Empiricism is a philosophical and scientific concept that emphasizes the role of experience, evidence, and observation in the formation of knowledge.
At its core, empiricism asserts that knowledge is best gained through sensory experience (Newell, 2015). As a result, we should engage in experimentation to progress knowledge, rather than relying exclusively on reason or intuition.
This concept is essential to the scientific method and has been applied across academic disciplines, including science, psychology, economics, and politics.
Much of contemporary knowledge emergent from academia and industry research is based on empirical knowledge developed through the testing of hypotheses through observation and measurement.
As an approach to understanding reality and truth, empiricism involves questioning accepted beliefs and theories by subjecting them to rigorous empirical tests.
In this way, it encourages constant exploration and discovery.
Scientific definitions of empiricism include:
“Empiricism is the view that knowledge of the world can be or should be acquired by sense experience.” (Cooper, 2019)
“Empiricism is the principle that the key to understanding new things is through systematic observation.” (McBride, Cutting & Zimmerman, 2022)
Common sense anecdotes lend support to this idea. For example, if you were burned by a hot stove when you were young you now know not to touch a hot stove because your experience showed you it was harmful. This personal experience shows the foundational basis of empirical knowledge.
Empirical research aims to provide concrete explanations for complex phenomena by using objective data rather than relying on mere speculation or conjecture.
Scientists use empirical methods such as experiments or observational studies to test their hypotheses in order to establish cause-and-effect relationships or patterns in natural phenomena.
Examples of Empiricism
Sure! Here are 25 examples of empirical research methods:
- Controlled experiments: In controlled experiments, variables are manipulated within a controlled environment such as a lab to determine cause and effect relationships.
- Observational studies: In observational studies, researchers observe and record behaviors or phenomena. A famous example is Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment. These may occur in a controlled setting or in the raw environment, known as ‘naturalistic observation’.
- Survey studies: These are studies collect data through canvassing a large number of participants by asking standardized questions. An example is a national census.
- Longitudinal studies: In longitudinal studies, the same participants are observed over a prolonged period of time for the purpose of analyzing changes over time.
- Cross-sectional studies: These involve collecting data from study participants at one point in time like an inventory. The above example of a national census is a survey study that is of a cross-sectional design.
- Laboratory-based research: This involves bringing individuals into a neutral setting so as to control variables such as temperature and light conditions or controlling pathways within circuits when seeking information about certain cognitive effect outcomes.
- Quasi-experimental design: This entails rigorous examination of different groups but without selection bias so that conclusions can be drawn from longitudinal analysis results.
- Statistical analysis methods: Statistical analysis methods like latent variable models allow for measurement error correction with structural equation modeling (SEM) used during quantitative research assessment.
- Meta-analysis: A meta-analysis uses various statistics generated from preexisting groups aimed at covering conceptual reach across scientific paper publications within any given field. It is known as the gold standard of secondary research and, despite using other people’s data, is seen as a type of empirical research because it still relies on real-life data to approximate a hypothesis or argument.
- Randomized controlled trials (RCTs): RCTs attempt to eliminate confounding factors by randomly assigning study participates to different experimental and control groups while following protocol guidelines associated with random sampling quality checks
- Ethnography: Qualitative interviewing ethnography is employed often within anthropology in order to approach human behavior by conducting case-studies via interviews concerning hypotheses derived from insight arising out of interactions with other cultures. A controversial sub-type of this is autoethnography, where a person applies theory to the study of data about their own lives, such as personal journals.
- Thematic content analysis: Thematic content analysis involves coding a dataset to identify themes or patterns within a dataset such as an interview transcript or newspaper. It is popular among sociologists and cultural studies researchers.
- Discourse analysis: Similar to thematic content analysis, discourse analysis identifies themes within a dataset which is often written, but also at times visual (employing semiotic methodologies – see below). Its aim is to generate data about discourses, known as ‘ways of speaking and thinking’ that are common within a society at a particular point in time.
- Semiotics: Semiotics is the study of signs and semantics, and tends to be multimodal in its approach. For example, researchers might study the body language of individuals in photographs from within closed-off regimes (e.g. North Korea) to ascertain insights into power relationships within the hierarchy of the regime.
