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The term empiricism is used in the classifications of epistemological approaches to theories according to which knowledge , understood as justified true knowledge , is based primarily or exclusively on sensory experience (including the use of scientific instruments).


In empirical scientific concepts, as they have been widespread especially since the early modern period , the scientific findings are traced back to observation and experiment . This understanding of science corresponds to the empirical conception of knowledge. The most important classical designs of empiricism are ascribed to certain 17th century philosophers, especially British empiricism . In the 20th century , representatives of logical empiricism presented various scientific , epistemological and methodological elaborations in connection with or even partially in accordance with the ideas of these classics. A more recent variant of the epistemological conceptions in continuation of some empirical basic ideas is constructive empiricism .

Rationalistic and empirical forms of knowledge

In epistemological and philosophical-historical presentations, empirical positions are often described as an alternative to positions, which are then summarized under the name “ rationalism ”. This positioning primarily serves to distance empiricism from traditional, scholastic-rationalist views.

These conceptions assume that world knowledge is also possible from pure thinking or that this pure thinking even constitutes the primary or exclusive source of knowledge. Proponents of a rationalism in this sense - like Leibniz and Wolff - claim that knowledge from pure reason ( a priori ) is more certain than empiricism. This a priori knowledge is also a prerequisite for empirical world experience, i. H. underlying knowledge or epistemic justification from pure reason for any type of empiricism.

In the context of a rationalism understood in this way, it was and is often also argued that some ideas and concepts do not come from empiricism, but are given with reason itself ("innate") ( see nativism ) or - suddenly through empirical world knowledge - directly through the pure reason can be recognized ( see intuitionism ).

Rationalists like René Descartes had argued that knowledge is primarily formed through direct intuition and deduction . These forms of knowledge acquisition should capture not only facts of the actual world, but also the implications of ideas. So is z. For Descartes, for example, the knowledge of the existence of God can be proven by pure reason, which Kant, on the other hand, considers an impossible synthetic judgment a priori . Empiricists contradict both Descartes and Kant. For them, only sensory experiences provide factual knowledge , because sensory impressions are directly or indirectly related to facts.

With Kant , a third position has also been added which, according to its self-understanding, abolishes the rigid opposition between empiricism and rationalism and reconciles both camps with one another (“Thoughts without content are empty, views without concepts are blind.” ( Immanuel Kant: AA III, 75–) B 75 )). Kant described one-sidedness of empiricism and rationalism and tried to overcome these through his own approach of a transcendental philosophy or a so-called " criticalism ". In the introduction to his main epistemological work, the Critique of Pure Reason , he describes his transcendental philosophical draft as suitable for combining empiricism and rationalism.

Induction and realism problem

In fact, the rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz assesses the sensory impressions as inadequate to give general conceptual relationships a necessity, since these only represent an individual case. But since we can certainly see certain truths, such as those of mathematics, this insight must be fed by sources other than empiricism - according to Leibniz, the only question is that fundamental truths are innate in reason itself. Classically, many empiricists restrict the intuitive-deductive form of knowledge to the relationships between the terms, which at best represent the operations of one's own mind. Knowledge about the world, on the other hand, must be based solely on sensual perception.

An increase in this distrust of general sentences can lead to skepticism . In the case of inductive inferences, especially in the case of a conclusion on general laws of nature, the problem is usually - at least since the discussion by David Hume , who developed a skeptical position - as an induction problem that, strictly speaking, no general law can be logically inferred from an individual case, especially the area of ​​unnecessary future inner-worldly facts would not be absolutely certain. David Hume even went so far as to explain the assumption of necessary conceptual relationships, such as exist in natural laws, to be a subjective error. There is no logical-rational explanation for such opinions, but only a psychological explanation, so the demands on knowledge cannot be met with such sentences.

Such a doubt can be expanded even further by arguing that sensory perception only provides us with information about our own mental states and that it is not certain whether and what outside our own perceiving consciousness corresponds to this consciousness. Such a fundamental doubt, which is already present as an argumentative figure in René Descartes, can be used to justify idealistic positions (as in George Berkeley ).

An empiricism that limits possible knowledge to one's own sensory experience is sensualism (represented for example by Ernst Mach and in his early work by Bertrand Russell ). A more recent theoretical approach that accepts that ultimately only one's own mental states are epistemically accessible is radical constructivism .

