The Empiricists

The other major school of Enlightenment thought, deriving truth from experience.

Francis Bacon
To be is to be perceived
Limitations of drawing general conclusions from specific observations
Objects with different masses fall at the same rate
Derived from individual instances experienced by humans
Limits of human understanding
David Hume
Cogito ergo sum

Intro to Empiricism

Empiricism, another cornerstone of Enlightenment thought, championed observation and experience as the primary sources of knowledge. This approach diverged from rationalism, which posited that inner reason alone could uncover truth. For instance, John Locke’s Essay *Concerning Human Understanding* argued that humans are born as *tabulae rasae* or blank slates (without innate qualities), and that all knowledge is derived from sensory experiences.

In contrast to René Descartes’s deductive reasoning methods, empiricists such as David Hume favoured inductive reasoning based on empirical evidence. Hume’s scepticism led him to question the notion of causality itself; he contended that cause-and-effect relationships were merely habitual associations formed through repeated observations.


The scientific method exemplified the principles of empiricism by prioritizing experimentation and observation over abstract theorization. Pioneers such as the Elizabethan English philosopher and so-called ‘father of empiricism’ Francis Bacon (1561-1626) advocated for systematic data collection and analysis to advance human understanding of the natural world.

John Locke & *Tabula Rasa*: An Analysis

John Locke, a prominent English philosopher, revolutionized the understanding of human knowledge with his empirical philosophy. His ground-breaking *Essay Concerning Human Understanding* introduced the concept of the *tabula rasa* or blank slate, asserting that humans are born devoid of innate ideas and acquire knowledge solely through sensory experiences.


Locke’s theory of mind distinguished between primary qualities inherent in objects (such as size and shape) and secondary qualities perceived by individuals (such as colour and taste). He argued that while primary qualities exist independently, secondary ones depend on subjective perception. This distinction emphasized the role of experience in shaping our understanding of reality.

In challenging traditional notions about innate ideas and divine revelation, Locke’s empiricism laid the foundation for modern science. His emphasis on observation over abstract theorization contributed to the development of systematic data collection methods still employed today.

George Berkeley and Idealism


George Berkeley (1685-1753), an Irish philosopher, developed a radical form of empiricism known as idealism or immaterialism. Rejecting the existence of material objects independently of perception, he posited that reality consists solely of ideas and minds perceiving them. For example, a tree exists only when perceived by a conscious observer; otherwise, it ceases to be.

Berkeley’s philosophy aimed to resolve the problem of perception inherent in Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. He argued that all qualities are subjective experiences dependent on perceivers. Thus, reality is shaped entirely by individual perceptions rather than objective truths.

In his famous aphorism ‘esse est percipi’ (‘to be is to be perceived’), Berkeley encapsulated his belief in the primacy of mental experience over physical matter. This revolutionary perspective challenged prevailing Enlightenment notions about the nature of reality and contributed significantly to subsequent philosophical debates on epistemology and metaphysics.

David Hume and Scepticism

David Hume was another leading figure in the empiricist tradition. His scepticism about the reality of causality questioned the assumption that cause-and-effect relationships could be proven beyond experience. For example, he argued that observing one billiard ball striking another and causing it to move did not guarantee that this would always occur.


Hume’s problem of induction highlighted the limitations of drawing general conclusions from specific observations. He posited that even if all observed swans were white, it would be unjustified to assume all swans must be white. This challenged traditional notions of scientific certainty and laid the groundwork for later philosophers including Karl Popper (1902-1994).

The relationship between reason and emotion was central to Hume’s philosophy. He famously declared that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’ In other words, emotions drive human actions while reason merely guides them towards desired outcomes. This perspective contrasted with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality as humanity’s defining characteristic, but foreshadowed modern psychological theories on decision-making processes.

Empiricism & The Scientific Method

Empiricism’s emphasis on observation and experience laid the foundation for the scientific method, a systematic approach to acquiring knowledge. Francis Bacon, an early advocate of this methodology, stressed the importance of gathering data through careful observation and experimentation. His inductive reasoning approach (the Baconian method) allowed scientists to draw general conclusions from specific instances.


