Research Article 7: Empiricism

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. As the name and philosophy imply, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

According to empiricism, a person is born with an empty brain, like a clean slate, which is then filled by what he or she learns by experiencing things. Two learning processes take place – the individual experiences a sensation, after which she or he reflects on it. Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from the experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience. Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated, things that happened to them and observations that they made. Experience can also be simulated through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. The knowledge that we have, however, was obtained through previous experiences that we had. Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality and in that manner gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative or qualitative research or a mixture of the two approaches. Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism. A clear distinction is made between facts (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. This ties in closely with the positivist paradigm.

Empiricism, however, is sometimes used together with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism[1] as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[2] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences.

Empiricism is in opposition to structuralism because empiricism believes that learning is derived from gaining experience while structuralism focuses on interrelationships between objects, concepts, and ideas. More importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events and phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists. This implies that people can learn in an empiricist manner and, based on such knowledge continue further learning in a structuralist manner, i.e. not starting off with a “clean slate”.

Then again, empiricism does provide for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences. Not accepting that learning is a continuous process would have rendered empiricism invalid and illogical. Accumulating facts and knowledge is the second goal of empiricism. This is popularly called “naive empiricism”.[3]

In summary, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deduced or inferred from actual events that people can experience through their senses. The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition is rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

[1] Scepticism, sometimes also spelled “skepticism”, questions the validity of some or all human knowledge. It does not refer to any one school of philosophy, which is why it is not discussed separately as a paradigm in this book.

[2] Accessed on 11/07/2016.

[3] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 8.

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