Introduction to British Empiricism


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. The “Schools” of The Early Modern Period:


Philosophers often call the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (the period that begins with the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592], the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei [1564-1642], the British Philosopher Francis Bacon [1560-1626], and their contemporaries, and ends with the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant [1724-1804]) the “Early Modern” Period.  This was an intense and interesting philosophical period which is frequently discussed as containing two different philosophical “schools:” the “Continental Rationalists” (Rene Descartes [1596-1650], Benedict Spinoza [1632-1677], and Gottfried Leibniz [1646-1716] are the most notable exemplars) and the “British Empiricists” (John Locke [1635-1703], George Berkeley [1685-1753], and David Hume [1711-1776] are the most notable exemplars). 


     Kant brings together the disparate strands and thoughts of these two schools and founds a new philosophical orientation marking the beginning of what philosophers often call the “Late Modern Period,” which, in turn, leads us up to the contemporary philosophy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.[1]  It should be noted that not all the thinkers of the Early Modern period neatly fit into either the Continental Rationalist or British Empiricist camps—Blaise Pascal [1623-1662], for example, is clearly a different sort of thinker (one who questions the fundamental commitment to, or faith in, reason and rationality which is characteristic of these two camps and of the intellectual temper of this age).  Moreover, insofar as Kant is included in this period rather than in the “Late Modern” one, one clearly would need to say that there were, then, four “schools” as he weaves and intertwines elements of both Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism into a philosophical orientation which is both and neither. 


     It is important to add to the above the following warning to such historical overviews:


the tendency to try and discuss philosophical thought in terms of various “schools-of-thought,” “common themes,” or “intellectual traditions” can be both false and illuminating.  To speak of the history of philosophy in terms of certain “isms” and “ists” (for example: “rationalism,” “empiricism,” “materialists,” and “idealists”) is to skip over and ignore important differences amongst individual philosophers who may share a number of theses, beliefs, methods, etc., yet employ them to radically different purposes or draw from them radically different conclusions or positions. 


If one is to come to understand a philosophical “period,” one must look for both similarities and differences in the views of the various philosophers of that period. 


     Moreover, while it is important to understand the “intellectual temper” of a “period,” it may well be a mistake to simply assume that a philosopher of that period simply and fully embodies that spirit.[2]  Plato is not to be thought of simply as a representative thinker of ancient Greece who is giving “philosophical voice” to the thought of the age.  He is reacting, indeed reacting very negatively, to many of the cultural and social tendencies of his era.  Similarly, St. Augustine does not find that his social setting is akin to the “City of God,” and this motivates him to write about what such a condition would be like.  Similarly, for the thinkers of this course: Locke’s explicit call for tolerance (his Epistola de Tolerantia [published in English as A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689]) had to be published anonymously, his views on our knowledge of the deity and ultimate reality were not emblematic of his time (his The Reasonableness of Christianity [was published anonymously in 1695), and his efforts to replace “enthusiasm” with “reasonableness” were a reaction, rather than a reflection of his time; Berkeley’s idealism would not have seemed anything like “common-sense” to those of his parish; and Hume’s skepticism and atheism were no less problematic to the majority of his fellow citizens than they are to ours. 


2. Continental Rationalism Briefly Characterized:


The Continental Rationalists (thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) each helped to cement the downfall of the Medieval world-view and the rise of the modern scientific world-view.  A central tenet of the Medieval period was that faith and reason could not contradict one another:


the natural dictates of reason must certainly be true; it is impossible to think of their being otherwise.  Nor again is it permissible to believe that the tenets of faith are false, being so evidently confirmed by God.  Since therefore falsehood alone is contrary to truth, it is impossible for the truth of faith to be contrary to the principles known by natural reason.[3] 


The Medieval view was that faith and reason co-operated to depict a world in which everything accorded with the divine purpose.  While this picture was the dominant one for about a thousand years (from about 400-1400 C.E.), with the Renaissance (1400-1600) this world-view came under substantial pressure. 


