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Empiricism designates a set of philosophical theories which make sensitive experience the origin of all knowledge or belief and of all aesthetic pleasure. Empiricism is opposed in particular to innatism and more generally to “nativist” rationalism for which we would have knowledge, ideas or principles before any experience. Empiricism is at the origin of the associationist theory of mind in psychology, which explains the formation of mental representations by the conjunction of simple ideas.

Roger Bacon, Oxford University Museum
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(Roger Bacon, scholastic philosopher, precursor of empiricism in its modern form.)

Defended mainly by the philosophers Francis Bacon, John Locke, Condillac, George Berkeley, David Hume and scientists like Ibn Al Haytham, empiricism considers that knowledge is based on the accumulation of observations and measurable facts, of which one can to extract general laws by an inductive reasoning, going consequently from the concrete to the abstract.

Empiricism has implications not only in philosophy and epistemology, but also in various fields of study: logic, psychology, cognitive sciences, aesthetics and linguistics in particular.



(Sextus Empiricus, famous skeptic.)

Medicine and skepticism

Empiricism represented a philosophical current in antiquity. It was particularly evident in empirical medicine, which itself greatly influenced Sextus Empiricus. The sect of the Empiric, founded in the 3rd century BC by Philinos of Cos, rejected the central idea of ​​the medicine of the “dogmatists”, according to which one can determine the hidden causes of the diseases. Sticking to what is apparent, the Empiricists recognized only three procedures:

  • The αὐτοψία (autopsia): observation for oneself;
  • L’στορία (historia): observation made by others and reported in writing;
  • The “passage to the same”.

It does not appear, however, that this form of empiricism played a role in shaping the English-born movement, except perhaps for Hume, through the influence of skepticism.

Epicureanism: prenotions and simulacra

Epicurus’ theory of prenotions is close to empiricism, and was placed under this label by Kant. In epistemology, all knowledge arises from the sensation caused by the simulacra which are produced by external bodies.

Aristotle and tabula rasa

It is from Aristotle that John Locke takes up the conception of the mind as tabula rasa, the clean slate which receives impressions like wax. Indeed, Aristotle conceived of knowledge as the abstraction of intelligible forms from sensitive objects, the abstraction consisting in the erasure of particularities to obtain a universal definition. The soul therefore receives intelligible forms passively (although it contains them all potentially, in the state of possibilities): it is the natural object which is the direct cause of knowledge; sensation actualizes in the soul (intellect) the intelligible form (quiddity) which signifies in the natural object its rational structure or substance. Jean Philopo recalls this about the soul according to Aristotle: “Aristotle represents it by an unwritten tablet and names it literally the faculty of learning. Plato, however, represents it by a written tablet and calls it the faculty of learning by remembering”.

Middle Ages

As regards medieval thought, we could see in William of Ockham a precursor of empiricism, because he admits only singular entities in the world, that is to say facts which are objects of experience. Thus, all knowledge must ultimately be able to be reduced to an immediate and singular, “intuitive” experience. We can also mention Roger Bacon, for whom “no speech can give certainty, everything is based on experience.”

Renaissance: Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon(Francis Bacon, father of modern empiricism.)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is the father of empiricism in its modern form. He is the first to lay the foundations of modern science and its methods. In his study of false reasoning his best contribution has been in the doctrine of idols. Moreover, he writes in the Novum Organum (or “new logic” as opposed to that of Aristotle) ​​that knowledge comes to us in the form of objects of nature, but that we impose our own interpretations on these objects.

According to Bacon, our scientific theories are built around the way we see objects; the human being is therefore biased in his statement of hypotheses. For Bacon, true science is the science of causes. Opposing Aristotelian logic which establishes a link between general principles and particular facts, he abandons deductive thought, which proceeds from the principles admitted by the authority of the Ancients, in favor of the interpretation of nature, where experience really enriches knowledge. In short, Bacon advocates reasoning and a method based on experimental reasoning:

“The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes the middle course, it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.”

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