Empiricism (from Latin empiricus, der. from the Greek ἐμπειρία, empeirìa, ‘experience’), is the philosophical movement, born in the second half of the seventeenth century in England, according to which human knowledge derives exclusively from the senses or from experience.
It opposes ‘innatism’ and ‘rationalism’, which derive knowledge by deduction from rational principles evident a priori, and distinguishes itself from ‘sensism’, which admits only one source of knowledge (the external sense or sensation), as it also admits the internal sense or reflection (in Philosophy, the term a priori is used especially by Immanuel Kant to indicate what does not depend on experience, as opposed to what is defined as a posteriori). Empiricism is not opposed to reason but recognizes the limits of human possibilities of knowing the truth. Man must use his own reason but not pretend to possess absolute truths, which do not tolerate criticism: every theory must be tested by experience (and therefore confirmed, modified or refuted).
The modern current was born in the second half of the seventeenth century in England, and the greatest exponents of Anglo-Saxon empiricism were John Locke and David Hume, and in Germany Immanuel Kant, with important developments in the 19th century thanks to the research of John Stuart Mill: they denied that humans had innate ideas, or that something was knowable regardless of experience. However, empiricism has much older roots, which go as far as ancient Greece, with philosophers such as Epicurus and Aristotle.
Today, the term “empiricism” is referred to a practical and experimental approach to knowledge, based on research and a way of proceeding a posteriori, preferred to pure deductive logic.
The adjective “empirical” is often associated with the term science and is used both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences, and this means the use of working hypotheses that can be denied by observation or experiment (that is ultimately from experience).
Empiricism was a precursor to logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism. Empirical methods have dominated science to the present day: they laid the foundation for the scientific method, which is the traditional conception of theory and progress in science.
However, recent theories in recent decades such as quantum mechanics, constructivism, and Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) have questioned empiricism as the exclusive mode in which science works and should work. On the other hand, some argue that theories like quantum mechanics provide a perfect example of the solidity of empiricism: the ability to discover even counter-intuitive scientific laws, and the ability to rework our theories to accept these laws.