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The origins of the modern meaning of ‘empiricism’

Peter Anstey writes…

It is often supposed that the term ‘empiricism’ in its Kantian sense would have been entirely foreign to philosophers of the early modern period. For, throughout the seventeenth century the term ‘empiric’ had pejorative connotations. When used in medical contexts it normally referred to quacks: medical practitioners who are untutored, but who have pretentions to therapeutic medicine on the basis of experience alone. By extension, the term came to mean imposter or charlatan.

Yet when used as a name in the plural, ‘empirici’, it often referred to those ancient physicians who relied on observation over theory in their therapeutic medicine. Needless to say, those physicians in the early modern period who were associated with the experimental philosophy affirmed this emphasis on observation. It is worth inquiring, therefore, as to whether the term ‘empiric’ was ever used in a positive sense and whether physicians were proud to be labeled empirics?

One early use of the term ‘Empericism’ is in the chymical physician George Starkey’s Nature’s Explication (1657). But Starkey uses the term pejoratively in criticizing the Galenists who relied too heavily on theory. He says:

    the Chymistry of the Galenical Tribe is a ridiculous pardy [sic.], and partly dangerous Empericism, in stead of so commendable a Method and Art, as they with confidence and impudence sufficient boast it to be (p. 245)

Here Starkey is inverting the charge normally laid at the feet of the chymical physicians, namely that they were untutored quacks. Starkey implies that the Galenists were untutored in the chymical arts.

Interestingly, however, just over a decade later, the chymical physician George Thomson, when defending the chymical physicians against the charge of being empirics (made by Henry Stubbe), picks up the positive connotation of ‘empirici’ and aligns the chymical physicians, including himself, with empirics in so far as they are the true experimental physicians. In his Misochemias Elenchos or, A Check given to the insolent Garrulity of Henry Stubbe … With an Assertion of Experimental Philosophy (London, 1671), Thomson says the following:

    We shall examine the Original derivation of the word Empiricik, which arises from peirazo vel peirao experior, vel exploro, to try, assay, or prove, to review or find out any thing by diligent searching: so then empericos is but an Experimental Physician, one of a Sect very well allowed of by the Ancients: … who as Celsus delivers hath acquired the knowledge of Physick only by Use and Experiments, so he treats of it, not able to give a Natural Cause thereof. … I wish ye would be so Ingenious as your Tutor, to confess the greatest knowledge ye have obtained in the Iatrical part of late, hath been delivered to you by such Empiricks as ye abusively nominate me (p. 5).

Thomson goes on to liken the chymical physicians to ‘the poor Experimental Chymical Samaritane, carrying some Balsamical Remedy about him, poureth it in with his own fingers, taking care of the Patient to purpose. Such an one I profess my self, but yet not an Empyrick according to H[enry] St[ubbe]’ (p. 6).

Here in a book defending experimental philosophy, just as we find 100 years later in a book from 1771 by the German physician Georg Zimmermann, the term ‘empiric’ is explicitly aligned with the experimental philosophy as applied in physic, that is, therapeutic medicine. This, in turn, is suggestive of the origins of the positive association of ‘empiricism’ with an emphasis on observation. It may also reveal something of the origins of Kant’s use of the terms ‘Empirismus’ and ‘Empiristen’ to refer to those who emphasize the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment.

One thought on “The origins of the modern meaning of ‘empiricism’

  1. This is a really interesting post. It relates to some of the research that I am doing. I am currently looking at the way in which the term ‘new philosophy’ shifted from a pejorative term to a positive term in the seventeenth century. I am curious as to how you are determining that there is a shift; is it just anecdotal observation or the result of a in depth survey? The quote you cite by Thomson certainly seems to show a conscious attempt to change its meaning, which I think is really interesting as it suggests that language change is driven by conscious agents rather then developing organically.