Word of the Week: Empirical

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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.

  1. The economist Karl Marx never provided empirical evidence for his claim that economic differences were the source of psychological differences. (Adapted from Stark, Sociology 10e, p.235)
  2. Religious faith has no need for empirical proof.
  3. People don't necessarily have an empirical basis for their political beliefs.
  4. If the author claims he was abducted by aliens who arrived from outer space in a flying saucer, I'm going to need plenty of empirical proof before I believe him.

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).


Comprehension Checks

1. Which of the following sentences uses the word empirical correctly?

The horror movie was much more empirical than the brothers expected, and they both had nightmares for weeks.
Every now and then, it's necessary to put your most deeply held opinions about human nature to an empirical test.
When Richard Burton recited Hamlet's famous soliloquy,* it was an empirical moment for the entire audience.

*Soliloquy: Speech spoken by one person, usually in the context of a drama. The word appears in Words Count.

2. True or False. If you are talking to a salesperson about the merits of a new car and insist on taking a test drive to see if the car drives as smoothly as she says, you are taking an empirical approach to car buying.

3. When Othello, in Shakespeare's play of the same name, demands ocular* proof of his wife's unfaithfulness, he is asking for something that he can see with his own eyes. Would you say that Othello's approach is empirical? Please explain.

*Ocular: Connected to the eyes. The word appears in Words Count.

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Last update of this page: March 22, 2014