COMMENTS ON THE CRISIS OF EMPIRICISM by Roger Blackwell (1996)
1) The emergence of Empiricism
The historical conditions in which empirical philosophy first emerged in England were those of Feudalism. The merchants and gentry were growing both in wealth and confidence and their outlook at the time was expressed in the Protestant reformation. The monarchy and feudal aristocracy still held political power, but the merchants were becoming more important due to the increase in trade and prosperity accompanying the Far East markets and the beginnings of the colonisation of America. The feudal organisation of society was becoming more and more of a barrier to the growth of this trade and the emerging middle class was coming into increasing conflict with the old society in many ways.
One of the expressions of this conflict was ideological, first with the Protestant reformation and then natural science increasingly began to challenge the world-view passed on through Christian theology. It was indeed dangerous to challenge the old world-view and many scientists and heretics were burned at the stake for doing so.
The best known example of this scientific revolution was that of Copernicus who established that the planets revolved round the sun, instead of around the Earth as proposed by Hipparchus and Ptolemy which was the prevailing orthodoxy.
Another important example was Michael Servetus, an Aragonese physician and theologian who discovered the circulation of the blood through the lungs. He was condemned by Calvin and burned slowly at the stake at Geneva.
Despite the obvious dangers of questioning the established orthodoxy, whether Catholic or Protestant, nevertheless considerable advances were made in many sciences during this period.
When the experimental and observational techniques of these sciences were given a philosophic form by Francis Bacon, we had the beginnings of Empiricism.
2) The philosophy of Empiricism
What exactly is the philosophy of Empiricism? The most basic definition holds that sense experience is the only source of knowledge and all knowledge is founded on experience and obtained through experience. If this seems somewhat familiar to the English or American reader, it is not surprising as Empiricism has held sway in these countries for many centuries. Let us see how this philosophy differed from that passed on by Aristotle, the famous Ancient Greek philosopher.
Aristotle regarded contemplation as the highest form of mental activity, saw matter only as a passive principle and attributed all activity to form. According to Aristotle, we think we know a thing when we think we know both the cause because of which a thing is and also that it is not possible for it to be otherwise. He started with axioms and deduced conclusions through syllogisms, which are logical figures consisting of two premises and a conclusion. From a small set of primary truths, every other truth might be logically deduced. Such formal reasoning was strictly non-contradictory. Indeed the principle of non-contradiction was later considered the most important rule of logic.
The Schoolmen, of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, emasculated the ideas of this Aristotelian philosophy and adapted it to Christian dogma. In the process the original, relatively naive, formal logic of Aristotle became rigidified more and more into a set of rules for logic. Another Schoolman who opposed Thomas Aquinas' views was William of Occam.
He asserted that the existence of God and other religious dogmas could not be proved by reason and were founded solely on faith. He was a prominent representative of the nominalist school which asserted that only individual things with their individual properties existed and that general concepts created by our minds did not reflect reality. This was opposed to the so-called realist trend which asserted that universal concepts possess real existence and precede the existence of singular objects. This was a form of neo-Platonism expressed by Anselm and followed closely by Thomas Aquinas.
It was against this background of scholastic disputes that Francis Bacon said that the schoolmen brought forth "cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit." He declared that the purpose of learning was to increase man's power over nature by cleansing the mind of preconceptions and prejudices and then rationally interpreting the facts of experience. This meant using the method of induction, which was an analytical comprehension of observation and experiment.
The philosophy of Empiricism has four distinct stages which correspond to the historical developments of the time and the working out of the subject matter itself. These are:- (a) Materialist Empiricism, (b) Idealist Empiricism, (c) Sceptical Empiricism, (d) Pragmatism. When we consider these types of Empiricism in detail, it should be remembered that they all stem from the same basic method of regarding sense experience as the source of all knowledge.
a) Materialist Empiricism:- Its best known advocates were Bacon, Hobbes and Locke.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that by using a correct method huge advances could be made in knowledge, which was in opposition to the sceptics argument that "doomed men to perpetual darkness". His method was to begin with experience, guided by reason and understanding, and then appraise and digest such experience. Bacon rejected the method of producing syllogistic arguments from axioms, but retained Aristotle's aim of achieving knowledge of causes. He supported the views of the Greek Materialists, such as Democritus, and considered matter to be a combination of particles, and nature a combination of bodies endowed with many properties. He considered motion to be an essential property of matter.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a direct follower of Bacon's and had discussions with him when still a young man. He considered that not only did matter in motion cause sense perception, but also that our sensory ideas were motions in matter. In fact everything was matter in motion in one way or another, and that included the mind which was "nothing but the motions in certain parts of an organic body".
