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Empirical means "based on or derived from experience and observation." The term plays a role in just about every discipline, although it's more likely to appear in discussions of the sciences than the arts. That's because most scientists and researchers, unlike poets or novelists, often provide empirical evidence for their claims. They point, that is, to observations and experiences drawn from the real world. Empirical methods, proofs, or evidence rely on practical experience rather than intuition or theory.
Memory Peg. Empirical derives from the Greek root pira meaning "experience" or "practice." Link empirical to the meaning of its root,"experience." Tell yourself that anything identified as empirical—proof, evidence, method, exploration, fact—has to be based on experience. If you prefer a visual image to mentally lock the word in place, keep in mind that, in fiction at least, Dr. Frankenstein produced empirical proof that he could create life when he constructed his famous monster.
The photo on the left was released into the public domain by 2112guy, a generous contributor to Creative Commons photos. [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frankenstein_monster.jpeg]
Specialized Use in Philosophy. Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that says we rely on our senses to understand the world. One of the most well-known empiricists is the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), whose work "An Essay on Human Understanding" proposes the idea that we come into the world knowing nothing. Instead, our understanding of the world is the result of an empirical process: "The senses at first let in particular ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet [the mind], and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in memory and names got to them." (From Locke's work "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding")
Americans, particularly our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), had a particular fondness for Locke's empiricism because it encouraged the idea that authorities of the past could be discounted in favor of new theories and systems based on more current, practical experience. Locke had a particularly heavy influence on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence, which was the first step toward the Revolutionary War between the American colonies and Great Britain (1775-1783).
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Last update of this page: March 22, 2014