According to empiricism, the foundation and the first source of knowledge are found in experience. For certain empiricists like George Berkeley, who thus take up a nominalist thesis, only singular objects and phenomena are real. Empiricism in general, however, admits the existence of concepts, images or syntheses of images resulting from experience and the association of ideas. The mind is then conceived as a tabula rasa on which sensitive impressions are imprinted. Human knowledge is thus derived from experience, there are no innate ideas which would be present in the mind from birth, or in the soul from all eternity (this last thesis is that of Plato: it is knowledge as reminiscence).
Theses and problems
Empiricists answer two questions: 1) what is the origin of knowledge?, and 2) what validates a theory?.
This first question makes it possible to avoid constructing a complex speculative metaphysical system. Indeed, the empiricists (in particular John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) propose to analyze the powers of the human understanding, rather than to question the metaphysical structure of the world without this preliminary question, essential according to them. The argument is that before seeking to know the world, we must already begin by knowing our own instrument of knowledge of the world, the mind, in order to delimit its capacity and not to exceed it. This is how empiricism can lead to an ethics, a wisdom: not to seek to know what is inaccessible to us forever.
Hume responds to these two problems in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), thus synthesizing the empiricist position inherited from Locke and announcing that of Carnap.
To the question of the origin of knowledge, Hume replies that all ideas contained in the human mind are copies of original sensations. The immediate impression is first in the process of knowledge, then come the imagination and the memory. Imagination consists of the anticipation of a perception. However, the human mind can only anticipate perceptions it already knows. Hume rejects the idea of a radical imaginary that would precede sensation, contrary to the thesis that Castoriadis would later develop. As for the memory, it consists of the recollection of a past perception, already lived. Here again, the sensation is primary.
Hume presents two arguments to justify this conception:
- There is no idea in the human mind that cannot be traced back to a sensation that originated it;
- A blind person cannot conceive colors (Molyneux problem).
With regard to general ideas, the empiricist position often joins that of nominalism. Empiricism, including that of Hume, considers that every simple idea relates to a particular sensation, and that every complex idea can be broken down into simple ideas which themselves relate to a particular sensation. This means that there is no “pure” idea, independent of experience. Even the most general and abstract concepts are representations drawn from experience, or else they are just empty fictions that are devoid of meaning. This is how empiricist philosophy has been called “psychologism”: the fundamental thesis of psychologism is that all thought is only a subjective representation. There would therefore be no general or pure or objective or independent ideas of the subject who thinks them.
Psychology and history
Empirical philosophy thus emphasizes the way in which the knowing subject perceives the world and feels the emotions, to the detriment of speculation on the essence of the world or on innate ideas, which for Hume is only a theoretical void and misleading jargon. Empirical psychology will notably develop associationism or the theory of the association of ideas. Hume defines the power and freedom of the mind as the ability to compose complex ideas with simple ideas, drawing inspiration from the theory of Locke, one of the first to develop associationism. The mind cannot create or invent ideas ex nihilo, but it can mix and match those it has obtained through experience to form new ones.
Similarly, empiricism shows great interest in history as a science of properly human experience. Hume himself will do the work of a historian: he will deliver to posterity The History of England (1754-1762).
Method and logic
In terms of method, the empiricists developed an original way of solving problems.
Hume thus proposes a simple method which, according to him, will make it possible in the future to solve all the thorny philosophical problems. It consists of finding what impression this supposed idea (the problem idea) derives from. This method is a principle of economy, because it is simple and yet allows, according to empiricists, to solve most problems. Any discourse, whether scientific or philosophical, and whatever its degree of complexity, must always be able to be reduced to a raw fact, a pure experience, a singular and immediate object of sensation. If not, then this discourse is simply empty, meaningless fiction. We already found this idea in William of Ockham (in the Sum of Logic), for whom a sign only had value if it could suppose for a singular object in a proposition.
This method nevertheless presupposes a distinction between facts and thoughts. It postulates that there are pure facts on the one hand, and on the other general signs used by human understanding to represent the world. There are therefore two ways to analyze the validity of a thought: first, to question its logical coherence (this is the order of “relational” or analytical truths), second, to question its relation to a raw fact ( this is the order of “factual” or synthetic truths). The whole question will then be to determine the status of these analytical truths which do not depend on experience. For the most radical empiricists (or nominalists), analytical truths are true but are also empty, they teach us nothing. Only synthetic truths teach us something about the world.
This distinction between facts and thoughts partly explains the development of empiricism in its logical form, in Carnap for example. Logical empiricism develops the double requirement to verify the language used by logical analysis (detecting contradictions and tautologies) and by possible reference to a singular and immediate object of experience (or verifiability by “verificationist” criterion). This further explains the primacy of the philosophy of language, including in early Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus), as well as in the epistemological conceptions shared by the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Most of the difficulties in philosophy would have for origin a confusion as for the employed terms, which it is necessary to clarify using the logical and experimental tools.
The debate is therefore quite complex between supporters of “psychologism” (there are no pure ideas independent of sensations and emotions), of logical empiricism (there are non-psychological formal laws of thought which organize the discourse science and invalidate metaphysical discourse) and “Platonism” (there are logical objects such as numbers that are independent of experience and have meaning in themselves).