John Locke (1632-1704) advocated that we should first stand back and investigate our capacity for knowledge. He considered that all our knowledge came from experience and rejected any notion of innate knowledge. Experience gave us the ideas which formed the base of our knowledge. Prior to experience, the mind was "white paper void of all characters". Locke believed that ideas either came directly from our sensory interaction with the world or else by reflecting on the operations of our own mind as it operated on the ideas it had from sensation. He further made a distinction between simple and complex ideas, the latter being composed of the former. Through the process of reasoning, simple ideas were transformed into complex ones. He also made a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. By primary qualities, Locke meant motion, impenetrability, solidity, cohesion of particles, shape volume etc. Secondary properties were subjective and included colour, smell, taste and sound.
b) Idealist Empiricism (or Subjective Idealism):- The best known exponent of this school of Empiricism was George Berkeley (1685-1753). Berkeley considered that any element of materialism led to scepticism and atheism and sought to build his philosophy on religious foundations and reverse the tide of the world view developed in the 17th century, by philosophers and scientists. He considered that there was no such thing as matter and that the concept of matter was totally superfluous and even unintelligible. He claimed that everything which existed depended for its' existence on his mind, someone else's mind or the mind of some eternal spirit. He opposed the earlier distinction made between things and ideas and concluded that ideas are things. Berkeley developed his ideas in opposition to the philosophical basis of Newton's science and when Newton spoke of absolute motion and contrasted it with relative motion, Berkeley claimed that this was an abuse of words and that no meaning could be attached to the expression 'absolute motion'. He developed the views of Locke and the earlier medieval nominalists on an idealist basis, whereas Hobbes had earlier given the nominalists views a materialist base.
c) Sceptical Empiricism:- Best known for these views is the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). He sought to put the science of man, human nature, at the centre of all the sciences. Hume divided perceptions into impressions and ideas, the former being sensations, passions and emotions and the latter comprising the faint images in the thinking, reasoning, memory and imagination. The difference was supposed to be one of degree with impressions being lively perceptions and ideas as less vivid copies of these. He considered that the ideas of cause and effect were derived from custom and habit involving the much repeated observation of objects. It was a manifestation of mental habit which had developed as a result of past experience. Thus he denied the objective nature of causality, and this led to scepticism which questioned whether it was possible to have any exhaustive cognition of the world. Although this view is best of all refuted by the actual progress of science and technology, yet the modern 'Philosophers of Science' take Hume's outlook as their starting point.
d) Pragmatism:- This, the most degenerate form of Empiricism, was associated with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. At the centre of this philosophy, was the notion that the value of an idea lay in its practical utility. By this practical utility was meant whatever met the subjective needs of the individual. This led James to advocate the right to believe what could not be proved or reasoned. Many trends led directly to irrationalism, considering the world to be chaotic, devoid of regularity and depending on chance and unconscious will. The philosophy of Pragmatism was a further development of the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill which was itself a historical progression of the ideas of Berkeley and Hume.
Whilst this is just a brief sketch of Empiricism, certain historical tendencies can still be discovered. Firstly, when the merchants and gentry were a rising class, fighting for political power, they boldly broke from Aristotle and the Schoolmen and turned to experiment and industry as a way forward. The main thrust of their philosophy was Materialist Empiricism and in Hobbes it reached the point of almost a complete break with religion. Once the capitalist class had gained political power in England, Empiricism became more openly idealist and sceptical, reaching its' lowest point in the pragmatism of the USA in the 19th century, which considered a philosophy had to have a 'cash value'* This reflected the needs of the capitalists to consolidate their rule and then defend the existing order against the working class and the people of the oppressed nations.
