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Empiricism

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography

Type of research that is based on direct observation.

Psychologists prefer to learn about behavior through direct observation or experience. This approach reflects what is called empiricism. Psychologists are well-known for creating experiments, conducting interviews and using surveys, and carrying out case studies. The common feature of these approaches is that psychologists wait until observations are made before they draw any conclusions about the behaviors they are interested in.

Scientists often maintain that empiricism fosters healthy skepticism. By this they mean that they will not regard something as being true until they have made the observations themselves. Such an approach means that science can be self-correcting in the sense that when erroneous conclusions are drawn, others can test the original ideas to see if they are correct.

Empiricism is one of the hallmarks of any scientific endeavor. Other disciplines employ different approaches to gaining knowledge. For example, many philosophers use the a priori method rather than the empirical method. In the a priori method, one uses strictly rational, logical arguments to derive knowledge. Geometric proofs are an example of the use of the a priori method.

In everyday life, people accept ideas as being true or false based on authority or on intuition. In many cases, people hold beliefs because individuals who are experts have made pronouncements on some topic. For example, in religious matters, many people rely on the advice and guidance of their religious leaders in deciding on the correct way to lead their lives. Further, we often believe things because they seem intuitively obvious. Relying on authority and intuition may be very useful in some aspects of our lives, like those involving questions of morality.

Scientists prefer the empirical method in their work, however, because the topics of science lend themselves to observation and measurement. When something cannot be observed or measured, scientists are likely to conclude that it is outside the realm of science, even though it may be vitally important in some other realm.

Further Reading

Carruthers, Peter. Human Knowledge and Human Nature: A New Introduction to an Ancient Debate. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Grossmann, Reinhardt. The Fourth Way: A Theory of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

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