     The Continental Rationalists' period is marked by a change in the attitude toward the Medieval institutions and beliefs.  These philosophers did not so much ask new questions, instead, they endeavored to provide answers in a “new spirit.”  These answers weren't wholly different from the sorts of answers offered by the Medievals, but they were offered in a new spirit, with a new method, and in a new manner.[4]  The Rationalists' fundamental break with the previous tradition was an unrelenting faith in human reason.  They held we could arrive at knowledge unaided by religious faith or revelation. 


     For the Continental Rationalists, Leibniz' principle of sufficient reason may be considered the basic principle: they all held that there is a complete, and completely rational, explanation for everything which occurs.  It should be stressed that their conception of reason is that knowledge (or truth) is arranged in a deductive system, and that one must “begin” with self-evident a priori truths of which we can be certain.  That is, their “faith in reason” was a faith in a priori reasoning—they did not believe that our sensory experience could provide us with knowledge of the world.  Instead, the Continental Rationalists held that it is only via a priori intellectual perceptions that we grasp the fundamental nature of the universe (the notions of substance, essence, etc.). 


     According to the Continental Rationalists, the appropriate methodology for building upon the self-evident truths is the deductive axiomatic method of mathematics (as especially exemplified in geometry) wherein theorems are derived from axioms and postulates.  Of course, the truth of the theorems is dependent upon the truth of these axioms and postulates.  The Continental Rationalists believed that these axioms and postulates were not to be accepted on faith but, rather, that must be known by and guaranteed by some sort of intellectual understanding (or rational intuition).  These intuitions showed certain facts to be necessary truths and upon this sort of a priori, rational, and certain basis, the Continental Rationalists would ground all of our knowledge.  They did not hold, as many now do, that logical truths (tautologies) are mere “truths of language” (which give us no substantial information about the way the world is).  Instead, they held that the necessary truths they which they relied upon reflected necessary facts and gave us (certain) knowledge of the basic ways of the world. 


     In saying that the Continental Rationalists’ conception of reason is that knowledge (or truth) is arranged in a deductive system, we speak about both their epistemology and their metaphysics.  Metaphysically speaking, they hold that the world has a fundamentally deductive structure.  Moreover, for all of them the ontological argument occupies a position of central metaphysical importance.  The fact “exposed” by this proof provides the “metaphysical ground” for the whole system of truths which constitutes the created universe.  Epistemologically speaking, of course, this “ground” provides the explanation for all the other truths in the total “system” of truths. 


     At the core of the Continental Rationalists' orientations, then, are what are called innate principles or ideas.  These “ideas” express the intellectual intuitions which are the heart of their systems.  The classical example of an innate idea is the idea of a deity.  Standard examples of innate principles for these thinkers (claims which they hold to be known a priori, and which are held to be intellectual intuitions that are certain, self-evident, and necessarily true) include: “What is, is” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be.”  As noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica:


the Cartesian metaphysics is the fountainhead of Rationalism in modern philosophy, for it suggests that the mathematical criteria of clarity, distinctness, and absence of contradiction among ideas are the ultimate test of meaningfulness and truth.  This stance is profoundly antiempirical.  Bacon, who had said that “reasoners resemble spiders who make cobwebs out of their own substance,” might well have said so of Descartes, for the Cartesian self is just such a substance from which the idea of God originates and with which all deductive reasoning begins.  Yet for Descartes the understanding is vastly superior to the senses, and, in the question of what constitutes truth in science, only man's reason can ultimately decide.[5] 


     A major problem for the Continental Rationalists is directly evident when we note the diversity of basic postulates which the different rationalists advance, and the radically different conclusions which they draw from shared principles, postulates, or ideas.  Since they wished to offer objective theories (which all rational thinkers would have to accept), their differences at this fundamental level were a matter of no small concern. 


     Another problem with their orientation is that they have a great deal of difficulty admitting any degree of contingency into their systems.  Since their model of knowledge is one which begins with necessary truths, since their systems posit deductive connections between truths, and since they hold that everything is explicable through this model and these connections, there seems no room for contingency in the universe.  After all, deductive consequences of necessary truths are themselves necessary, and their model leaves us with nothing else. 


