Empiricism is a form of epistemology, the study of nature and human knowledge, which states that all knowledge comes from experience gained through the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. This current understanding of the word first appeared in English in the early 1600s, from the Latin empiricus, “a physician guided by experience.” The term is derived from the Greek empeirikos, meaning “experienced,” from the root words en “in” and peira “trial/experiment.” Going back further is the Proto-Indo-European root per meaning “to try/risk.” The first empirics were a group of physicians who based their medical practice on their experience alone, rather than conventional theories. In the 1520s, an empiric referred to a untrained surgeon or “quack doctor,” which evolved into the pretenders, impostors or charlatans of the 1640s. A more trusted and legitimate meaning arose in the 1650s, as an empiric was “one with a medical sense,” and finally, the modern meaning and system emerged in 1796.
British Empiricism is associated mainly with the ideas of John Locke, and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) is regarded as its founding text. In his essay, Locke denies the existence of innate ideas and opposes rationalist claims that self-evident propositions can be derived solely from reason. He argues that humans begin life with minds that resemble a piece of “white paper,” on which sensory impressions, that come from life experience, are imprinted. Simple and complex ideas materialize from the sense-data used in the creation of these impressions. Simple ideas cannot be explained or broken down into smaller elements. Instead, like the elements of the periodic table, they are combined into complex ideas such as substances representing things in the real world (a person or a dog), qualities of substances (a tall brunette with a small, furry dog) and relations between substances (owner and pet). Empiricism explains that knowledge is the establishment of connections and associations compiled based on sensory observations.
Empiricism today, now commonly referred to as logical empiricism, is the belief that knowledge is associated with dispassionate and impartial observation of the world. It has come to symbolize a common-sense respect for the facts, and a distrust of speculation. Positivism is a modern form of empiricism which states that theology and metaphysics are imperfect methods of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on the experience of data, the observance of natural phenomena, and witnessed properties and relations (as verified by the empirical sciences). Empirical evidence is a source of knowledge acquired through experimentation. Integral to all modern science and the scientific method is that all evidence must be empirical, and that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations in the natural world. The standard positivist view has been that observation, experience, and experiment remain neutral and factual, regardless of competing theories. This view is often contrasted with rationalism, which holds that knowledge may be derived independently of the senses and through reason alone.
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