Empiricism, for example that of Hume or John Stuart Mill, thus developed an inductive logic, which consists of the generalization towards a natural law starting from particular data of the experiment. Such type of reasoning only leads to probable knowledge (that the sun will rise tomorrow is an assumption), there is no “necessary connection” between two facts. In Hume, for example, causal reasoning is actually based on habit. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow because it has always been so. However, the more I observe the occurrence of the same phenomenon, the more my subjective belief in the reiteration of this phenomenon is reinforced. Thus, if induction does not allow any certainty and cannot found any universal and necessary law, the concomitant and repeated observation of two events gradually leads, via associationism (that is to say the association of ideas in the mind), to the formation of the idea of causality.
Theory of the sublime versus classicism
The book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) by the Irish philosopher Burke (1729-1797) can be considered the empiricist manifesto of aesthetic philosophy. We can add Hume’s essays on aesthetics.
Classical aesthetics, inspired by Plato’s Symposium, conceived of only one aesthetic value, beauty, and its negative, ugliness. The beautiful was conceived in terms of harmony, symmetry, proportion, regularity, order and measure. Empirical aesthetics will add a second positive aesthetic value, the sublime. The sublime is a value characterized by disharmony, dissonance, excess, disproportion, dissymmetry, irregularity. Where the beautiful produced the feeling of serenity in the soul, the sublime produces violent passion, the alternation of pain and satisfaction (without arousing terror). The sublime will find its most absolute artistic application in romanticism, which will exalt passion and excess in the human soul (artistic genius, passionate love, the solitary self or political revolution).
For classical aesthetics, the beautiful was a concept. This can be referred to as “intellectual art” or “aesthetic intellectualism”. For example, in antiquity, music was ranked among the four sciences of the quadrivium. It was a science of harmony and measure, as Saint Augustine describes it in his De Musica.
On the contrary, the empiricist aesthetic conceives the beautiful and the sublime as inner feelings. These are representations made by the soul during aesthetic experience. The beautiful refers to a feeling of pleasure and calm, while the sublime refers to a feeling of pleasure mixed with pain, or to a contradictory alternation of feelings. Taste is then no longer an intellectual notion, but concerns the sensible impression and the feeling, defined by the empiricists as the truest and most lively ideas of the mind.
The relativism of taste
This conception of taste in terms of feelings could lead to a relativistic conception of art, legitimizing the popular adage “Tastes and colors, we do not discuss”. This adage means that a thing is never beautiful absolutely or according to objective criteria (such as symmetry or other criteria based on mathematics, following the Greek conception of art and canon), but that it is beautiful. according to the very personal subjectivity of the observer. There is therefore no rational and reasoned debate possible to determine whether a work of art is beautiful or not. Indeed, an emotion or a sensation is always something intimate, which will be different from the emotion that another feels. If “beautiful” comes down to a feeling experienced in front of the work of art (or in front of a natural thing), then “beautiful” is a very subjective notion.
Voltaire develops this aesthetic relativism in his article “Beau” from the Dictionnaire philosophique. He attacks in particular the Platonic conception of Beauty (in terms of quasi-mystical intellectuality). He opposes it with a completely empirical and subjectivist conception:
“Ask a toad what beauty is, the great beauty, the to kalon. He will answer you that it is his toad with two big round eyes coming out of his little head, a wide and flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back. Ask a negro from Guinea; beauty for him is black, oily skin, sunken eyes, a flat nose. Ask the devil; he will tell you that beauty is a pair of horns, four claws, and a tail. Finally consult the philosophers, they will answer you with rigmarole; they need something that conforms to the archetype of beauty in essence, to kalon. ”
There is no disinterested artistic pleasure, since we find beautiful what produces pleasure in us, including sexual excitement (following Voltaire’s example of the sexual attraction between the toad and its female).
Beauty is therefore a feeling of pleasure, not an intellectual concept of harmony:
“[…] to call anything beauty, it must cause you admiration and pleasure. He agreed that this tragedy had inspired him with these two feelings, and that this was the to kalon, the beautiful.”
In conclusion, it is useless to theorize beauty as if it were a mathematical or purely intellectual concept (like the number or the triangle, for example, which are objective entities independent of experience): beauty is relative, and the philosopher “[…] saved himself the trouble of composing a long treatise on the beautiful”. This essentially negative text by Voltaire leads to skepticism as to the possibility of establishing an aesthetic standard.
Empirical aesthetics will be studied and criticized by Kant in the Critique of Judgment (1790). He will recognize his debt to Burke, but will try to go beyond his position by conceiving the beautiful as a harmony between imagination and understanding, and the sublime as a passage from harmony to disharmony and vice versa, concerning this time the free play of imagination and reason (as a faculty which aspires to infinity, contrary to finite understanding). Kant then reintroduces intellectual work into aesthetic experience, against the empiricists who had devalued it. This allows him to propose a solution to the relativism of the judgment of taste: if the understanding comes into play in aesthetic judgment, this means that it is possible to establish a universal and disinterested notion of beauty (valid for all, regardless of particular subjectivity): “Is beautiful that which pleases universally without concept”.