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Empiricism: Was it Darwin's scientific methodology?

enewbern's picture

        Empiricism is a term that has been used in class discussion for the past couple of weeks in order to describe Darwin’s scientific method. It is a term that I was not very familiar with before the start of this class and I would like to explore it. Then after I have a more solid idea of what the term “empiricism” entails, I want to try and apply it to Darwin and his work: On the Origin of Species.
        According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empiricism is defined as a practice founded upon experiment and observation, an ignorant and unscientific practice, and quackery (OED). This diverse set of definition seems to have been derived from a variety of time periods and contexts. It evidently first began to appear in the mid 1600s as exemplified in Helmont’s Vind. by G. Starkey to indicate that empiricism was associated with a more negative context since it was described as being “dangerous,” which does seem to indicate certain dubiousness about the actual scientific method of the practice (OED). From that starting point it slowly evolved to have a less negative connotation by the time the 1880s which describes empiricism as being “more scientific than it was in former days” by Sir J. Frayer in Nature XXI (OED).
       The definition of empiricism as quackery might have arisen from a distrust of the classical idea of empiricism that was a bit different than other scientific methods of the time. Classical empiricism was a complex notion in that it was a concept that was based on the idea of “experience and the self” according to Gupta. This meant that the data collected from observations was sensory data. Only that which could be seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted in the observers immediate vicinity and then had some judgment made about it would be considered empirical data. Gupta uses an example in her book to describe this kind of data that I found quite apt:
                     I am sitting before my computer. I can hear the soft whirring sound                               

                     of the hard drive. And I can see on my right a round and orange coaster

                     that lies next to a square, yellow one. Now, according to the sense-datum

                     theory, the immediate objects of my experience are not the hard drive

                     and the two coasters but certain fleeting sense-data. These sense-data

                     include a whirring auditory sense-datum, and an oval-shaped patch or

                     orange next to a diamond-shaped patch of yellow in the right part of my

                     visual field.

I found this explanation helpful in that it provided a specific example of the sort of data that classical empiricists collected. The classical idea of empiricism lasted well into the twentieth century before it was revised in any radical fashion (13, Gupta). This means that Darwin would have been a classical empiricist, since he was a man who lived in the nineteenth century before any of that radical revision took place, and that all of the data presented in On the Origin of Species would have been sensory data.
         Logically, the next question to address would be: Is can Darwin and his work On the Origin of Species be classified as empiricist? I believe that he probably was an empiricist based on the sorts of information that he gave in his work. For example, he describes the characteristics of domesticated pigeons at some length in the first chapter and I found that the account was very detailed; it describes the birds’ visual appearance, the texture of their skin at certain points on their bodies, the sounds that the different types of pigeons made, their exact coloration, etc. which are all observations that seem to be based in sensory data (107-112, Darwin). He mentions these sorts of detailed observations throughout his work. Assuming that this was the sort of data he had been collecting for years before the theory was published and that this was in fact the way he conducted all of his research, then if can be deduced that he was an empiricist. That is based on a great deal of assumption. I cannot know for sure the exact nature of his actual data collection simply based upon the data that was shown in his work, but I believe that he probably kept that sensory data idea throughout all of his scientific investigations.

       The concept of empiricism is complex and I have only touched the surface. However, I believe that my conclusions in regards to Darwin have enough reason behind them to stand against a logical argument. I have no definite proof of Darwin’s actual scientific practice, but I do have his theory of evolution which is arguably one of his greatest works and most likely exemplifies his method of study better than another work of his might have. Empiricism is the study of the sensory in the classical sense, and Darwin did know his sensory data.                                                                
      Works Cited:
  “Empiricism.”Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition.1989. Oxford University Press. 12 Feb. 2009

 Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2003.
 Gupta, A. Empiricism and Experience. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2006. 12 Feb. 2009



Birger Hjørland's picture


I have worked with concepts such as empiricism for many years. I believe that in order to understand that term, we need to understand what competing views of scientific methodology exists (and also methodology in a broader sense).
Empiricism is mostly seen as the opposite of RATIONALISM. Empiricism emphasizes the role of observation while rationalism emphatisizes the role of logic, thinking etc. Both empiricism and rationalism has been criticized by HISTORICISM for ignoring the role of tradition, culture and social community in gaining knowledge.
I have in many writings defended (a moderate version of) the historicist position. See for example my recent paper on "evidence based practice" in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.(2011, DOI: 10.1002/asi.21523)

A final word about Darwin. As far as I have read, Darwin in the introduction to Origin of species declared himself an empiricist, but he might have been under some kind of pressure to do so. His research metod may be interpreted as a kind of historicism. This shows how difficult this issue is.

Finally: I believe that we all today recognize the importance of empirical studies. Empiricism should not be confused with empirical studies. All the competing epistemologies should be seen as different ideals on how to do (empirical) studies.

Anne Dalke's picture


Well, here’s a surprise! I had no idea, til you led me to the OED, that the first meaning of “empiricism” included the connotations of “ignorant, unscientific practice” and “quackery.” Your brief history helps me a lot to understand why: if “empirical” means to learn “by experience” (as opposed to any other method, dogma or philosophical position) then that practice could of course be valued positively or negatively. What I know experimentally or experientially could certainly be doubtful, in need of further testing by other subjects, distrusted precisely because it was subjective, individual, experiential.

Less surprising to me was where you go after you are done w/ the etymological work of your paper—into a short survey of whether Darwin’s work was empirical. I think you show—as Paul’s lectures have repeatedly shown—that it was, but you don’t really draw on, or put to use, the edgy material of your first ½ in the place where it might really get some traction: by thinking about the advantages and limitations of the empirical method for the sort of work Darwin was trying to do. What is gained, what lost, by this procedure?