The Empiricism in Great Britain

Jornada Interdisciplinar del Barroco
Colegio El Romeral (Attendis)
Málaga, 14 de mayo de 2008

Rahul Rachwani

Good afternoon, now we are going to talk about empiricism. I’m going to talk as clear as possible so everybody can follow my speech.


The word empiricism has a dual etimology: a greek background, and a latin background (exprentia) from which we derive experience.

Normally when we use the word empiric we refer to practical experience and opposed to instruction in theory.

     Thomas Hobbes   John Locke   David Hume


Once understood the etimology of empiricism, we can expose its definition:

Philosophical point of view:

In philosophy generally, empiricism is an epistemological concept, or a theory of knowledge, emphasizing the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, while discounting the notion of innate ideas.

Scientific point of view:

Empiricism is a theory of knowledge which emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to evidence, especially as formed through deliberate experimental arrangements. It is a fundamental requirement of scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.

Philosophical usage

The doctrine of empiricism was first explicitly formulated by John Locke in the 17th century. Locke argued that the mind is a tabula rasa (white paper) on which experience leaves its marks.

Aristotle took experience as the as yet unorganized product of sense perception and memory. This appears to be a common philosophical conception of the term. Memory is required so that what is perceived may be retained in the mind or remembered. When we say that we have learned something from experience we mean that we have come to know of it by the use of our senses. We have experience when we are sufficiently aware of what we have discovered in this way. Another connected sense of the term is the perception of feelings, sensations, and etc. as sense experiences. Awareness of these experiences is something that happens to us and it is in this sense passive. The statement that experience is the source of knowledge means that knowledge depends ultimately on the use of the senses and on what is discovered through them.

It seems an interesting parallel to note that just as the term «experience» is ultimately derived from the term «empiricism,» empiricists maintain that all knowledge is ultimately derived from experience-sense experience.

Such empiricism denies that humans have innate ideas or that anything is knowable without reference to experience, ergo for any knowledge to be properly inferred or deduced, it is to be gained ultimately from one’s sense-based experience.

Empiricism vs. rationalism

Empiricism is distinguished from the philosophical tradition of rationalism, which holds that human reason apart from experience is a basis for some kinds of knowledge. Knowledge attainable by reason alone, prior to experience, is called a priori knowledge; knowledge based upon experience is called a posteriori knowledge. For instance, «black cats are black» is an example of a priori knowledge. It is a tautology; its denial would be self-contradictory. «Desks are brown» is an example of a posteriori knowledge. It is not necessarily true unless all desks are by definition brown and to deny it would not be self-contradictory. We would refer to experience to settle the matter. These last statements are also referred to as analytic and synthetic statements respectively. Rationalists claim that knowledge can be derived from certain a priori truths by deduction. Empiricists claim that for human beings there is no pure reason and that all knowledge is a posteriori and derived from sense experience by induction.

On the side of rationalism are philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Leibnez, and Spinoza to name a few. Plato, perhaps the most well known, profoundly distrusted the senses as a source of knowledge. He argued that knowledge can have as its object only that which is changeless, and since the physical world is ever-changing, one cannot have knowledge of it. He maintained that there is a changeless and perfect nonphysical world of «Forms,» a world of concepts or properties like whiteness, justice, and beauty. Only reason can provide knowledge of this world of Forms; one cannot be aware of it by using one’s senses. Next we turn to the Empiricists.


Some of the most important philosophers commonly associated with empiricism include Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume.

History of empiricism:

As we can see, we can classify the british empirists by their time appearance in the baroque.

Now we are going to consider each of them individually

I. Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

     Francis Bacon was a student of law and politics. He had important offices conferred on him by Question Elizabeth and James I. He was made Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans, and became Lord Chancellor of England. In 1621 he was accused of accepting gifts from litigants in his official capacity as judge. Found guilty he was sentenced to imprisonment, heavily fined, deprived of office, but received the King’s pardon, and retired from public life. His chief works are the Essays (1597), The Advancement of Learning (1605), Cogitata et visa (1612), and Novum Organum (1620).

