’s and which cannot be obtained by another(Walter 2008, 89).
Furthermore, the Empiricism theory also lacks to acknowledge the fact that that the human mind dynamically transforms the way we experience different objects (Markie, 2008). Human beings observe objects in a diversity of ways since the human mind processes the information in different ways depending on an individual’s past (Maxwell 1998, 65).
Ludwig Richter for example along with a number of his colleagues went to a Tivoli to paint an image of a precisely similar object. However, after the completion of their paintings, they compared their work and noted that every painting was uniquely different from the rest. The conclusion of the above experiment reveals that the human mind has a dynamic role in the way we experience things (Ward, n.d).
The empiricism theory was put together by a number of philosophers such as Aristotle, Robert Grosseteste, William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, John Stuart Mill and Gilles Deleuze.
The philosophers suggested that the mind is a “tabula rasa” or a “blank tablet” or “white paper” on which experiences create the knowledge that is stored in the mind. Also known as fundamental empiricism, this version of empiricism contradicts the notion that human beings have intrinsic knowledge or that knowledge can ever exist without orientation to experience.
The empiricist view is of the view that knowledge requires to be ultimately obtained through an individual’s sense experience for any information to be accurately presumed understood or concluded. The philosophical empiricism theory is normally an antithesis of the philosophical theory of rationalism which emphasizes that to a great extent, knowledge is gained through reason and without the help of the senses.
The difference between the two theories is however not clear-cut in the present philosophical studies due to the fact that Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz who were fundamental rationalists also supported some aspects of the empiricism theory such as the scientific application of empiricism. Stringent empiricists such as Locke also held the concept that some knowledge for instance the knowledge of God’s existence could be obtained priori through instinct and reasoning only.
However, other philosophers such as Rene Descartes have provided reasonable proof through the rationalism theory that there are several errors in the empiricism theory. Their arguments undoubtedly prove that not all knowledge is gained from sense experiences given that there are indeed some ideas that are obtained without experience such as an aptitude for communication and the belief of the existence of God.
Hume, David. 2006. “A Treatise of Human Nature.” [email protected]. Online. Available from: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92t/, accessed 27 April, 2010.
Markie, Peter.2008. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online. Online. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/#Rel, accessed 27 April, 2010.
Maxwell, Nicholas.1998. The Comprehensibility of the Universe: A New Conception of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walter, Kaufmann, and B. E. Forrest. 2008. From Plato to Derrida. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Ward, Teddy (n.d.), “Empiricism.” Online. Available from: http://personal.ecu.edu/mccartyr/american/leap/empirici.htm, accessed 27 April, 2010.