3. A Quick Characterization of British Empiricism:[6]


Whereas Galileo and Descartes emphasized the role of deductive reason in the acquisition and defense of knowledge, Francis Bacon [1561-1626] emphasized the experimental and observational methodology of induction for the acquisition and defense of knowledge.  In his The Great Instauration [1620], he tries to provide “...a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations.”[7]  According to him,


...what the sciences stand in need of is a form of induction which shall analyze experience and take it to pieces, and by a due process of exclusion and rejection lead to an inevitable conclusion.[8] 


While Bacon contends that ordinary sensory experience is not to be trusted, he posits a “new organon[9] (or experimental method) which can correct the errors of ordinary experience:


for the subtlety of experiments is far greater than that of the sense itself, even when assisted by exquisite instruments; such experiments, I mean, as are skillfully and artificially devised for the express purpose of determining the point in question.  To the immediate and proper perception of sense therefore I do not give much weight; but I contrive that the office of the sense shall be only to judge the experiment, and that the experiment itself shall judge of the thing.  And thus I conceive that I perform the office of a true priest of the sense (from which all knowledge in nature must be sought, unless men mean to go mad) and a not unskillful interpreter of its oracles....[10] 


Those however who aspire not to guess and divine, but to discover and know; who propose not to devise mimic and fabulous worlds of their own, but to examine and dissect the nature of this very world itself; must go to facts themselves for everything.  Nor can the place of this labor and search and world-wide perambulation be supplied by any genius or meditation or argumentation; no, not if all men’s wits could meet in one.  This therefore we must have, or the business must be forever abandoned.  But up to this day such has been the condition of men in this matter, that it is no wonder if nature will not give herself into their hands.[11] 


Bacon is an early example of the second major “school of thought” in the Early Modern period: the British Empiricists.[12]  These empiricists hold that most of our knowledge is empirical (or a posteriori).  Like the Continental Rationalists, they have a faith in human reason, but they have a different conception of the nature of “reason”—one based upon sensory experience rather than beginning with necessary truths.[13]  Whereas the Continental Rationalists hold that deductive reason acting upon innate principles or ideas reveals the fundamental truths about the world, the British Empiricists maintain that deductive reasoning “...can only reveal the logical connections between our ideas; it never increases our knowledge of what exists; it only results in claims like “All triangles have three sides.””[14]  There are, of course, many other possible sources of knowledge: e.g., revelation, testimony, memory, authority, etc. 


     We must be careful as we attempt to initially characterize empiricism here, however.  It is often said that empiricists assign a central role to experience.  This broad characterization is insufficient—when someone says that everything is based on experience (or justified by appeal to experience, or originates in experience, etc.), we must know what concept of experience is being appealed to (atomistic, Romantic, religious, etc.).  As Thomas Grey points out in his critical review of several books on Oliver Wendell Holmes:


one must always read Holmes’s scientistic pronouncements remembering that he was also a Romantic.  His skepticism was of the Wordsworthian kind that revels in the sublimity of the unknown, and when he said law had been and likely always would be based largely in “experience,” he was invoking the Romantic historicist idea of a collective unconscious made up of custom and tradition that could never be fully captured by articulate reason.[15] 


As the above discussion of Bacon should illustrate, ‘empiricism’,[16] in the sense in which we will be using the term, refers to philosophers who assign a central role to sensory experience.  It should be noted, however, that there are a variety of distinct ways in which such experience could “play a central role.”  Some of these can be usefully distinguished by noting the differences between the following claims:[17]


(a) that human ideas, understanding, or knowledge have their source in sense experience;


(b) that they have their sole source in sense experience;


(c) that human understanding or knowledge, have sense experience as their object;


(d) that human understanding or knowledge arises when sense experience is (properly) used to test propositions (or hypotheses, or theories), or ideas; or


(e) that we should limit our claims to understanding to those claims which can be established by appeal to the method which uses sense experience to test propositions (or hypotheses, or theories), or ideas. [18] 


Whichever version of empiricism one adheres to, however, there is a clear-cut contrast with Continental Rationalism.  Whereas the rationalists sought to derive knowledge from a priori axioms (truths which are held to be “indubitable”) by means of strictly deductive procedures; the British Empiricists assign a fundamental role to sensory experience (whether as the source of, object of, or justificatory check upon our knowledge claims).  Thus they contend that our knowledge is fundamentally a posteriori—as noted above, the empiricists tend to believe that deductive reasoning can only reveal logical connections between our ideas and can not reveal truths about what exists—the latter requires inductive procedures.[19] 


     Like the Continental Rationalists, the British Empiricists begin with our ideas, but where the rationalists begin with a priori innate principles or ideas which are self-evident and form the basis for deductive knowledge, the empiricists “begin with” sensory ideas which form the source or basis for (or object of, or test for) a posteriori knowledge. 