Once Empiricism became the outlook of the ruling class, it was no longer essentially progressive and the further development of philosophy took place firstly in France and then in Germany.
3) French Materialism
French Materialism developed in opposition to the Metaphysics of the seventeenth century expressed by Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Liebniz. It traces its origin to the physics of Descartes (as opposed to his metaphysics) and the philosophy of Locke. The leading exponents were La Mettrie, Helvetius, Diderot and Holbach.
Medicine, physiology, and biology, which had made considerable steps forward since the time of the English Materialists, were incorporated into the new philosophy alongside the earlier Newtonian mechanics.
Holbach saw in nature nothing but matter and motion and since man himself was matter and possessed the faculty of thinking, then matter itself could think or was capable of that specific modification that we called thought.
Helvetius regarded man as a machine which, put into movement by physical sensibility, did everything that it performed. Physical sensibility was the prime source of human needs, passions, sociability, ideas, judgements, desires and actions. He considered virtues and vices to be actions that were useful or harmful to society. Helvetius considered that all humans possessed the same abilities at birth and that differences at a later date were due to upbringing and education. The sensory qualities and self-love, enjoyment and correctly understood personal interest were the basis of Helvetius's morality. The teachings of these French Materialists led directly to the ideas of socialism and communism. Helvetius's books, amongst others, were denounced by the Sorbonne and publicly burnt in Paris.
4) German Idealism
The classical German idealist philosophy was developed by Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel and the pace of change of thought and indeed logic itself was quite remarkable. It was recognised during this period that the fundamental problems of philosophy were concerned with what thought itself was and what was the relationship between thought and the external world.
Kant set out to give a set of rules to all thought whether they be a priori or empirical. These rules were such that they might justify any absurdity as long as it was not self-contradictory. He made a preliminary study of the forms of cognition and the limits of human ability to cognise. He was led by his studies and especially by his rigid adherence to the principle of non-contradiction to the conclusion that we can know only the appearance of things, but not the thing in itself. He asserted that reason was, by its nature, antinomic or contradictory and set out four antinomies where he proved both the thesis and antithesis to be true. The first thesis was that the world had a beginning both in time and space. The antithesis was that the world was infinite both in time and space. His solution to these antinomies was that we know only appearances and not things in themselves and so he limited knowledge in favour of faith.
Fichte considered Kant's concept of a 'thing in itself' was logically impossible, because he saw it as impossible for the Ego to be conscious of a thing outside consciousness. For Fichte the ego affirmed itself as the first act of consciousness and constructed the objective world or non-ego from appearances. Fichte discarded the question of the relation of a concept to the external object and instead replaced it by the relation of a concept to itself. He considered that if you came up against a contradiction in a logical expression then it was necessary to return to the intuition and if it proved necessary then the principle of non-contradiction could not be regarded as the indisputable measure of truth.
For Schelling consciousness itself was the only immediate object of knowledge and knowledge of the objective world only arose merely in the form of a limiting condition to the process by which consciousness became aware of itself. The most comprehensible thing was how we defined everything according to the law of identity, and the most enigmatic was how we could define anything outside this law. For a real synthesis of knowledge Schelling considered that it was necessary to use a practical method rather than a theoretical one. The contradictions that Schelling was acutely aware of in philosophy drove him to conclude that philosophy on the whole was impossible as one science and he moved on to say that it was in art alone that mind became fully aware of itself.
Hegel's philosophy was profoundly influenced by the impact of the French bourgeois revolution of 1789, which transformed social relations across much of Europe. Germany was relatively backward at this time and what happened socially in European upheavals had its biggest influence on German philosophy, rather than the conservative German politics. Hegel's dialectical logic was first originated by the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535-475BC), but little has survived from this period of Ancient Greek philosophy and in Hegel it received it's most comprehensive and systematic development ever recorded in any written philosophy. Hegel complained in his works that logic as derived from Aristotle and modified by the Schoolmen had not undergone any real development in thousands of years. Yet natural science in contrast had made great strides forward. At the centre of the formal logic stood the principle of non-contradiction, held in holy reverence, by the scholastics and empiricists alike.