Knowledge is the power of establishing the dominion of man over the earth. To arrive at this knowledge, we must study «natures» with the intention of grasping their «forms.» For Bacon «natures» are the natural phenomena of heat, sound, light, etc.; «forms» are the immanent forces of the natural phenomena.

«Instauratio Magna» (The Great Restoration)

Bacon, living at the time of first discoveries of modern physics, became an enthusiastic innovator in the methods of physical science. According to him, former ages had not made many discoveries because of their use of the syllogism of Aristotle, which is an inept means for scientific research. Bacon held that the natural sciences needed a new method, and that through this method discoveries could be directly attempted.

«Novum Organum»

The first and best part of the Novum Organum aims at freeing the mind of all the prejudices («idols») which prevent a successful study of natural phenomena. These prejudices are four:

Idols of the tribe, or prejudices arising from human nature;
Idols of the cave, or prejudices coming from the psychic condition of the human soul;
Idols of the marketplace, or prejudices resulting from social relationships;
Idols of the theater, or prejudices deriving from false philosophical systems.
The study of natural phenomena must be made through three different «tables»:

The table of presence, that is, the list of cases wherein the phenomenon under investigation is present;
The table of absence, the list of cases wherein the phenomenon under study does not appear;
The table of degrees, the listing of the increase or decrease of the phenomenon in question.
The use of these tables should show the «form» of the phenomenon, or some provisory hypothesis.


Bacon was a great admirer of Telesio, Campanella, and Galileo. He opposed the ancient authorities, Aristotle, and the Scholastics. He abandoned a priori speculation and emphasized observation by experimental procedure. The inductive method was a new way of reaching knowledge, a new logic, a «novum organum.» He maintained that our knowledge is full of prejudices, whims, preferences, idols. The idols of the mind must be freed and cleared. Induction must discover the «forms,» or true differences, of a given nature. The most important causes or laws are forms which are discovered by induction. «Forms» are «essential natures»; the world is a collection of forms more or less obscured by their embodiments in Nature and the scientist must bring them to light. The «forms» resemble Anaxagoras’ qualitative atoms, which are related and external.

II. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

   Thomas Hobbes was the son of a clergyman, educated at Oxford, and a student of Aristotelian philosophy and Scholasticism. He traveled extensively in Europe as companion and tutor to English nobles. He became tutor of Lord Cavendish (through whom he developed a loyal friendship for the Stuarts). Rebellion and revolution were taking root in England. The revolution of 1688-89 took place in the reign of James II, resulting in his expulsion and the seating of William and Mary on the English throne. The execution of the Stuart King, Charles I (in 1649) had given monarchical absolutism its deathblow. The Cromwellian insurrection (1642-1652) had led to democratic reforms and Parliament became a ruling body.

Hobbes entered this unsettled area of public life as a political writer, moralist, ontologist, and psychologist. He discarded Greek philosophy and contended with his older contemporary, Francis Bacon, that philosophy should become a science and a practical utility. He wanted factual knowledge of the world through mathematics which should aid the science of his day. His greatest work is The Leviathan (1651).

Hobbes revives the Nominalism of Duns Scotus, goes back to Democritus and Galileo, but finds harmony in the State, in absolute government (monarchy), or in the assembly of men protecting the State (aristocracy, democracy). To these forms of government the State gives authority. Hobbes is famous for his statement «homo homini lupus est,» (every man is a wolf to every other man).

Hobbes’ philosophical system is a synthesis of materialism and Rationalism. The fundamental points of his system are:

All reality is matter and motion;
Intellectual, moral and political life are the object of mathematical calculation.

Theory of Knowledge

All human knowledge is restricted to sensation. Concepts are the representation of common qualities which speech keeps under a single phantasm. Reason operates on these concepts, dividing and composing them mathematically. Science is the knowledge of these mathematical operations.


