Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Empiricism is the view that all knowledge (apart from purely logical relations between concepts) is based on, or derives from, sensory experience.

explanatory context

Empiricism however is unable to specify the nature of the relationship between knowledge and experience.


Empiricism denies the idealistic view that the mind is equipped with concepts that owe nothing to experience. Empiricists claim that at birth the mind is a ‘blank sheet’ and only experience can provide ideas.


Some empiricists thus claim that the truth of factual statements can only be established inductively from experience. They thus deny the Cartesian view that supposes that people can grasp general truths about reality independently of experience.


There are various approaches to empiricism, but many start from the idea that experimental science (e.g. physics) is the exemplar of human knowledge. This is in contrast with rationalism which assigned a similar role to pure mathematics. (Some empiricists regard pure mathematics as independent of sense experience only dealing in tautology).


Empiricism tends to a view that knowledge acquisition is a piecemeal, self-correcting process limited by observation and experiment. Empiricism is thus sceptical of general metaphysical systems.


The empiricist position raises the problem of how people acquire abstract ideas that are not the result of direct experience, especially mathematical ideas like point and line.


Mach’s view

Empiricism as applied to theories of the nature of science probably derives from the work of Mach. He did not see the evident failure of mechanical physics at the turn of the century as an indication of the failure of science as a means of understanding. He argued that one should not equate science with a set of cherished principles. If such a position is adopted, whenever these principles are questioned, as in the case of mechanics, then the whole scientific edifice comes into question. Thus, Mach denied the idea that there were basic immutable tenets in science. Further, he argued that scientific knowledge should be grounded in facts not beliefs. That way science continues to be a process of understanding and is not dependent on fixed conceptions.

analytical review

The BBC (2004) website refers to a discussion of empiricism by Melvyn Bragg and guests, thus:

...Empiricism, England’s greatest contribution to philosophy. At the end of the seventeenth century the philosopher John Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

“All ideas come from sensation or reflection. Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:- How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.”

It was a body of ideas that for Voltaire, and for Kant after him, defined the English attitude to thought; a straight talking pragmatic philosophy that was hand in glove with a practical people.


Delanty and Strydom (2003, pp. 14) state:

Empiricism: an anti-metaphysical doctrine stressing the experiential basis of all knowledge which takes one of two possible forms – i.e. either phenomenalism, in which case the emphasis is on the immediate experience of phenomenal or mental entities in the form of observables or sense data; or physicalism (or naturalism), in which case the emphasis is on perceptual or physical entities or common-sense things and events that can be intersubjectively verified by recourse to empirical evidence.


Encyclopædia Britannica (2013):

empiricism, in philosophy, the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. This broad definition accords with the derivation of the term empiricism from the ancient Greek word empeiria, “experience.”

Concepts are said to be “a posteriori” (Latin: “from the latter”) if they can be applied only on the basis of experience, and they are called “a priori” (“from the former”) if they can be applied independently of experience.


New World Encyclopedia (2014):

Empiricism is a term in philosophy for a set of philosophical positions that emphasize the role of experience. The category of experience may include all contents of consciousness or it may be restricted to the data of the senses only... Empiricism contrasts with rationalist philosophical positions that emphasize the role of innate ideas, or a priori knowledge. Kant and others sought to integrate empiricism with rationalism, conceiving that knowledge is constituted by the collation of preexisting concepts within the mind and information gained through the senses.

In the philosophy of science, empiricism refers to an emphasis on those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to experience, especially as formed through deliberate experimental arrangements. It is generally taken as a fundamental requirement of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than relying on intuition or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.


associated issues


related areas

See also




Researching the Real World Section 1.4.5


BBC, 2004, Empiricism available at, accessed 25 February 2013, still available 3 June 2019 .

Delanty G. and Strydom, P., 2003, Philosophies of Social Science, London, McGraw-Hill.

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013, available at, accessed 25 February 2013, page updated 19 Februry 2015, no change to the quoted section, still available 3 June 2019.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2014, 'Empiricism', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 29 May 2014, available at:, accessed 21 May 2017, still available 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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