However, many empirical positions rely on the fact that general conclusions can be drawn from empirical experience (so-called induction conclusions ) and that the contents essentially correspond to the sensual experience of the world. Such positions are also known as realism . A robust, partly naive-realistic form of empiricism is the common-sense philosophy .

In the context of classical empirical theories, models for conclusions from experience have been proposed. For example, John Stuart Mill had formulated a theory of the conclusion from individual cases to general cases or laws.

In addition, some theorists suggested models for additional conclusions , such as Charles Sanders Peirce for cases of direct hypothesis in order to explain facts that initially appear surprising, so-called abduction (which, in contrast to the phrase "abduction" in traditional logic ( see Apagoge ) in the cases described by Peirce the fact then follows deductively and not only the minor premise and conclusion are probable ).

Criterion of meaning, verificationism, anti-metaphysical attitude

Empirical positions usually go hand in hand with the claim that all ideas can be traced back to sensual perception. Those ideas that do not directly represent an object of experience or a property that can be experienced are explained - in the case of John Locke, for example - as mere products of the imagination , which were formed by decomposition and recombination from past sensory impressions.

Based on this distinction, a criterion of meaning for scientific sentences was formulated in logical empiricism , initially in the form of a so-called verificationism . Accordingly, only sentences which express something, the truth of which can be empirically checked (“ verified ”), can be considered meaningful and possibly true or false (i.e. capable of truthfulness ) at all . A proposition is meaningful at all if and only if conditions that can be sensually experienced can be specified that must be fulfilled if the proposition is true. All other sentences would be meaningless according to this criterion, i.e. H. neither true nor false, but at best an expression of one's own feelings and attitudes. Logical empiricism assumes the possibility of separating the theoretical and observational language of a science: The observation language should directly express the empirically accessible facts (phenomena) in the form of so-called protocol sentences; the theoretical language contains the constructs that describe the phenomena and their relationships. This results in a criterion for theories: They are only purely scientific if the terms of the theoretical language are defined in such a way that they can only be defined by terms of the observation language and logical operators .

Because of the induction problem, among other things, this point of view was modified and further developed in various ways. B. to falsificationism , or to the theory of empirical confirmation, or perhaps in favor of epistemological holism , which rejects a separation of theoretical and observational language, as it was usually assumed by logical empiricism.

From the empirical theses about the source of our ideas it follows that sentences whose truth cannot be traced back to one's own experience that can be shared with others cannot be a form of knowledge, but at best represent forms of subjective belief, at worst represent psychologically founded errors. If verification by empirical facts is not an option, these sentences do not meet the criterion for meaning. Since many representatives of empiricism took this for granted, these assumptions led them to anti-idealistic, metaphysics- critical and religion-critical statements, up to and including scientism . In terms of philosophy and history, there has been an overlap with certain forms of ethical and metaphysical materialism , but this connection of philosophical positions is not mandatory.

Empiricism in the History of Science

Empirical theories have often been claimed or assumed as the theoretical background assumptions of scientific research. Branches of classical philology and historical research, such as the life-Jesus research founded by David Friedrich Strauss , can in this sense be viewed as originally empirical projects for the return of traditional tradition to real experience. In the course of a progressive separation of the natural sciences and the humanities, the relationship between empiricism and the natural sciences and z. B. a preference for quantitative-statistical methods but more in the foreground. (See also dispute over methods (social sciences) .)

Empiricism in the variants of Logical Empiricism was particularly influential for the Vienna Circle around Moritz Schlick , who did his doctorate at Max Planck and then taught at Ludwig Boltzmann's chair , with Kurt Gödel , Hans Hahn , Otto Neurath and others, and the Berlin group with Hans Reichenbach and others and the Lviv-Warsaw School with Alfred Tarski and others. For a long time, these authors, their environment and students shaped larger parts of the scientific discourse.

