World Cultures General Glossary
Empiricism

Ancient Greece
Aristotle
Plato
Pre-Socratic Philosophy
   The basic idea behind empiricism is that knowledge can be derived through careful observation and cataloging of phenomena and extrapolating laws or principles from these observations. Even though empricism is a Western concept and is loaded especially with Enlightenment baggage, it is, in fact a cross-cultural phenomenon. Its origins in the West lie in their most developed form in the philosophy of Aristotle, who reacted against the abstractions of Plato and the Pre-Socratic philosophers by developing a more or less universal system of intellectual inquiry: when investigating a subject, he would first consult all the experts and written texts and catalog their ideas, he would next observe as much phenomena related to the inquiry that he could and then derive laws from his observations, and then use those laws against the previous authorities. But the area where empiricism most rapidly developed in ancient Greece was in the field of medicine, which based most of its knowledge on empirical observation of the causes and courses of diseases.


Italian Renaissance
Leonardo da Vinci

Renaissance Reader
Leonardo da Vinci
The Painter
   Ultimately, Enlightenment empiricism arises from these sources. Several things needed to occur to make it possible. When Renaissance humanism focussed more attention on individual human beings and their experience, as evidence by the polemical statement of Leonardo da Vinci in his treatise on painting that "experience" is the parent of all knowledge, then the capacity of experience to give knowledge began to be explored in greater detail. The result was the steady development of experimental science. That word, experiment, is derived from the same world that gives us "experience." An experiment simply described is a "controlled experience"; this control allows the experience to be repeated in exactly the same way. In this way, experience can be shared, that is, others can verify the truth of the experience by repeating it.


Enlightenment Glossary
Classical Mechanics
   Western empiricism was built on the idea of a mechanistic universe; the universe both physically and socially was eventually conceived of as a vast machine whose principles of operation could be grasped by the human intellect without recourse to divine or superstitious explanations. Correspondingly, each aspect of the universe operated in a different manner: the machine of physical phenomena operated differently from the machine of social phenomena. Empirical science in the West, then, also involved the separation of bodies of knowledge one from the other. Physics could not explain politics, ethics could not explain chemistry, and so forth. This separation of areas of knowledge one from the other is perhaps the single most important aspect of Enlightenment empiricism for it allowed knowledge in each area to develop very rapidly.


Chinese Philosophy
Neo-Confucianism
   Chinese empirical science, developed by the School of Principle group of Neo-Confucianists, had many of the same features as European empricism. However, the Neo-Confucianist scientists believed that the universe operated by a single principle, li which emanated from the Great Ultimate (tao ch'i ); that principle operating through the material force (ch'i ) explained all phenomena. Humans could understand that principle by studying anything for the human mind is perfectly identical with the Universal Mind or Universal Principle; however, this principle inhered in all things: one's mind, biology, politics, or whatever. Careful empirical study of a particular phenomenon would to the discerning mind reveal the principle at work in the universe. The result of this was a rapid growth in scientific knowledge in China as well as dramatic inventions, but unlike Aristotle and the European Enlightenment, knowledge of the world was seen as integral and coherent rather than divided into separate endeavors.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97