ARTICLE 47: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Empiricism

Group of young interns listening carefully to an experienced doctor of medicine

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I often wonder if the developers of paradigms were serious when they made claims like:

The only way in which you can learn is through experience, OR

You cannot learn anything from interviewing people, OR

External reality has no effect on behaviour.

Fortunately, most paradigms are quite flexible when it comes to the ways in which truth can be discovered.

And most, if not all of them, can be integrated.

Empiricism, however, is claimed by many to be an exclusivist paradigm.

Meaning that it cannot be integrated with other paradigms.

Or can it?

I discuss empiricism in this post.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience.

It means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or at least empirically based.

Evidence should be directly or indirectly observable by the senses.

Also, people must experience things before they will learn.

The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition is rejected.

Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

According to empiricism, people are born with empty brains, like a clean slate.

As people experience phenomena, the brain is filled by what they learn from experience.

Two learning processes take place –

The individual experiences a sensation and then reflects on the sensation.

Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated.

Events can be 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 if it is integrated with rationalist arguments.

First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists site, insofar as we have it in the first place.

However, the knowledge that we have was obtained through previous experiences.

Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality.

In that manner we can gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative, qualitative or mixed research methods.

Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism.

Because positivism is even more technicist in nature.

And secondly, positivism also makes a clear distinction between objective facts and values.

Thirdly, both positivism and empiricism regard sense data that is uncontaminated by value or theory as the ultimate objective.

Empiricism is sometimes used in association with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricism can also support scepticism as an alternative to rationalism.

Rationalists argue that, if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge, then we do not have them.

Empiricists do not agree with the rationalists’ account of how reason is the source of concepts and knowledge.

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.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events or phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists.

According to empiricism, people can learn without reasoning.

Empiricism provides for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences.

Most empiricists accept that learning is a continuous process.

Accumulating facts and knowledge are a second goal of what is called “naïve empiricism”.


The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from experience.

The mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience.

Knowledge must be deduced or inferred from actual events.

Reasoning and intuition are rejected as sources of learning.

Empiricists believe that innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

People are born with an empty brain that is filled by experiencing phenomena through the senses.

Two learning processes take place – experiencing and reflection.

Experience can be simulated.

Prior knowledge is accepted in naïve empiricism and if empiricism is integrated with rationalist thinking.

Any research method can use empiricism although quantitative research is favoured.

Empiricism can be associated with:

  • Most interpretivist paradigms.
  • Some technicist paradigms, notably positivism and rationalism.
  • Some critical paradigms, for example scepticism and structuralism.

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