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  Empiricism (from Greek empeirein, ‘to experience’), in philosophy, is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience. Before one has any experience, before one perceives or introspects, one has no knowledge at all. There are different versions of empiricism, however. We can get an understanding of two of them by considering what different empiricists have meant by the phrase ‘is derived from’. Some empiricists have held that all knowledge causally originates from and is justified by experience. Others have merely held that all knowledge is justified by experience.

Consider the first version. Some empiricists have claimed that all ideas causally derive from experience and, therefore, that before one has any experiences one has no ideas. Before it has any experiences, the mind is a tabula rasa, a white sheet devoid of any ideas, upon which experience has yet to leave its mark. There are no innate ideas, that is, ideas which the mind possesses before it first has experiences.

However, one can hardly have beliefs before one has any ideas or concepts, and it is only beliefs which may attain the status of knowledge. So if possessing ideas causally depends upon having experiences, possessing beliefs and, therefore, knowledge also causally depends upon having experiences. Experience does not merely justify one\'s knowledge claims, but is also causally necessary for possessing the beliefs which may attain the status of knowledge.

The first version of empiricism, with its claim that all ideas causally derive from experience is vulnerable to the objection that it is difficult to see how all of the ideas or concepts we possess could causally derive from experience. Consider the concept of necessity, the idea that such and such must be the case. It is difficult to see how the idea that things must be a certain way could be derived from one\'s sensory or introspective experience of how things actually are.

The second version of empiricism avoids this objection. It does not claim that all ideas originate from experience. It can thus allow that the mind has innate ideas, and even innate beliefs. But, it insists, all knowledge is justified by experience, so no belief can count as knowledge until it has been justified by experience. So the second version of empiricism holds that all knowledge is justified by experience, but is neutral on the question of whether all ideas and beliefs causally depend upon experience. It can thus allow that we have ideas and beliefs before we have any experiences, that we have innate ideas and beliefs. AJ

See also innate ideas; rationalism.Further reading A.J. Ayer, Language Truth and Logic; , R.S. Woolhouse, The Empiricists.



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