History and representatives


Research is based on the assumption that the ancient Greeks, feeling and thinking, orientated themselves to what they could grasp with the senses. With the decline in trust in the divine guidance of one's own life, in the “transition from myth to logos” ( Wilhelm Nestle ), this basic trait became increasingly pronounced. Sensory perception, sight and feeling became the basis of the development of early Greek philosophizing. The empirical view was expressed by a number of philosophers who thought stimulating and eager to experiment. These included the Ionian cosmologists , the Pythagoreans , the Eleates , the atomists, and the sophists . In principle, they gave the knowledge of what can be experienced or checked, empiricism , preference over what was claimed to be knowledge from a mythical or traditional point of view. (So ​​also the representatives of the empirical medical school, who even refused to deal with the theory and only accepted practical medical experience as the basis of medicine.)

When thinking about what was sensually perceived and observed, the question of the reliability of the knowledge gained in this way arose. It was answered negatively. The early Greek phrase - attributed to Heraclitus - "Nobody climbs into the same river twice" addresses the answer. Empiricism or sensual perception and observation are constantly changing. Empirically or sensually , therefore, no theories can be constructed that promise permanent validity. The early Greek philosophers accepted that they would have to forego final, permanently valid reasons. As a result, they tended to exclude or reject everything that claimed eternal validity. Your own speculative theories, e.g. B. on the primordial elements of the world show how inventive they, using empirical information, produced ideas.

Plato , who agreed with his early Greek contemporaries that the empirically observable is indispensable, made a different decision based on the provisional nature of all empirical evidence. His main focus was on building theories on empirical matters (including mathematics and the theory of ideas ) and assumed that he would be able to substantiate reliable information with this. From the point of view of later philosophers, he created the philosophy of metaphysics , which Aristotle continued in name.

middle Ages

In the Middle Ages , Wilhelm von Occam , Roger Bacon, and at the time of the Renaissance Juan Luis Vives , Nizolio , Galileo Galilei , Tommaso Campanella , and Leonardo da Vinci tend towards empiricism .

Modern times

The newer empiricism was founded by Francis Bacon . When Thomas Hobbes empiricist settings can be found more clearly in John Locke . Also with George Berkeley , with David Hume , influenced by sensualism with Étienne Bonnot de Condillac .

An inductive empiricism founded John Stuart Mill .

19th and 20th centuries

Critical empiricism was taught in the 19th century by Friedrich Eduard Beneke , Friedrich Ueberweg , Auguste Comte , Otto Friedrich Gruppe , Cornelis Willem Opzoomer , Eugen Dühring Ernst Laas , and also Alois Riehl , Wilhelm Wundt , Friedrich Nietzsche , Herbert Spencer , Otto Caspari , Friedrich Harms , Eduard von Hartmann . A theory of pure experience represented Richard Avenarius , like teaching Heinrich Hertz , Ernst Mach , and Hans Cornelius , of the epistemological empiricism from naturalism separated and only the former as consistent accept empiricism wanted it whereas the latter as Scheinempirismus called.

In the Vienna circle around Moritz Schlick and in the Berlin group around Carl Gustav Hempel , a logical empiricism developed , which was strongly represented by Rudolf Carnap in the 20th century . In America he influenced philosophers like Willard Van Orman Quine and others, as well as some theorists assigned to so-called post-analytic philosophy . Knowledge was interpreted as a logical construction of experience.

Bayes' theorem shows a possibility to handle the expansion of knowledge on the basis of sensory data in a mathematical way .

The critical rationalism ( Karl Popper ) the position on, is that certain knowledge of individual observations win inductive or confirm only doubt leave ( verificationism ) and says the experience above all a function for criticizing theories and beliefs ( fallibilism ).

Bas van Fraassen's constructive empiricism is one of the most recent variants of empirical positions.

Objections and counterpositions since the 20th century

In the opinion of various critics of empiricism, the restriction of knowledge to the area of ​​mere experience cannot be maintained. Often the notice is given, e.g. B. Leonard Nelson , that empiricism does not meet its own principles: Sentences like "All empirical knowledge is true" or "Valid knowledge is based solely on sensory experience" cannot be derived from experience.

In his essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism , Willard Van Orman Quine stated that even central basic concepts of classical empiricism cannot be empirically verified.

Representatives of more open methodologies, such as Paul Feyerabend , Thomas S. Kuhn and others, who continued the sociological approaches of Karl Mannheim and Ludwik Fleck , have expressed themselves critically on theses of classical empiricism or presented different or further ideas.