Hobbes’ metaphysics is founded on matter and motion from within; this intrinsic motion has given rise to a diversity of realities, including life and the human soul. Emotional life draws its origin from sensation. Man tends naturally to pleasure; but this tendency must be rationalized by calculation, in order that it may bring greater pleasure. This is possible only in the State.

Hobbes is a complete materialist. The mind is a brain substance, motion in the brain. Images and ideas are motions in the brain. The universe is particles of matter in motion. Particles of moving matter form constellations, some of which are our bodies. Sensations dies down and imagination results. Sensations enable man to observe but the real world is never observed; it consists of absolute qualities.

Politics in Theory

The State arose from a contract. At first man lived on natural egoism, which drove everyone to procure the maximum of pleasure — for man by nature has the right to everything. The search for the maximum of pleasure generated a universal war. Thus there was no security for anyone. Under these conditions reason made a precept: man must seek peace and, once it is obtained, must keep it. In order to obtain peace, reason showed that:

No one must retain his natural rights;
A contract must be made by which everyone renounces his natural rights in favor of the sovereign, who has then the power of ruling over all members of society.
Politics in Practice

Hobbes argued against the English revolution. The Roundheads (Puritans) declared the King could do wrong and they protested the power of the monarchy (and papal authority). As Protestants they denied any mediation between man and God. In politics they wanted nothing to come between themselves and the ends of human conduct. To Hobbes, legal execution of rulers was a crucifixion and he becomes, therefore, an absolutist in the theory of the State.

III. John Locke (1632-1704)

   John Locke studied philosophy, natural science, and medicine at Oxford. He appreciated the system of Descartes but was repelled by the lingering Scholasticism in Oxford. From 1666 to 1683, Locke was in the service of the Earl of Shaftesbury as tutor to the family. He followed the Shaftesbury family into exile in Holland. After the deposal of James II he returned to England (1689) and held several important offices. The years of Locke’s life were stirring and changing. He was born during the reign of Charles I, and he lived through the period of the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the dethronement of James II, the reign of William and Mary, to the accession of Queen Anne. Locke was the official English philosopher of his age. Men turned to him as an intellectual pontiff.

His chief works are: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Two Treatises on Government (1690), Letters Concerning Toleration (1689 ff.), Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

Locke was an analytical thinker. His main interest was in illuminating knowledge, examining its validity pro and con. The metaphysical factors of mind were of less account as a problem to him. He was the first to give a logic for Empiricism. Granted this, it would be impossible to construct a metaphysics of objective realities. But Locke, prescinding from what he had established in the question of knowledge, attempts a demonstration of the existence of God, of the world, and of the knowing subject.

Locke possessed three great habit of mind:

Love of free independent thought which had been pushed by Puritanism;
The scientific habit of attempting to prove everything by nature and fact (like Bacon);
The sober religious mind of the Englishman which led him to moderation and caution and typified the century following his death.
Theory of Knowledge

In opposition to Descartes, Locke denied that there are innate ideas. The human intellect is like a clean sheet of paper (tabula rasa) on which nothing has yet been written. Everything that is written thereon takes its origin from experience. Experience is twofold, external and internal. The former, called sensation, gives us the ideas of the qualities of the supposed external objects; the latter, called reflection, gives us the ideas of the operations which the mind performs on the data of sensation. Locke distinguishes «primary» qualities (bulk, number, figure, situation and motion) from «secondary» qualities (colors, sounds, etc.); the former are objective, while the latter are subjective.

Ideas may be simple or complex. Simple ideas are «uncompounded appearances,» such as whiteness, softness. They are atomic and externally related. Complex ideas are of three classes:

Ideas of substance, which are conceived of as stable support for the sensible qualities;
Ideas of mode, which are conceived of as a form or property of things;
Ideas of relationship, which are conceived of as the connecting of two or more ideas with one another.
General ideas are those collecting many sensations.

