Why Should the Science of Nature be Empirical?

  • L. Jonathan Cohen
Part of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures book series (RIPL)


In the past empiricist1 philosophy has urged one or other or both of two interconnected, and sometimes interconfused, theses. The first has been a thesis about the causal origins of certain beliefs, the second a thesis about the proper criteria for appraising these beliefs. The causal thesis is that all beliefs about the structure and contents of the natural world are the end-product of a process that originates wholly in individual experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. The criterial thesis is that all these beliefs are ultimately to be appraised for their truth, soundness or acceptability in terms of the data afforded by such perceptual acts. Of recent years the causal version of empiricism has been much attacked, primarily in regard to its implications about language-learning. The language in terms of which our beliefs are constructed is heavily conditioned, we are told, by certain congenital features of the human brain. But, whenever Chomsky and his followers have assailed the causal version of empiricism, they have always been careful to claim for their doctrines the warrant of empirical evidence. They have never questioned the correctness of the criterial version of empiricism.


Scientific Theory Inductive Logic Theoretical Term Criterial Empiricism Perceptual Data 
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  1. 1.
    I use this term in the sense in which it is normally used by modern historians of philosophy, not in that in which both Bacon and Mill condemned empiricism: cf. J. Jonathan Cohen, The Diversity of Meaning, 2nd ed. (London 1966) p. 326.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    There are difficulties in working out the implications of this analogy, as C.A.J. Coady, ‘The Senses of Martians’, Philosophical Review, 83 (1974) pp.107ff.,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. has shown, criticising H. P. Grice, ‘Some Remarks about the Senses’, in R. J. Butler, (ed), Analytical Philosophy (Oxford 1962) p. 133ff.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    For present purposes it suffices to distinguish between relatively observational and relatively theoretical entities, as M. Hesse does in her The Structure of Scientific Inference (London 1974) ch.1.Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    Cf. Jonathan Cohen, ‘The Inductive Logic of Progressive Problem-Shifts’, Revue Internationale de Philosophic, 95–6 (1971) pp.62ff.,Google Scholar
  6. and, for inductive reasoning outside natural science, see L. Jonathan Cohen, The Implications of Induction (1970) sections 17–18Google Scholar

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© Royal Institute of Philosophy 1976

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  • L. Jonathan Cohen

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