Empiricism, Empirism, Empiric

Empiricism, Empirism, Empiric Empiricism, in its primary meaning, signifies the method or habit of judging from observation or trial; and an empiric is one who forms his conclusions in this manner. Empiricism may thus be employed to denote either inductive reasoning, in which observation and experiment furnish the data for the conclusions drawn by the reason, or that unscientific mode of procedure which accepts the phenomena as they are observed, without analysis or accurate determination. In the former case the term is used in a good sense, and is equivalent to experimental science; in the latter it is used in a bad sense, and this is its ordinary employment.

The relation of experience to science, and to art or practice, is precisely exhibited by Aristotle in the opening chapter of his Metaphysics; but the peculiar terseness of the Aristotelian phraseology renders expansion and restatement of his positions necessary, in order to adapt them to modern views.

Art, or systematic action, is founded upon observation, but upon observation reduced to theory, or to consonance with theory. That is to say, observation furnishes the facts, but they must be coordinated and interpreted in order to constitute valid knowledge (science), or a reliable rule of action (art). If the observations be indistinct or perplexed, or if they be not sufficiently numerous to establish a general conclusion, or if a general conclusion be drawn prematurely, the induction is deceptive, and obnoxious to the censures passed by Lord Bacon upon the simple enumeration of examples (Nov. Org. 1, aph. 69, cv; Instaur. Sei. tom. 9, page 146; Distr. Op. page 167, ed. Montagu). The true nature of the induction required is briefly stated by Campanella: "Inductio est argumentatio a partibus sufficienter enumeratis ad suum totum universale." What is a sufficient exposition of the particulars may be learned from the Second Book of the Novum Organon, or more satisfactorily from Whewell's Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Comte's Political Philosophy, and Mill's Logic.

When the observations are sufficiently multiplied and varied, and when they have been analyzed and sifted so as to eliminate all illusions, and everything which does not bear distinctly upon the point under consideration, then they justify a definite conclusion. This is the "nul implicatio et vindemiatio instantiarum" so strenuously urged by Lord Bacon. But, even in this case, the general experience authorizes a universal conclusion only by assuming a law latent under each of the concordant instances by which all are governed. In establishing or accepting the conclusion there is need for the introduction of a purely rational element — if none other, at least the principle that nature acts uniformly, and that what is true of all observed instances is true of all similar phenomena. Thus theory is needed to permit and to complete induction, or inference from observation.

This accumulation, collation, and appreciation of instances is disregarded by undisciplined and impatient minds. A few recurrences loosely noted, or a single undigested observation, is made the foundation for a universal conclusion, without reference to any rational principle. The designation derived from experience and inquiry is still retained, but, in consequence of want of validity in the process, and of method, reliability, and rationality in the corresponding practice, it receives an unfavorable import, and empiricism commonly denotes that mode of reasoning which is based upon hasty and inadequate observation, and which neglects scientific principle and scientific precision.

This exposition of the derivation and deflection of the meaning is illustrated and confirmed by the history of the term. In the middle of the 3d century before Christ a revolution in medical practice was inaugurated by Philinus of Cos and Serapion of Alexandria. They revolted against the maxims of the Dogmatists, and repudiated the course pursued by the Methodists of treating all cases of disease according to fixed theoretical rules. They observed the symptoms of disorders, and the specific effects of remedial agents; they considered the idiosyncrasies of their patients as affected by climates and localities; and they employed the therapeutics which hidden found effectual in analogous instances. They recognized three kinds of experience: chance, experiment, and imitation, but relied principally upon the last, which is a sort of blind observation. They thus introduced into medical practice the whole train of inductive reasoning, and were in consequence designated Empirics. The school flourished for nearly five centuries, and its duration attests its merit and success. It had started, however, with sundry hazardous hypotheses, such as the doctrine of Homoeopathy, and in its best period had trusted mainly to disguised analogies, which were usually obscure, and too often delusive. The Empirics rejected formal science; they contemned theoretical views and rational deductions, and thus drifted into close approximation to the Skeptics. Their original doctrine was an extravagance in the manner of its assertion, but it was a wholesome reaction against a more perilous excess. With the succession of generations, however, their cardinal principle of depending exclusively on observation was pushed so far as to engender the wildest fantasies. Hence no confidence could be placed in their treatment of diseases. It was thus that the term Empiricism received the opprobrious signification which is habitually attached to it. The meaning of a word is perpetuated in the last perversion which it has received from popular use.