Value of Knowledge

Logical Value of Ideas. Logically valid ideas may be obtained either by intuition or demonstration. The first is achieved when the mind, comparing two or more ideas, sees immediately their agreement or disagreement; the second is achieved when the mind sees the agreement of the ideas by reverting to some intermediary idea. The existence of external objects, for instance, requires demonstration, which is achieved by the intermediary idea of passivity. Truth obtained by demonstration are inferior to those of intuition.

Metaphysical Value of Ideas. In spite of his phenomenalism, Locke believed that he could demonstrate the existence of objective reality:

The existence of our being is known, according to Locke, intuitively, through reflection — but reflection gives us the idea of the operations of the mind, and hence can tell nothing of the substance of the human soul;
The existence of God is proved by the principle of causality — but the principle of causality for Locke has its value in the logical and not in the ontological order;
The existence of things sensed is proved by the fact that we are passive to sensation — but the mind is not passive in forming complex ideas, and things sensed are complex ideas.

In ethics Locke defends a utilitarianism whose laws are rational. Moral laws must have a due sanction in order to restrain man from his irrational tendencies. Opposed to liberty, Locke defends determinism in regard to the will.


Society is the result of a contract. Locke, in opposition to Hobbes, states that man in the state of nature did not live in a wild condition, but directed himself by a notion of the fundamental rights of life. The contract of society was made to better guarantee the fundamental rights of human life. The sovereign who fails in defending such rights can be dismissed by the subjects.

The Persistence of Locke’s Philosophy

Locke’s teaching, like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and others, has extended over the years:

His Essay Concerning Human Understanding was the first comprehensive theory of knowledge attempted by modern thinkers. It produced the critical work of Berkeley, Hume, Kant.
His psychology became the source of English associationism (Browne and Hartley), and French sensationalism (Condillac and Helvetius).
His ethical philosophy continued with Shaftesbury, Hutchenson, Ferguson, Hume, and Adam Smith.
His theory of education influenced Rousseau and his followers.
His political ideas were continued in Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau (social contract).
His religious zeal found echo in the English and French Deists.

The positive contributions of John Locke to the Perennial Philosophy

One thing Locke did in a masterly way. He refuted innatism, the theory that our knowledge is inborn, and that it advances in us, not by the acquiring of anything from without, but by its inward growth or development. Locke also holds that rights can be determined from the relations that exist between an infinitely intelligent being (God) and a rational but dependent being. The moral norms are hence rational, and are identified with the divine right and then with natural right. Moral laws must have a due sanction (rewards and punishment) which is imposed on the will in such a manner as to restrain man from diverging from the tendency that leads to his own well-being. Locke is considered the founder of liberal politics, and his influence during the centuries following his lifetime has been great in the area of political philosophy. Apart from his refutation of innatism and his contributions to liberal politics, Locke’s contribution to philosophy is negligible and much of his philosophy is confusing and anti-realistic.

See the essay: The Origins of Intellectual Insanity: What is Wrong with Locke’s Philosophy?

Birth April 26, 1711(1711-04-26) (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Death August 25, 1776 (aged 65) (Edinburgh, Scotland)

IV. David Hume (1711-1776)

   David Hume was born in Edinburgh, studied law, and held various public offices. He lived much of his time in France as a member of the English embassy. His chief works are: Treatise Upon Human Nature (his most important work, written 1739-1740 during his residence in France), Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

Hume accepts the empiricism of John Locke and develops it logically to its extreme conclusions by denying the objective value of the principle of causality and the existence of any substance, either material or spiritual.

Theory of Knowledge

No knowledge is possible except that of the sensations. The fundamental elements of this knowledge are:

Impressions, i.e., actual sense perception;
Ideas, i.e., copies of impressions, both subjective and phenomenal.
Impressions and ideas may be connected with one another to form a complexity through the fundamental laws of association. These complexities suffice to explain all things both in the material and spiritual world.

Negation of Metaphysics and the Sciences

Causality, the fundamental principle of metaphysics and the sciences, is a complex idea, and hence is produced by associations of the mind. Hume reduces the relation between A (cause) and B (effect) to the chronological association of the two ideas A and B, and denies any necessary connection between them. Hume also demolishes the concept of substance. Substance, either material or spiritual, is nothing other than a constant association of impressions.

