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theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience
If it were so, as conceited sagacity, proud of not being deceived, thinks, that we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love. ... We can be deceived by believing what is untrue, but we certainly are also deceived by not believing what is true. ... Which deception is more dangerous? ~ Søren Kierkegaard

Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge arises from sense experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism, and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory experience, in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or traditions; empiricists may argue however that traditions (or customs) arise due to relations of previous sense experiences.



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  • Science in the past (and partly in the present), was dominated by one-sided empiricism. Only a collection of data and experiments were considered as being ‘scientific’ in biology (and psychology); forgetting that a mere accumulation of data, although steadily piling up, does not make a science.
  • Empiricism and positivism share the common view that scientific knowledge should in some way be derived from the facts arrived at by observation.


  • I have found no better expression than "religious" for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism.
    • Albert Einstein Letter to Maurice Solovine, (1 January 1951) [Einstein Archive 21-174]; published in Letters to Solovine (1993)
  • Many people think that the progress of the human race is based on experiences of an empirical, critical nature, but I say that true knowledge is to be had only through a philosophy of deduction. For it is intuition that improves the world, not just following a trodden path of thought. Intuition makes us look at unrelated facts and then think about them until they can all be brought under one law. To look for related facts means holding onto what one has instead of searching for new facts. Intuition is the father of new knowledge, while empiricism is nothing but an accumulation of old knowledge. Intuition, not intellect, is the 'open sesame' of yourself.
  • [On Empiricism] It is evident, on the basis of our considerations, that this appearance of success cannot in the least be regarded as a sign of truth and correspondence with nature. Quite the contrary, suspicion arises that the absence of major difficulties is a result of the decrease of empirical content brought about by the elimination of alternatives, and of facts that can be discovered with their help. In other words, the suspicion arises that this alleged success is due to the fact that the theory, when extended beyond its starting point, was turned into rigid ideology. Such Ideology is "successful" not because it agrees so well with the facts; it is successful because no facts have been specified that could constitute a test, and because some such facts have been removed. Its "success" is entirely man-made. It was decided to stick to some ideas, come what may, and the result was, quite naturally, the survival of these ideas. If now the initial decision is forgotten, or made only implicitly, for example, if it becomes common law in physics, then the survival itself will seem to constitute independent support., it will reinforce the decision, or turn it into an explicate one, and in this way close the circle. This is how empirical "evidence" may be created by a procedure which quotes as its justification the very same evidence it has Produced.
  • Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest an not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens.
The radical empiricist onslaught... provides the methodological justification for the debunking of the mind by the intellectuals.
- Herbert Marcuse (1964)
  • Humean skepticism should be well distinguished from Greek skepticism. Hume’s assumes as basic the truth of the empirical, of feeling, of intuition, and from that base contests general determinations and laws—because they lack justification from sense perception. Ancient skepticism was so far from making feeling and intuition the principle of truth that, on the contrary, it turned first of all against the senses.
    • G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1827), cited in W. Kaufmann, Hegel (1966), pp. 69-70
  • The characteristic activity of science is not construction, but induction. The more often something has occurred in the past, the more certain that it will in all the future. Knowledge relates solely to what is and to its recurrence. New forms of being, especially those arising from the historical activity of man, lie beyond empiricist theory. Thoughts which are not simply carried over from the prevailing pattern of consciousness, but arise from the aims and resolves of the individual, in short, all historical tendencies that reach beyond what is present and recurrent, do not belong to the domain of science.
  • No criticism can be brought against a branch of technical science from outside; no thought fitted out with the knowledge of a period and setting its course by definite historical aims could have anything to say to the specialist. Such thought and the critical, dialectical element it communicates to the process of cognition, thereby maintaining conscious connection between that process and historical life, do not exist for empiricism; nor do the associated categories, such as the distinction between essence and appearance, identity in change, and rationality of ends, indeed, the concept of man, of personality, even of society and class taken in the sense that presupposes specific viewpoints and directions of interest.
  • Logical empiricism holds the view, notwithstanding some its assertions, that the forms of knowledge and consequently the relations of man to nature and to other men never change. According to rationalism, too, all subjective and objective potentialities are rooted in insights which the individual already possesses, but rationality uses existing objects as well as the active inner striving and ideas of man to construct standards for the future. In this regard, it is not so closely associated with the present order as is empiricism.
  • The quality of the human that precludes identifying the individual with the class is ‘metaphysical’ and has no place in empiricist epistemology. The pigeon hole into which a man is shoved circumscribes his fate.