- Interview research: This involves conducting interviews in order to gather qualitative data about people’s perspectives on a social phenomenon. Commonly, it will involve either structured or semi-structured interview types.
- Focus group facilitation: A focus group centers on small group discussion designed specifically to capture individual perceptions on an issue. It tends to be less structured than interviewing, and comes with validity issues because often the focus group participants will influence each other’s comments.
- Correlational research: Correlational research tracks statistical relationships between variables during experimentation that in reality cannot be manipulated but for which potential incidence of causation transmission can be tested.
- Delphi surveys: These are surveys that gather information from groups over time concerning preferences collected via looping through questionnaires, allowing collective intellectual capital to collectively produce insights.
- Exploratory research: This type of research uses open-ended questioning or dilemma-based surveying in order to explore a relatively unknown social phenomenon. Exploratory research is more oriented toward new areas worthy of study than necessarily experimental output expectations.
- Participant observation: This is a research technique where researchers immerse themselves within a selected group so as to capture deep qualitatitve observations (known as thick descriptions) required to address the hypothesis being studied. It is similar to ethnography but tends to occur in shorter, less sustained, buests.
- Case studies: These are intensive examinations typically interested in unique individuals, environments or phenomena and help provide detailed qualitative descriptions. They can generate qualitative insights into specific instances, but are not generalizable to a wider population (I have tons of examples of case studies in psychology here).
- Descriptive research: This research offers systematic approaches towards documentations outlining statistics related relationships between literature-based categories and the frequency associated with count data.
- Field experiments: These studies closely simulate real-world situations while systematically controlling variables relevant towards investigating evidence-based interventions affect behavior/phenomena during operations.
- Historical document analyses: Historical document analysis employ techniques like using different archives, digital libraries and distant-reading software so as to identify/synthesize information consisting entirely heavy on primary source documents from earlier times
- Action research: Action research, common in healthcare and education, emphasizes participation-oriented approaches wherein researchers focus on studies that will tangibly improve their own professional practice. They work with stakeholders (e.g. clients, even their students) collaboratively throughout multiple cycles aimed at improving practice while remaining open to receptive feedback gathered via rigorous empirical testing procedures.
Empiricism vs Rationalism
Empiricism and Rationalism represent two philosophical approaches regarding how humans gain knowledge. Empiricism prioritizes observable evidence, while Rationalism places greater emphasis on innate ideas that are logically deduced.
Empirical thinkers believe knowledge is best gained through sensory experiences and observations, so our thoughts can be tested against cold-hard reality (Newell, 2015).
Empiricists use empirical methods such as experimentation, observation, and induction to study phenomena in order to draw new conclusions (Robinson, 2015).
On the other hand, rationalist philosophers believe that some truths can be known independent of experience and can be derived from reason alone.
Rationalists hold that humans possess innate ideas or concepts, such as principles of logic or mathematics that serve as the foundation for all our knowledge.
As Cooper (2019) argues:
“To the rationalist, reason alone can provide knowledge of the existence and nature of things.” (Cooper, 2019)
Rationalists use deductive reasoning which proceeds logically from a set of assumptions aimed at drawing new conclusions. Their ideas are based upon logical argumentation.
Although both Empiricism and Rationalism play a significant role in philosophy and knowledge formation, they have differing perspectives on what constitutes the best knowledge acquisition methodology.
Empiricists advocate for scientific method-based techniques versus intuition-guided ideation often associated with rationalist philosophies.
