7 minute read


The Twentieth Century And Beyond

Twentieth-century thinkers abandoned or at least transformed British empiricism for its failure to solve the base and super-structure problems. These developments include: (1) The linguistic turn. Linguistic philosophers speak about terms in a language rather than, vaguely, about ideas in the mind. They also employ the full power of symbolic logic or the subtle devices of ordinary language to address the twin problems of relating subjective experience to basic statements and basic statements to superstructure. (2) The holistic turn. This is a further shift from the atomism of individual ideas or terms to The Sense of Touch (1615–1616) by Jusepe de Ribera. Oil on canvas. Although its roots can be traced to ancient times, modern empiricism began in the early seventeenth century. Empiricists believe that knowledge comes from experience, such as that which can be gained through the senses. THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM whole statements, representing completed thoughts, and even to entire languages and conceptual frameworks. In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), Quine argued that neither individual terms nor even full statements (not even basic observation statements) can be directly correlated with experience. Moreover, the data of experience logically underdetermine our theoretical claims. (3) Rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction, also by Quine. We cannot factor theories into purely empirical and purely analytic components, only the first of which is vulnerable. "No statement is immune to revision," come what may, not even the statements of mathematics—for example, it is now known that Euclidean geometry is not the only conceivable geometry and that it is not even true. Quine's work called into question not only the concept of analytic statement but also that of analysis as a philosophical method, for no one has provided an adequate analysis of analysis! (4) Rejection of the scheme versus content distinction by Donald Davidson, who proclaimed this the third and last dogma of empiricism. (5) Rejection of the correspondence theory of truth and of (6) the linear-foundational model of justification. These doctrines give way either to a weaker, nonlinear and fallibilist foundationism or to a coherence theory of justification based on the idea of a mutually supporting network of claims and practices. For some, pragmatic problem-solving supplants truth as a goal of research. (7) Anti-Kantian Kantianism. Despite the rejection of Kantian intuition and synthetic a priori claims, logical empiricists Hans Reichenbach (1891–1953) and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) and historian Kuhn in different ways defended the need for larger structures, at least temporarily immune to serious revision, in order to make sense of the history of science as well as individual cognition. These structures are not mere hypotheses up for testing, alongside the others, for they are constitutive of experience and of normal scientific practice, in a quasi-Kantian way. To reject them would be to throw out the baby with the bath water. (8) Rejection by Karl Popper (1902–1994) and the positivists of the traditional identification of empiricism with inductivism, the view that we must gather and classify facts prior to theorizing. They developed a sophisticated, hypothetico-deductive model of scientific research, which was in turn subjected to severe criticism.

(9) Rejection of the imagist tradition that treats cognitive states or contents as little pictures before consciousness, and of (10) "the myth of the given," by Sellars and others, the idea that subjective experience provides a special, direct, infallible, nonnatural connection of knowing mind to known world. These difficulties highlight the problem of the empirical base. Insofar as our experiential claims are certain they are not about physical reality (because we have had to retreat into the certainty of our subjective sense data of the moment), and insofar as they are about reality, they are not certain (because they are now subject to override by other observers or even by widely accepted theories). The price of relevance is fallibility. Thus accepting a basic statement is a social decision. All conceptual thinking, including perception, is mediated by language (a further phase of the linguistic turn). There is no prelinguistic cognitive (conceptual) awareness. There is no thought, no fully human perception or scientific observation, prior to language. Roughly, "language games" (Wittgenstein's term) take over the role played by Kant's categories. All inquiry is thus fallible and mediated by language and by participation in an appropriate community of inquirers. The isolated Cartesian inquirer is a myth. The result is (11) the failure of phenomenalism and sense datum theories of perception and, more generally, (12) rejection of the whole Cartesian-Lockean conception of cognition and language. This conception is based on a Cartesian dualism of mind and body and, specifically, upon the privacy, immediacy, and alleged epistemological privilege of one's current mental contents. Philosophical and psychological behaviorism provided strong arguments against the Cartesian conception even for those thinkers, such as Sellars, who went beyond behaviorism.

(13) The failure of attempts to define knowledge precisely as justified true belief, which inspired (14) externalism versus internalism in epistemology. Internalism is the Cartesian-Lockean view that a person's knowledge claims must be justified in terms of the beliefs to which that person has access. The most popular form of externalism is reliabilism. According to process reliabilists, knowledge or justification consists of true beliefs formed by a reliable process whether or not the believer has sufficient Cartesian access to that process to justify it internally. Virtue epistemology, analogous to virtue ethics, is a variant of this idea: reliable beliefs are those formed by an intellectually virtuous process. (15) Recognition of the importance of tacit versus explicit knowledge (knowledge-how vs. knowledge-that) and of embodied knowledge, for example, skilled practices that we cannot fully articulate. (16) The feminist introduction of gender variables into epistemology. (17) Competing attempts to naturalize and socialize epistemology. Increasingly, empiricist philosophers work in the cognitive sciences, although few share Quine's view that epistemology will simply become a branch of psychology. Meanwhile, sociologists of knowledge regard their sociological approach as more fundamental than psychological studies of cognition. (18) The postmodern critique of empiricism. Postmodernists, including Richard Rorty and radical feminists and sociologists, regard empiricism, epistemology in general, and, indeed, the entire Enlightenment project to replace a tradition-bound life with modern life based on empirical science as a "modern" enterprise whose time is past. It is a mistake, they say, to abstract from sociohistorical contexts with their specific power and gender relations to seek the "one true account" of the world, as if there were a determinate world out there waiting for us to provide a correct description in its own language. Rather, say the critics, the world and our modes of inquiry are all socially constructed, as is empiricism itself. It is now time to deconstruct it. These controversial oppositions have generated "the science wars."

Although philosophical thinkers have abandoned both traditional rationalism and empiricism and although Quine, Davidson, and others have rejected the "dogmas" of empiricism and hence empiricism itself as a technical philosophical doctrine, there is a wider sense in which empiricism wins. For everyone is an empiricist in regarding observation and experience as crucial to justifying claims about the world, while almost no one believes that such claims can be defended purely a priori or on the basis of some kind of nonempirical intuition. However, this is no longer an empiricist epistemology in the old sense, for gone is the idea that epistemology commands special resources that can provide external or transcendental justification for any enterprise. The sciences, for example, can only justify their claims internally, by applying further scientific tests and by their own fruits.


Alston, William P. Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Barnes, Barry, David Bloor, and John Henry. Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Dancy, Jonathan, and Ernest Sosa, eds. A Companion to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Goldman, Alvin I. Epistemology and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Kornblith, Hilary, ed. Naturalizing Epistemology. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Longino, Helen E.. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." Reprinted in his From a Logical Point of View: Logico-Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Schmitt, Frederick F., ed. Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Van Fraassen, Bas C. The Empirical Stance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Woolhouse, R. S. The Empiricists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Thomas Nickles

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEmpiricism - A Thumbnail History, Foundational Empiricism, The Appearance-reality Distinction, The Twentieth Century And Beyond