Hegel, in his monumental work, "Science of Logic" made a full frontal assault on this 'inviolable' principle. When he considered the law of identity A=A, he said this expressed nothing more than an empty tautology. For example to say wealth is wealth says nothing and leaves the reader bored. Likewise with power is power, but if we say wealth is power then we are making a statement which arouses interest and leads to further investigation. The statement which arouses interest contains a contradiction, i.e. that A is not A, or A is B. Of course A is still A, but that is an empty tautology and Hegel said that "truth is only complete in the unity of identity with difference, and hence consists only in this unity." Hegel also said that the law of diversity, that all things are different, was opposed to the law of identity, i.e. that A is distinctive, therefore A is also not A. Brought together these so-called original laws of thought show that formal thinking, when developed to its conclusion leads to contradiction.
Prior to Hegel, philosophers who paid homage to the law of non-contradiction were led by such paradoxes to scepticism, or like Immanuel Kant declared that we could only know the appearance of things, but not things in themselves. When the Ancient Greek philosophers such as Zeno discovered contradiction in motion, they declared that motion was not true, however Hegel corrected this by declaring motion to be existent contradiction itself. What Hegel did was to revolutionise the science of logic and break from Aristotle in a way that the Empiricists could never do. Because Hegel was an idealist and his thought often shrouded in mysticism, the revolutionary nature of his philosophy was often overlooked and emphasis was placed in his conservative 'system'. However once Marx and Engels had placed dialectics on a materialist base and stood Hegel on his feet then its revolutionary nature could no longer be ignored. Before moving to Marx and Engels, here is a quotation from Hegel that succinctly expressed his dialectical method.
"Therefore though ordinary thinking everywhere has contradiction for its content, it does not become aware of it, but remains an external reflection which passes from likeness to unlikeness, or from the negative relation to reflection-into-itself, of the distinct sides. It holds these two determinations over against one another and has in mind only them, but not their transition, which is the essential point and which contains the contradiction. Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. Even though it does not express the Notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, it does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their Notion to show or shine through the contradiction. Thinking reason, however, sharpens so to say, the blunt difference of diverse terms, the mere manifoldness of pictorial thinking, into essential difference, into opposition. Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction do they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity."
5) Dialectical Materialism
It was really only Marx and Engels that recognised the revolution accomplished in logic by Hegel, but for Marx "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Marx and Engels dialectical method was the direct opposite to that of Hegel. It was a materialist dialectics in which being determined consciousness and not the other way round as it was with Hegel. Although this outlook was a direct opposite to Hegel's, nevertheless, it was not a simple rejection of Hegel and return to the earlier materialism of the French and English. As we shall see, there is much that divides Marxism from the earlier materialism such as that of the Materialist Empiricism of Hobbes.
Marx and Engels were both thoroughly immersed in dialectical thinking before they became materialists. It was Ludwig Feuerbach who first broke from Hegelianism and became a materialist. Marx and Engels then came under his influence, but went far beyond his philosophy by sublating the dialectical method into their materialism. Feuerbach had been unable to preserve nowhere near so much of the dialectical method, as he simply discarded most of it, returning mainly to 18th century mechanical materialism.
Many of the differences between Marxism and mechanical materialism were expressed clearly, in note form, in Marx's theses on Feuerbach. In the first one, Marx criticised the contemplative nature of earlier materialism, which, he said led to the active side being developed by idealism. This was replaced by revolutionary, practical-critical activity in Marxism. Another thesis, which is crucial, is that the highest point attained by contemplative materialism is the study of the single individual in capitalist society. This is the standpoint of modern psychology, which has its philosophical basis in Empiricism. There is a clear connection here between empiricism and the earlier nominalism of the schoolmen. As we saw earlier this nominalism was opposed to the realist school. Such an opposition was based on the precepts of formal logic. However, by the use of dialectics, both Hegel and Marxism were able to supersede both outlooks and overcome the one-sidedness of each philosophy.
Engels mentioned the main dialectical laws in his work 'Dialectics of Nature'. These were the law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa, the law of the interpenetration of opposites and the law of the negation of the negation. These laws were abstracted from the history of nature and human society.