The scientific method consists of formulating hypotheses based on observations, designing experiments to test these hypotheses, and refining or discarding them based on results.

For example, Galileo’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment tested Aristotle’s theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. By dropping two spheres with different masses simultaneously, he demonstrated that they fell at the same rate – a major discovery that challenged conventional wisdom and exemplified empiricist principles in action.

Empiricism & Metaphysics

Empiricism’s impact on metaphysics was profound, as it challenged traditional notions of substance and universals.


The problem of universals faced scrutiny under empiricist thought. Locke, for instance, posited that our understanding of substances arises from experience rather than innate ideas and argued that we perceive objects through primary and secondary qualities, with the latter being subjective experiences.

David Hume also contended that abstract concepts like ‘redness’ or ‘justice’ were derived from individual instances experienced by humans. This perspective diverged from Plato’s theory of Forms, which asserted the existence of eternal, unchanging ideals independent of human perception.

Empiricism emphasized the crucial role of experience in determining reality’s nature, questioning metaphysical claims beyond observable phenomena. Berkeley’s idealism went so far as to reject material objects’ independent existence outside perception. Ultimately, empiricism reshaped metaphysics by prioritizing empirical evidence over the speculative reasoning upon which much metaphysical thought relied.

Empiricism & Epistemology


Empiricism’s influence on epistemology (closely related to its influence on metaphysics) is undeniable, as it redefined the nature and sources of knowledge.

Locke’s tabula rasa theory contrasted sharply with René Descartes’s rationalism, which had emphasized innate ideas and deductive reasoning. David Hume highlighted the limits of human understanding with his sceptical argument that cause-and-effect relationships could not be proven beyond experience, paving the way for Immanuel Kant’s synthesis of rationalism and empiricism in his *Critique of Pure Reason*.

The introduction of the scientific method also exemplifies empiricism’s impact on epistemology. Francis Bacon laid the groundwork for modern science by prioritizing empirical evidence over speculative thought or dogma.

Empiricism & Ethics

Empiricism’s influence also extended to ethics, with philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith exploring the foundations of morality. Hume posited that moral judgments stemmed from sentiment rather than reason, emphasizing the role of emotions in ethical decision-making. For instance, he argued that witnessing acts of kindness evokes feelings of approval, while observing cruelty elicits disapproval.

The concept of the moral sense emerged during this period. Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) contended that humans possess an innate ability to discern right from wrong through a ‘moral sense’. This idea paralleled John Locke’s tabula rasa theory, but applied specifically to ethical knowledge.


Empiricists also examined the nature of moral obligation. Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism, the ethical theory that asserted that the morality of a given action depends on its consequences for overall happiness or suffering. His ‘hedonic calculus’ provided a systematic method for evaluating actions based on pleasure and pain outcomes.

Critiques of Empiricism


Critics of empiricism, including rationalists like René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, argued that innate ideas were essential for understanding the world.

They contended that certain concepts, such as mathematical truths or logical principles, could not be derived solely from experience. For example, Descartes posited that knowledge of one’s own existence (‘Cogito ergo sum’) was an innate idea independent of sensory input.

Idealists like George Berkeley also stretched and challenged the principles of empiricism by taking them so far as to question material reality’s existence outside human perception. He famously asserted ‘esse est percipi’ (to be is to be perceived), arguing that objects only exist when they are observed. This radical view countered John Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities in empirical thought – a debate central to Enlightenment philosophy.

Empiricism's Legacy


The legacy of the turn towards empiricism is clear in today’s scientific and philosophical thought. The scientific method, rooted in empirical principles, remains the gold standard for knowledge acquisition. For instance, climate change research relies on data collection and analysis to inform policy decisions.

In philosophy, empiricist ideas continue shaping debates about perception and reality. Cognitive science explores how sensory input informs our understanding of the world – a direct descendent of John Locke’s *tabula rasa* theory. Moreover, Hume’s scepticism about causality resonates with quantum mechanics’ probabilistic nature.

Ethical theories such as utilitarianism still influence moral decision-making processes in areas such as healthcare resource allocation or environmental conservation efforts. Empiricism thus remains an essential framework for navigating complex questions across many disciplines today.

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