MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Doctrine that sense experience is the sole source of knowledge. Empiricism originated in England in the seventeenth century with Bacon, Hobbes and Locke, when it was a materialist trend, is as much as it directed attention to the observation of Nature as opposed to Holy scripture or introspection. Bacon, & Co. recognised the material world as the source of sensation, and that sense experience has objective content. The Rationalist critique of Empiricism, and particularly the idealist critique of Berkeley forced empiricism to the scepticism of Hume: experience was the only source of knowledge, but could not give us "certain knowledge". For example, we may know that the Sun has always risen in the East, and this may be good enough for practical purposes, but Hume explained that we cannot know for certain that the Sun will rise in the East tommorow.

Empiricism is characterised, on the one hand, by an uncritical attitude towards the categories through which Experience is grasped, and on the other by rejection of the significance of Reason in acquiring knowledge. This is why, historically, Empiricism could not answer the critique of Rationalism and fell into scepticism. Experience does not by itself give necessary and universal knowledge. Experience must be supplemented by the activity of Reason. The chief defect of Empiricism is that it views experience passively, whereas in order to retain a consistent materialist understanding of experience it is necessary to recognise that it is the practical activity of people changing the world which is the condition and source of knowledge. Further, knowledge only arises in and through definite social relations, through which people produce the forms of activity under which experience can be grasped; but for Empricism, experience is not a social activity, but simply a passive, sensual process.

Further Reading: Empiricism and Its Evolution by Gerge Novack, and Geoff Pilling's explanation, Hegel's critique of Empiricism, and in particular its defect