Religion and Ethics

Granted the negation of substance, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul are only hypothetical. In regard to ethics, Hume admits only a natural morality. Hume, lacking a metaphysics, had recourse to practical exigencies in order to justify the value of ethics, and of religion as well. This distinction between theoretical and practical motives, and the justification of insuppressible values through practical motives alone, were to pass as a heritage to Immanuel Kant, and to form one of the pillars of Kant’s critical philosophy.

The positive contributions of David Hume to the Perennial Philosophy

Absolutely none. Hume’s vague philosophy has a very modern sound: a collection of impressions collected nowhere; contents of a mind which is not a container. Here we have the smug unintelligibility of the modern antirealist’s definition of mind as «a cross-section of the environment.» Hume holds that the only thing that can be said, with full certainty, to exist is our perceptions (impressions and ideas). In and among these perceptions there is no causal connection; indeed, there is no knowable causality anywhere. If things outside us really do exist, there is no proof of their existence available to us. His theoretical empiricism concludes with the collapse of all rational understanding; it lead inevitably to Skepticism and, of course Subjectivism and Relativism, the twin scourges of modern and recent philosophy.

British empiricism:

John Locke: (late 17th century) in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), proposed a very influential view wherein the only knowledge humans can have is a posteriori. Locke is famously attributed with holding the proposition that the human mind is a tabula rasa, a «blank tablet,» in Locke’s words «white paper,» on which is written the experiences derived from sense impressions as a person’s life proceeds. There are two sources of our ideas: sensation and reflection. In both cases, a distinction is made between simple and complex ideas. The former are unanalysable, and are broken down into primary and secondary qualities. Complex ideas are those which combine simple ones and are divided into substances, modes and relations. According to Locke, our knowledge of things is a perception of ideas that are in accordance or discordance with each other.

Berkeley: (a generation later) determined that Locke’s view immediately opened a door that would lead to eventual atheism. In response to Locke, he put forth in his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) a different, very extreme form of empiricism in which things only exist either as a result of their being perceived, or by virtue of the fact that they are an entity doing the perceiving. Berkeley’s approach to empiricism would later come to be called subjective idealism

David Hume: added to the empiricist viewpoint an extreme skepticism that he brought to bear against the accumulated arguments and counterarguments of Descartes, Locke and Berkeley, among others. Hume argued in keeping with the empiricist view that all knowledge derives from sense experience. In particular, he divided all of human knowledge into two categories: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Mathematical and logical propositions (e.g. «that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides») are examples of the first, while propositions involving some contingent observation of the world (e.g. «the sun rises in the East») are examples of the second. All of people’s «ideas», in turn, are derived from their «impressions». For Hume, an «impression» corresponds roughly with what we call a sensation. To remember or to imagine such impressions is to have an «idea». Ideas are therefore the faint copies of sensations

Problem of induction: Among Hume’s conclusions regarding the problem of induction is that there is no certainty that the future will resemble the past. Thus, as a simple instance posed by Hume, we cannot know with certainty by inductive reasoning that the sun will continue to rise in the East, but instead come to expect it to do so because it has repeatedly done so in the past


Phenomenalism is the view that physical objects, properties, events (whatever is physical) are reducible to mental objects, properties, events. Ultimately, only mental objects, properties, events, exist — hence the closely related term subjective idealism. By the phenomenalistic line of thinking, to have a visual experience of a real physical thing is to have an experience which belongs to a certain kind of group of experiences. This type of set of experiences possesses a constancy and coherence that is lacking in the set of experiences of which hallucinations, for example, are a part. As John Stuart Mill put it in the mid-19th century, matter is the «permanent possibility of sensation». Mill’s empiricism went a significant step beyond Hume in still another respect: in maintaining that induction is necessary for all meaningful knowledge including mathematics.

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