Empiricism is the theory that experience is of primary importance in giving us knowledge of the world. Whatever we learn, according to empiricists, we learn through perception. Knowledge without experience, with the possible exception of trivial semantic and logical truths, is impossible.

Classical Empiricism

Classical empiricism is characterised by a rejection of innate, in-born knowledge or concepts. John Locke, well known as an empiricist, wrote of the mind being a tabula rasa, a “blank slate”, when we enter the world. At birth we know nothing; it is only subsequently that the mind is furnished with information by experience.

Radical Empiricism

In its most radical forms, empiricism holds that all of our knowledge is derived from the senses. This position leads naturally to the verificationist principle that the meaning of statements is inextrically tied to the experiences that would confirm them. According to this principle, it is only if it is possible to empirically test a claim that the claim has meaning. As all of our information comes from our senses, it is impossible for us to talk about that which we have not experienced. Statements that are not tied to our experiences are therefore meaningless.

This principle, which was associated with a now unpopular position called logical positivism, renders religious and ethical claims literally nonsensical. No observations could confirm religious or ethical claims, therefore those claims are meaningless. Radical empiricism thus requires the abandonment of religious and ethical discourse and belief.

Moderate Empiricism

More moderate empiricists, however, allow that there may be some cases in which the senses do not ground our knowledge, but hold that these are exceptions to a general rule. Truths such as “there are no four-sided triangles” and “7+5=12” need not be investigated in order to be known, but all significant, interesting knowledge, the empiricist claims, comes to us from experience. This more moderate empiricism strikes many as more plausible than its radical alternative.