The name originating in this way in the schools of medicine was readily transferred to the corresponding procedure in other departments of knowledge. Empiricism is opposed to science in the same way that a paralogism is opposed to a syllogism: it is the abuse, or the imperfect use of a procedure which is valid when correctly pursued. It is confused observation developed into unreliable induction. But the distortion of the process, and the consequent degradation of the word denoting the process, evince the partial agreement between empiricism and scientific reasoning. It becomes, therefore, expedient to point out more explicitly the relation which observation and experience bear to theory, or philosophical reasoning.

Science is the systematic coordination of observed facts, and the exhibition of their dependence upon general principles. Observation collects particulars, which should be compared and tested, so as to eliminate all discrepancies and all accidental agreements, and to disentangle from the complex phenomena the single point of positive and habitual concordance. When this is adequately achieved, the regular association of the facts under consideration is established. This, however, provides only what Bacon designates axiomata media — those inductions which ascertain the character and direct connections of the phenomena. A further generalization is required; these intermediate axioms must be traced to precise laws. Such is the nature and procedure of strict inductive science, with which empiricism is more immediately contrasted, though it arose originally out of the antagonism to dogmatic deduction. The empiric disregards these careful comparisons and gradual approximations, and leaps at once from loosely-observed data, from casual coincidences, or from a few disconnected instances to a general conclusion. He has no principle to restrain him, no recognised law for his guidance. From the absence of all certainty, and the consequent liability to error, empiricism has come to denote rash and ignorant generalization leading to hazardous and unreasoning applications.

Another important point demands attention. Certain phenomena are so complex and so inapprehensible by the processes of rigid observation, comparison, and experiment, that they scarcely admit of rigorously scientific treatment. Moreover, from the want of opportunity for applying the methods of science, and from the multiplicity of concurrent, interacting, and irregularly varying influences involved in the production of the result, scientific induction and philosophical deduction fail to include or to exclude everything which should be embraced or rejected. The subject either does not yet admit of scientific treatment, but must be governed by the suggestions of unanalyzed experience, or there is a large discordance between the scientific conclusions and the observed facts. In these cases the indications of experience cannot be disregarded, and the procedure, to be adopted, must be in greater or less measure empirical. History, politics, social organization, agriculture, and many of the applications of physical science to human requirements demand, in a greater or less degree, this subordination of scientific results to observed facts. But the insufficiency of the procedure should be recognised; for empiricism, even in its most favorable form, is tentative and problematical, because it is the renunciation of the guidance of the reason, and the acceptance of imperfect or imperfectly-digested observation for the prescriptions of ascertained and immutable law. Empiricism is available only in consimili casu; and, as this exact similitude can never be assured, but is always precarious, it is necessarily attended with insecurity. If the conditions or concomitances vary so as to modify the result, it is a blind leader of the blind. The only protection in changed circumstances, or under novel conditions, is a knowledge of the general principles which govern the facts, and this knowledge is obtained only from science, inductive or deductive. Theory and experience have distinct but associated functions: theory is the abstract rationale of the phenomena; experience is their undiscriminating representation: theory degenerates into rash inexperience when not checked by careful observation; experience runs into wild and pernicious fantasies when not illuminated by speculative discernment. The two must be combined and conciliated in order to afford any absolute confidence in the rectitude of our conclusions, and the procedure founded thereon. If they be separated, and to the extent to which they are separated, experience is valid only in matters of mere routine; theory or science is always required under novel combinations. Theory, unregulated by experience, is as arbitrary and capricious as experience unenlightened by reason, and misleads hopelessly, because it never awakens any suspicion of the possibility of error. But theory, which systematizes the conclusions drawn from an adequate range and degree of observation, furnishes guidance under all changes of circumstance; while empiricism only misleads and betrays in every case when it is necessary to deviate in any respect from a procedure already adopted and approved.

Empiricism is thus at all times an irrational procedure, though it may furnish a practical rule within a very limited sphere. Theory may beguile, in consequence of its imperfect constitution or rash application, but is always requisite to insure the recognition of established law, and obedience to the immutable prescriptions of reason in the individual or in the order of creation. An empirical procedure may often be indispensable, but, when most necessary, it is provisional only. A theoretical procedure may be demanded before adequate experience has been acquired, but this must be confirmed or reformed by the observation of facts. It is only when theory is sustained by facts, and facts are explained by theory, that knowledge becomes entirely trustworthy. Many departments of practical knowledge are not yet, and may never be, capable of thorough scientific organization. In these we must continue to. be guided by empirical conclusions; but they are received, not because they are sufficient, but because nothing better is attainable. Empiricism is, therefore, always inadequate, and usually deceptive. (G.F.H.)

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