  • 'Pure experience' is the name I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.
    • William James, The Thing and Its Relations, Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
  • The bottom of being is left logically opaque to us, a datum in the strict sense of the word, something we simply come upon and find, and about which (if we wish to act) we should pause and wonder as little as possible. In this confession lies the lasting truth of empiricism.
    • William James, Collected Essays and Reviews (New York, 1920), p. 128
  • If it were so, as conceited sagacity, proud of not being deceived, thinks, that we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love. ... We can be deceived by believing what is untrue, but we certainly are also deceived by not believing what is true. ... Which deception is more dangerous?
  • There's a tremendous popular fallacy which holds that significant research can be carried out by trying things. Actually it is easy to show that in general no significant problem can be solved empirically, except for accidents so rare as to be statistically unimportant. One of my jests is to say that we work empirically — we use bull's eye empiricism. We try everything, but we try the right thing first!
    • Edwin H. Land As quoted in The Journal of Imaging Science and Technology, Vol. 37, No. 3 (1992), p. 537


  • The radical empiricist onslaught... provides the methodological justification for the debunking of the mind by the intellectuals—a positivism which, in its denial of the transcending elements of Reason, forms the academic counterpart of the socially required behavior.
We use bull's eye empiricism. We try everything, but we try the right thing first!
- Edwin H. Land (1992)


  • Our argument is not flatly circular, but something like it. It has the form, figuratively speaking, of a closed curve in space.
    • Willard van Orman Quine July 1988, "Two dogmas of Empiricism", in From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays, p. 26.
  • The word 'definition' has come to have a dangerously reassuring sound, owing no doubt to its frequent occurrence in logical and mathematical writings."
    • Willard van Orman Quine July 1988, "Two dogmas of Empiricism", in From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays, p. 26.
  • Empiricism and idealism alike are faced with a problem to which, so far, philosophy has found no satisfactory solution. This is the problem of showing how we have knowledge of other things than ourself and the operations of our own mind.
  • Until the publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, it might have seemed as if the older philosophical tradition of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz were being definitely overcome by the newer empirical method. The newer method, however, had never prevailed in German universities, and after 1792 it was held responsible for the horrors of the Revolution. Recanting revolutionaries such as Coleridge found in Kant an intellectual support for their opposition to French atheism. The Germans, in their resistance to the French, were glad to have a German philosophy to uphold them. Even the French, after the fall of Napoleon, were glad of any weapon against Jacobinism. All these factors favored Kant.
  • The difference in method, here, may be characterized as follows: in Locke and Hume, a comparatively modest conclusion is drawn from a broad survey of facts, whereas in Leibniz, a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle. In Leibniz, if the principle is completely true and the deductions are entirely valid, all is well; but the structure in unstable, and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins. In Locke and Hume, on the other contrary, the base of the pyramid is on the solid ground of observed fact, and the pyramid tapers upward, not downward; consequently the equilibrium is stable, and a flaw here and there can be rectified without total disaster. This difference of method survived Kant's attempt to incorporate something of the empirical philosophy: from Descartes to Hegel on the one side, and from Locke to John Stuart Mill on the other, it remains unvarying.
  • British historians are notoriously suspicious of philosophical reflections about the nature of their craft. The charge is no doubt exaggerated, but it is hard to deny that they have sometimes gloried in presenting themselves as straightforward empiricists for whom the proper task of the historian is simply to uncover the facts about the past and recount them as objectively as possible.
    • Quentin Skinner, "The practice of history and the cult of the fact", Visions of Politics (2002)
  • Philosophy … lost its prestige to the extent that it lost its evident advantage in cleverness to "normal life." In the transition from archaic teachings of wisdom to philosophy based on argument, it itself was engulfed in the twilight of alienation from life. It had to accept that the independent cleverness theories of pragmatics, economics, strategy, and politics proved themselves to be its better, until, with its logical niceties, it became infantile and academic, and stood there as the Utopian idiot with its reminiscences about great ideals. Today philosophy is surrounded on all sides by maliciously clever empiricisms and realistic disciplines that "know better."
  • It is usually a good idea to bear in mind the distinction between philosophy and an empirical science such as psychology. I once received a valuable lesson in this. A very distinguished astronomer visited the Department of Philosophy in Princeton and gave us a lecture entitled “An Astronomer’s Philosophy.” We philosophers were delighted. And I in my enthusiasm offered to reciprocate by giving a lecture to the astronomers which was to be entitled “A Philosopher’s Astronomy.” But this proposal was received by the astronomers with marked coldness.
    • Walter Terence Stace, The Psychology of Mysticism (1961) published in Man Against Darkness and other essays (1967), p. 19
  • It is also naïve empiricism to provide, in support of some argument, series of eloquent confirmatory quotes by dead authorities. By searching, you can always find someone who made a well-sounding statement that confirms your point of view—and, on every topic, it is possible to find another dead thinker who said the exact opposite.


  • Rave on, down through the industrial revolution
    Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
    Rave on down through time and space down through the corridors
    Rave on words on printed page.
  • The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about large ones. What happens, however, is that the judgments are never made. The pedantic empiricist, buried in his little province of phenomena, imagines that fidelity to it exempts him from concern with larger aspects of reality.
  • The whole tendency of empiricism and democracy in speech, dress and manners has been toward a plainness which is without symbolic significance. The power of symbolism is greatly feared by those who wish to expel from life all that is nonrational in the sense of being nonutilitarian
  • Science is not inevitable; this question is very fruitful indeed.
    • Edgar Zilsel, quoted in Elisabeth Nemeth (2007) "Logical Empiricism and the History and Sociology of Science"

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