  • George Bealer : The Incoherence of Empiricism (PDF; 968 kB), in: The Aristotelian Society Supplementary LXVI (1992), pp. 99-137.
  • Laurence BonJour : The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1985, ISBN 0674843819 .
  • Hans-Jürgen Engfer: Empiricism versus Rationalism? Critique of a schema of the history of philosophy. Schöningh, Paderborn 1996, ISBN 3-506-72241-7 .
  • Günter Gawlick (ed.): Empiricism. History of Philosophy in Text and Presentation, Vol. 4, Reclam, Stuttgart 1986, ISBN 3150099145 .
  • Friedrich Kambartel : empiricism. In: Jürgen Mittelstraß (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. (BI, Mannheim 1980 p. 542f;) 2., neubear. u.wes. supplementary ed. Metzler, Stuttgart 2005 p. 320f. (including lit.) ISBN 978-3-476-02108-3
  • Guy Longworth: Rationalism and Empiricism (PDF; 193 kB), in: S. Chapman, C. Routledge (Eds.): Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Edinburgh Univ. Press, Edinburgh 2009, ISBN 0748626190 .
  • Jennifer Nagel: Empiricism. In: Sahotra Sarkar, Jessica Pfeifer (Eds.): The Philosophy of Science. Routledge 2006, Vol. 1, ISBN 0415939275 , pp. 235-243.
  • Jennifer Nagel: The Empiricist Conception of Experience. in: Philosophy 75 (2000), pp. 345-376.
  • Thomas Nickles: Empiricism , in: Maryanne Cline Horowitz (Ed.): New Dictionary of the History of Ideas Thomson Gale, Vol. 2 (2005), ISBN 0-684-31379-0 , pp. 664-669.
  • Tama Szabo Gendler: Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Limits of Justification. in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63/3 (2001), pp. 641-648.
  • RS Woolhouse: The Empiricists. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988, ISBN 019289188X . Primarily to Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Gassendi and Hume.

Web links

Wiktionary: empiricism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: empiricism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: empirical  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. See Johannes Hirschberger : History of Philosophy. Volume II, Freiburg i. B./Frechen (licensed edition for Komet) n.d., p. 177 f. (Leibniz and empiricism) and P. 188 (English empiricism).
  2. See in detail Bruce Russell:  A Priori Justification and Knowledge. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . .
  3. See on the different evaluation of knowledge from intuition and deduction in empiricism and rationalism Peter Markie:  Rationalism vs. Empiricism, 2. The Intuition / Deduction Thesis. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . .
  4. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA III, 75– B 75 .
  5. See Peter Markie:  Rationalism vs. Empiricism, 2. The Intuition / Deduction Thesis. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . .
  6. ^ See, for example, John Stuart Mill : A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. 1843 ( digitized version ) - German: System of deductive and inductive logic , translated by J. Schiel, Braunschweig 1868.
  7. Jutta Kollesch , Diethard Nickel (ed.): Ancient healing art. Selected texts from the medical literature of the Greeks and Romans. Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig 1979; 6th edition. Leipzig 1989, ISBN 3-379-00411-1 , here: p. 8 f.
  8. Cf. Theodor Gomperz : Greek Thinking. 1st volume, 4th edition Frankfurt a. M. 1999, pp. 3 - 36. - "Empiricism" in the encyclopedia philosophy. ed. by Hans Jörg Sandkühler. Hamburg 1999. - AA Long: The concern of early Greek philosophy. In the S. (Ed.): Handbook of early Greek philosophy. Stuttgart 2001, pp. 1-20.
  9. ^ Entry empiricism. In: Rudolf Eisler: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms. 2nd Edition. Berlin 1904. Online at textlog.de
  10. Willard Van Orman Quine: Two Dogmas of Empiricism . in: The Philosophical Review 60 (1951), pp. 20 - 43 ( e-Text ), German: Zwei Dogmen des Empirismus , in: Ders .: Von einer Logischen Standpunkt. Nine logical and philosophical essays. Ullstein, Frankfurt a. M. - Berlin - Vienna 1979, pp. 27 - 50. (Digital copies : Archive link ( Memento of the original from March 10, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to Instructions and then remove this note. (PDF; 1.6 MB), archive link ( Memento of the original dated November 11, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice .; PDF; 3.5 MB). @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.uni-leipzig.de @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.philoscience.unibe.ch