|Definition||A philosophical belief that all knowledge is derived from sensory experience (Mutiani et al., 2022).||A philosophical belief that reason and innate ideas are the primary source of knowledge.|
|Key proponents||John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume||René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz (Robinson, 2015)|
|View on senses||Senses are reliable and are the primary means to acquire knowledge.||Senses can be deceiving and reason/logic should be used to gain knowledge (Mutiani et al., 2022).|
|View on innate ideas||Generally reject the concept of innate ideas, asserting that the mind is a “tabula rasa” or blank slate at birth.||Typically believe in innate ideas or principles that exist independently of sensory experience (Gertler, 2018).|
|Method of gaining knowledge||Through observation and experience.||Through deductive reasoning and logical analysis (Salmon, 2017).|
|Role of experience||Central to acquiring knowledge (Gertler, 2018).||Not necessary for knowledge; some knowledge is innate or can be deduced via reason (Robinson, 2015).|
|Notable works||“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” by John Locke||“Meditations on First Philosophy” by René Descartes (Salmon, 2017)|
|Strengths||Acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence and practical experimentation (Mutiani et al., 2022).||Emphasizes the role of logic and reason, which can be applied universally.|
|Weaknesses||May overlook the role of innate abilities, concepts, or knowledge.||Can overlook the importance and reliability of empirical evidence.|
Strengths of Empiricism
One major strength of empiricism is its reliance on actual evidence accessed via our senses, which we call ‘empirical’ evidence.
Empirical evidence refers to data gathered scientifically or by direct observation which provides strong support for a concept or theory.
In science, empirical data gained through experimentation and observation is often regarded as the most reliable source of knowledge because it is based on repeatable observations that can be verified independently.
Another strength of empiricism is that it encourages critical thinking and skepticism.
Empiricists are encouraged to question assumptions and test hypotheses using all available empirical evidence.
This process allows them to identify potential biases, inconsistencies or errors in reasoning, leading them towards a more objective conclusion.
Finally, empiricism promotes openness to new information as new evidence arises.
By constantly updating theories with newly observed phenomena, empiricists have been able to advance science at an impressive rate, challenging established beliefs such as geocentrism and phlogiston theory.
Criticisms and Limitations of Empiricism
Despite its strengths, empiricism also carries several weaknesses and limitations.
One major limitation of empiricism is that it assumes that our senses are always reliable sources of information.
In reality, we know that our senses can be limited or even deceived by certain phenomena such as optical illusions, hallucinations or even simple errors in interpretation.
There are also many variables that can affect the accuracy and objectivity of empirical data collection – such as observer bias, sampling errors or environmental factors – which can lead to false conclusions (Salmon, 2017).
Another weakness of empiricism lies in its narrow focus on what can be experienced directly.
Empiricists may sometimes dismiss intangible phenomena like emotions, values or personal experience as unobservable which limits the scope of knowledge they can acquire (Gertler, 2018).
Empiricism has been criticized for being reductionistic since it tries to explain everything based solely on materiality. This approach overlooks the significance and complexity of interactions between different forms of life including human society at large and their cultures.
Finally, a major weakness associated with empiricism is its inability to make value judgments through observation alone. Science works objectively trying to explain what exists without making moral judgments.
To make moral judgments, we need to turn to other ways of thinking, such as philosophical concepts like normative ethics (e.g. value ethics, deontology, and consequentialism), or, indeeed, religious frameworks (Salmon, 2017).
Overall, while empiricism has been a powerful tool for gaining knowledge about the world around us by relying on observable/repeatable events, it’s important to remain aware of its limitations, especially around developing a moral framework to live by.
Empiricism has been a lynchpin for the rapid expansion of human knowledge and welfare since the rise of the scientific method as the gold standard in academic settings. However, despite its amazing contributions to human wellbeing, we need to be aware of its liimitations, such as its inability to apply a moral framework (although, I would argue, it can help point us in the right direction morally).
Cooper, T. (2019). Handbook of administrative ethics. New York: Routledge.
Gertler, B. (2018). Self‐Knowledge and rational agency: A defense of empiricism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 96(1), 91-109.
McBride, D. M., Cutting, J. C., & Zimmerman, C. (2022). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. London: Sage Publications.
Mutiani, M., Disman, D., Wiyanarti, E., Abbas, E. W., Hadi, S., & Subiyakto, B. (2022). Overview of Rationalism and Empiricism Philosophy in Social Studies Education. The Innovation of Social Studies Journal, 3(2), 148-156.
Newell, R. W. (2015). Objectivity, empiricism and truth. New York: Routledge.
Robinson, D. (2015). Introducing Empiricism: A Graphic Guide. London: Icon Books Ltd.
Salmon, W. C. (2017). Logical empiricism. A companion to the philosophy of science, 233-242.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]