     Again, a caution regarding the use of “isms and ists” may be in order here.  In his “Rationalism,” Edwin Curley maintains that the distinction between Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism is as misleading as it is useful:


none of the three great philosophers commonly counted as paradigms of epistemological rationalism was as dismissive of experience or as trusting of a priori intuition as traditional accounts of rationalism imply.  Such difficulties have made specialists increasingly reluctant to accept that classification....Determining the exact relation between reason and experience in the three paradigm ‘rationalists’ is difficult; an accurate account would be too complicated to make for a readable general history, and would probably not conclude that they had any significant epistemological programme in common, or that they constituted a school of thought to which empiricism could usefully be opposed.[20] 


Curley goes on to discuss several other possible ways of usefully contrasting the orientations of the early modern philosophers. 


4. Some Important Qualifications Regarding the “Quick Characterization:”


Locke might have severe reservations about the above characterization.  Moreover, both Berkeley and Hume would likely have strong reservations to be being characterized as British empiricists.  Berkeley was Irish and Hume was Scottish.  While each is deeply influenced by, and is clearly “reacting to,” Locke’s thought, he might believe they were “influenced” by only some of the elements of his thought, and their “reactions” to his thought may have developed it is directions he did not anticipate.  There has been a strong tendency to interpret these three thinkers as developing a common thread of thought which is itself seen through a “Kantian” lens (or perspective), and this may be misrepresent their underlying beliefs.  Nonetheless, this interpretation has been historically important.  Two contemporary works on Locke’s work are helpful as one tries to work toward an interpretation of his work (and of empiricism): Nicholas Wolterstorff’s John Locke and The Ethics of Belief, (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), and Nicholas Jolley’s Locke: His Philosophical Thought (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1999). 


In his “Scepticism, Theology and the Scientific Revolution in the Seventeenth Century,” Richard H. Popkin maintains that the common claim that the “early modern” period contains a “battle” between theology and science wherein the latter tries to restrict and restrain the growth of the former, is an overly simplistic (and incorrect) picture.  Popkin maintains that:


by-and-large, my suspicion is that the period from Copernicus to Newton is dominated by a war amongst theologians, with the scientists only occasionally entering in, or being caught in the struggle.  The riskiest occupation from 1500 onward was that of a theology professor.[21] 


The serious conflict between theology and science developed, I believe, not from the rise of Copernican astronomy or mechanism, but from the application of new data and new scientific concepts to Judeo-Christianity.  One such kind of conflict was involved in explaining Mysteries and Miracles in terms of seventeenth century science.  Transsubstantiation was a most serious problem for Catholic Cartesians, though, of course, not for the Protestant ones.  Moreover the more dramatic cases develop from the attempt to comprehend key events in Biblical history in terms of modern science.  The flood, and the descendence of all of mankind from Noah and his family provided serious difficulties when examined in light of new geographical, anthropological, meteorological data, and mechanistic physics.[22] 


Popkin talks about the work of Isaac La Peyrere (Pereira) and Richard Simon, who began modern Biblical scholarship by pursuing “scientific study” of the Bible, and, thus, posing many problems for theology. 


5. Dates of important publications in the Early Modern Period:


1580 Montaigne’s Essays. 


1610 Galileo’s The Starry Messenger. 


1620 Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration and New Organon. 


1632 Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning Two Chief World Systems. 


1638 Galileo’s Discoursi (theory of dynamics). 


1641 Descartes’ Meditations. 


1651 Hobbes’ Leviathan. 


1662 Arnauld and Nichole’s The Art of Thinking. 


1670 [post] Pascal’s Pensees. 


1678 [post] Spinoza’s Ethics. 


1686 Leibniz’ Discourse on Metaphysics. 


1687 Newton’s Principia. 


1690 Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 


1702 Bayle’s Dictionaire Historique et Critique. 


1710 Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. 


1716 [post] Leibniz’ Monadology. 