Marx used the dialectical method in all his mature works including the writing of 'Capital'. Lenin used the dialectical method to build the Bolshevik party and lead the Russian revolution and Trotsky founded the Fourth International also guided by this outlook.
6) The crisis of Empiricism today
Engels in his important works 'Anti-Duhring' and 'Dialectics of Nature' pointed to the limitations of Empiricism with regard to the natural sciences and said that only by the adoption of the dialectical method could natural science achieve clarity. He remarked that a return to dialectical thinking might even come about by the sheer force of natural scientific discoveries themselves "But that is a protracted, laborious process during which a tremendous amount of unnecessary friction has to be overcome." He then advised the theoreticians of the sciences to acquaint themselves with dialectical philosophy by a study of Ancient Greek philosophy and classical German philosophy especially Hegel. He also added that Hegel should be studied from a materialist standpoint.
Even in Engels' day, over a century ago, natural science had accumulated a tremendous amount of empirical knowledge and today this is very much more the case. What this science was incapable of doing, and the philosophy of Empiricism was no help either, was to be able to systematize the separate fields and bring them into the correct connection with one another.
The so-called Philosophy of Science, developed in this century from aspects of Hume's Sceptical Empiricism has also failed in this respect. The crisis of the empiricist outlook drives many scientists back into an open embrace of religion and the most reactionary philosophy. Professor Stephen Hawking found it necessary to quote St Augustine in his book 'A brief history of time' and also to complain that the philosophers had been unable to keep up with the advances in scientific theories.
We have other scientists at various institutes throughout the world trying to bridge the gap between their specialities and engage in a broader view of the world. They will not succeed unless they listen to the advice that Engels gave. They may well have developed Mathematics into an extraordinarily useful tool for physical science, but the concepts, categories and logic that they use is still stuck in the Middle Ages. Even a brilliant, and part philosophically educated, scientist such as Einstein could not conceive of the dialectical relation between chance and necessity and this proved a barrier to an acceptance of Quantum Mechanics.
Our century is full of specialists making important discoveries in their own particular fields, but owing to the increasing one-sidedness produced by the ever-greater division of labour there are few who can understand the essence of the whole. This often means that scientists who are working on major projects, such as the Atomic bomb earlier this century, are not aware of the social implications of their work until it is too late for them to do anything about it.
Also scientific progress can lead to unforeseen environmental problems, because there is no global view taken of the work being done. All in all Empiricism and all its related modern philosophies leave humanity with only a short-term view within a narrow perspective at that. It is necessary to assimilate the major philosophical advances made since Hume, especially Dialectical Materialism if we are to be able to take a broader and longer view of our current and future problems.
The philosophers of the twentieth century have increasingly become academic specialists who study what was previously only a tiny part of philosophy. When Bacon wrote his works there were in existence many speculative works by the schoolmen and other theologians, but there were few examples of genuinely empirical investigation.
We really have virtually the opposite situation today with a veritable explosion of information available from both publications and the electronic media. Not all of it is of any use, but empirical data is not only the great strength of 20th century scientific investigation, but is also its weakness. With modern data processing machines like computers and supercomputers, it is possible for our body of knowledge to be enormously increased with ever greater rapidity. However, this can never be a substitute for our theoretical thinking, because dialectics is a property of all human knowledge, whereas computers are restricted by their software to a complex, but fixed programme, which can only ever proceed formally in a logical sense.
There have been a number of scientists and theoreticians of all kinds, including philosophers, who have turned to Marxism, especially since the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, but many of these theoreticians have misunderstood Marxism, because they have failed to grasp the revolutionary role of the working class.
To understand Marxism, it is necessary to take sides. It can only be developed in a living struggle to overthrow the existing order and establish Socialism. Scientists and philosophers cannot stand aside from this struggle and expect their outlook to develop by purely academic work. This way their outlook will only become sterile. The relationship between theory and practice is such that the whole of human activity needs to be cognised, not in a purely contemplative way, but through the practice of consciously changing the world itself.
Empiricism was for many centuries an extremely successful outlook, but now in the epoch of wars and revolutions, it has to give way to a more advanced philosophy, just as society itself is faced with either socialist revolution or the decline of the whole of human culture.
If you have any comments about this article, please e-mail me: