Beliefs of the British Empiricists

by Pam Lobley

British Empiricism is a philosophy developed during the early 1700s in Great Britain. It argues that man’s knowledge can only be based on what he can observe and experience, rather than what he learns from pure ideas or deductive reasoning.

How British Empiricism Was Developed

In the period immediately preceding British Empiricism, the prevailing philosophy held that man’s knowledge was based on deductive reasoning; i.e., that there is a complete and rational explanation for everything which can be understood through study and thought. British Empiricists agreed that reason was key, but they felt that reason must be based on personal sensory experience, rather than simply accepting certain truths. To simply think about things was not enough -- a human can only learn through experience and introspection.

John Locke

The founder of British Empiricism was John Locke (1632-1704). He theorized that the acquisition of human knowledge is a twofold process. The first is sensory experience, in which we learn about the world through our five senses. The second is reflection, in which we use our minds and emotions to build those sensory experiences into more complex ideas. As an example, one can experience an apple through sight and taste, and afterward, one can reflect that it is a good thing to eat, and conclude that mankind would benefit if we cultivated apples through farming.

George Berkeley and David Hume

The other major figures of British Empiricism are George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-1776). Berkeley took the sensory experience idea further and created the metaphysical theory that everything that does exist depends on the mind and our perception of it for its existence; that in fact, no matter actually does exist without the mind's perception. Hume was more of a skeptic. He agreed with Locke’s ideas of sensory and reflection but then rejected the idea that they lead to a certain truth, and instead maintains that our knowledge is simply a result of our habits of thinking -- our cognitive behavior -- and not of any universal fact.

Basis for Future Thinking

British Empiricism remains a significant thread in the fabric of today's philosophical beliefs. With its focus on observation and reflection as the basis for human knowledge, it has influenced many successive scientists and philosophers, including Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant.

About the Author

Pam Lobley was a regular columnist on the Op Ed page of "The Bergen Record" for three years; in addition, her columns have appeared in many newspapers, such as "The New York Times" "The Philadelphia Inquirer," "The Chicago Tribune" and several others. As a playwright, her work has been produced regionally and in New York City.

Photo Credits

  • Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images