1739 Hume’s A Treatise of Human Understanding. 


1759 Voltaire’s Candide. 


1762 Rousseau’s The Social Contract. 


1764 Reid's Inquiry Into the Human Mind. 


1781 Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] The phrases used to designate these different periods seem antiquated, and as we sit near the cusp of two centuries, it seems that what is to be called “modern” or “contemporary” may soon require some other form of designation.  It is to be noted that many contemporary thinkers would contend that we are now in a “post-modern” era.  Consideration of this takes us too far afield, but, clearly, an understanding of what the modern thought is will be requisite if one is to come to understand what “postmodern thought” is. 

[2] One philosopher who makes such a linkage is Albert William Levi in his Philosophy As Social Expression (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1974).  Levi discusses Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, and Moore and treats their philosophical thought and theories as “expressions” of their respective “ages.” 

[3] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles [~1260], I. 7. 

[4] In his “Introduction,” Martin Hollis maintains that “the novelty of Rationalism lies in its method of enquiry, which owed more to logic and mathematics and, at the same time, to scientific experiment than any before.  The results of the method, however, often owed more to the past than the Rationalists admitted.  Presumptions made about God, about human nature and about the character of rational order...” (Martin Hollis, “Introduction” to The Light of Reason: Rationalist Philosophers of the 17th Century, ed. Martin Hollis (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), pp. 9-36, pp. 10-11). 

[5] “Philosophy, history of,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, < ctn=12>, accessed 19 August 1999, emphasis has been added to the passage. 

[6] An excellent introduction to empiricism in general, and British Empiricism in particular, is offered by D.W. Hamlyn in his “Empiricism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 2, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 499-505. 

[7] Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration and New Organon [1620], selections in The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill, ed. Edwin Burtt (N.Y.: Modern Library, 1939), pp. 5-123, pp. 5-6.  Bacon recommends employment of a form of eliminative induction (whereas the common form prior to his recommendation was enumerative induction). 

[8] Ibid., p. 16, emphasis added to passage. 

[9] ‘Organon’ is from a Greek word meaning “instrument.”  Aristotle's logical writings are traditionally known as “The Organon,” and in Bacon and Locke, one uses this word when one is speaking of an instrument for seeking truth (or reasonable belief). 

[10] Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration and New Organon [1620], op. cit., p. 17. 

[11] Ibid., p. 19. 

[12] Above I noted that it is important to take such labels with a grain of salt because the differences between thinkers are as important as the similarities.  It is also important to note that only one of the three standard exemplars of this “school of thought” was English—John Locke.  George Berkeley was Irish, and David Hume was Scottish. 

[13] The distinction is partially an epistemological one—a distinction between what is validated or justified by appeal to experience and what is not.  As long as a non-empirical procedure of validation exists, we are confronted with the a priori.  The distinction is also partially a metaphysical one.  According to Aristotle, A is prior to B in nature if and only if B could not exist without A; A is prior to B in knowledge if and only if we cannot know B without knowing A—cf., Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Bk. 1.2. 

[14] Garrett Thomson, Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (Prospect Hill: Waveland, 1997), p. 110. 

[15] Thomas Grey, “Bad Man from Olympus,” in The New York Review of Books v. 42 (July 13, 1995), pp. 4-7, p. 6. 

[16] Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example, in the sentence “‘Long’ is a short word,” the word ‘long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word ‘short’ is used! 

[17] Cf., Frederick Will, “Empiricism,” Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert Runes (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1960), pp. 89-91. 

[18] Will adds several other variant to the list including: that “the nature of meaning, ideas, concepts, or universals [is] that they “consist of” or “are reducible to” references to directly presented data or content of [sensory] experience” (ibid., p.90). 

[19] That is to say, they tend to conceive of logical truths as fundamentally linguistic—they are “mere tautologies” which expose relations amongst ideas, propositions, or concepts. 

[20] Edwin Curley, “Rationalism,” in A Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992), pp. 411-415, p. 414. 

[21] Richard H. Popkin, “Scepticism, Theology and the Scientific Revolution in the Seventeenth Century,” in Problems in the Philosophy of Science, eds. I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1968), pp. 1-28), p. 5. 

[22] Ibid., p. 17. 

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