In sociology, the term empiricism is often used, loosely, to describe an orientation to research which emphasizes the collection of facts and observations, at the expense of conceptual reflection and theoretical enquiry. More rigorously, empiricism is the name given to a philosophical tradition which, in its modern form, developed in the context of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Though by no means all of the early empiricists were advocates of the new science, empiricism subsequently developed in close symbiotic association with modern science. In sociology, empiricism has been widely adopted as a philosophical approach by those who advocate methodological naturalism : the development of sociology as a scientific discipline.
In its early forms (in the work of John Locke , David Hume , and others) empiricism was primarily an epistemology : a theory of the nature, scope, and limits of human knowledge. As such, it included a theory of the mind and its workings which has subsequently been displaced by the development of cognitive psychology . What remains of empiricism as a philosophical theory is primarily the thesis that substantive human knowledge is limited to what may be tested (confirmed or validated) by empirical observation. What may be known a priori, or independently of all experience, is restricted to analytical statements-for example, statements that offer definitions of technical concepts, or, as Hume put it, which state ‘relations of ideas’. Empiricism defended the privileged status of science as the only form of human enquiry in which knowledge-claims were based upon, or were permanently open to, testing in terms of empirical observation and experiment. Theology and speculative metaphysics , by contrast, made bogus claims to knowledge on the basis of faith, intuition, or ‘pure’ reason.
Though empiricists are keen to demonstrate their opposition to metaphysics, it may be argued that empiricism itself carries an implicit metaphysics: namely, that the ultimate (knowable) realities are the fleeting sensory impressions (or ‘sense-data’) against which all genuine knowledge-claims are to be tested. The most radical forms of empiricism, then, are liable to be sceptical about the knowability not only of the objects of scientific knowledge, but also the things and beings of common-sense experience. Thus, the distinctive twentieth-century form of empiricism, the logical empiricism or positivism of the Vienna Circle , followed upon the deep uncertainties of the turn-of-the-century revolution in physical science. In general, empiricists have raised the standard of empirical testability as a means of defending science, and combating the claims of, first metaphysics and theology, and more recently pseudo-sciences such as Marxism and psychoanalysis . Their difficulty has been to do so in a way which does not rule out all, or most, genuine science by the same criterion.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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