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Modern empiricism

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Modern empiricism is a philosophical movement that originated in England. It has its roots in the 16th century and flourishes mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the sociologist of science Robert King Merton (in Social Theory and Social Structure, 1965), empiricism is said to have penetrated the scientific field through its close ties to Protestant and Puritan ethics. The development of the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660 by Protestants, is the culmination of this expression: “The combination of rationalism and empiricism which is so pronounced in the Puritan ethic forms the essence of the spirit of modern science,” says Merton.

Originally, empiricism could be conceived as a materialism (for Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes), insofar as it was one of the forms of opposition to scholasticism, at the birth of modern science (with Galileo). Although empiricism and materialism often go hand in hand, there is no necessary connection between the two (as shown by Berkeley’s immaterialism and James’s spiritualism).

Empiricism defined modes of knowledge derived from experience and logic that freed themselves from Revelation. Empiricism thus accompanied the birth of modern science, characterized by its mathematization and its massive use of the experimental method. Newton’s contribution to science is part of this empiricist intellectual context.

Thomas Hobbes(Thomas Hobbes, opponent of Cartesianism.)

Its main representatives are:

  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English politician and philosopher often considered the father of empiricism;
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English materialist philosopher;
  • Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Irish physicist and chemist, who was inspired by Francis Bacon, and was the father of natural philosophy;
  • John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher and founder of political liberalism;
  • George Berkeley (1685-1753), Irish bishop and philosopher who developed an “immaterialist” empiricism (there is no “matter” behind the phenomena that appear to us);
  • Voltaire (1694-1778), a writer who imported Locke’s ideas into France;
  • David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher who developed skeptical empiricism;
  • Denis Diderot (1713-1784), writer and encyclopedist who supported “enchanted materialism”;
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish economist disciple of Hume;
  • Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish politician and philosopher, theorist of empiricist aesthetics;
  • James Mill (1773-1836), Scottish philosopher influenced by Hume;
  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), son of the previous English economist and philosopher who developed Jeremy Bentham’s inspired utilitarianism (1748-1832);
  • William James (1842-1910), American philosopher who developed a radical empiricism that he called “pragmatism”;
  • Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), logical empiricism (cf. Vienna Circle);
  • and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), logical empiricism.

William James(William James, inventor of pragmatism with Peirce.)

The French and English Enlightenment are predominantly empiricist, in contrast to the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung), which are less hostile to religion and more idealistic.

Empiricism differs quite clearly from positivism, in that the latter places more emphasis on the explanation of phenomena by mathematical formulations. It is true that Auguste Comte (1798-1857) based his philosophy in part on that of Francis Bacon, but this is not enough to find many commonalities between empiricism and positivism.

Radical empiricism is a variant advocated by William James (1842-1910) and which states, like classical empiricism, that nothing should be added to experience, but also, what makes it specific, that nothing must be taken away from him: we have an experience of relations, which are as real as the terms of experience.

Nevertheless, empiricism should not be confused with the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce (the latter spoke of “pragmaticism”) or Richard Rorty. Empiricism is based on experience, pragmatism on action.

Controversy between rationalism and empiricism

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, portrait by Christoph Bernhard Francke
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

(Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a supporter of rationalism.)

Empiricism is often defined as opposed to rationalism or idealism, but it must be nuanced, because the opposition is not simply between proponents of reason and proponents of experience, since empiricists do not deny that reason can play a role in the process of knowledge. They only reject the idea that there can be purely rational or a priori knowledge, and they emphasize the experimental method.

Moreover, in some cases (for Berkeley in particular), empiricism does not support the thesis of the existence of the outside world independently of us, and instead defends idealism on this point (but it is obviously not from a transcendental idealism in the manner of Kant or speculative in the manner of Hegel). It is an idealism that opposes physicalism.

Empiricism has come into controversy with the rationalism of:

  • René Descartes (who argued in favor of the ingenuity of ideas);
  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who argued for the existence of analytical truths independent of sensible experience);
  • Emmanuel Kant (who argued in favor of the idea that experience would be conditioned by a priori structures of subjectivity, such as space, time, and categories, making possible what he called synthetic a priori judgments) .

Contemporary posterity of empiricism

Empiricism had an important posterity in analytical philosophy: logical empiricism (Vienna Circle), Popper’s refutationism, evolutionary epistemology, Quine’s pragmatism, and analytical aesthetics stemmed in particular.

Empiricism has not been without posterity in continental philosophy. His influence is felt in Bergson’s philosophy, through his reading of James and the sensualists, and in Deleuze’s philosophy, which devoted a book to Hume, thus creating the notion of “transcendental empiricism.” For phenomenology, Husserl draws inspiration from Mill during his psychological period (in Philosophy of Arithmetic, 1891), and pays homage to Hume in Ideen I (1913), while seeking to refute it (phenomenological period). ).

Relationship to established religion

From a religious point of view, the empiricism and agnosticism that may result from this were condemned by Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi.

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