Friday, June 24, 2011

Empires of Empiricism

I got to thinking about the meaning of empirical in the context of contemplating the paranormal, more specifically the subject of precognitive dreams. The word is very closely linked to science in such combinations as “empirical method” and “empirical research.” Now it turns out that the word itself derives from the Greek empeiria, meaning experience. Curious, therefore, that the paranormal falls beyond the pale of modern science—considering that such study is entirely and solely dependent on the examination of experience, accessible only, therefore, to empirical investigation.

The reasons for this stand-off are traceable to the drift in the meaning of the word as well as its deeper roots. Empeiria itself derives from the Greek word meaning skilled, which derives from the words en and peira, thus in and trial or experiment. From Greek the word emigrated to Latin as empiricus, meaning a physician who worked from experience—as opposed to a physician who worked from philosophical principles such as a dogmatic, theoretical knowledge that the imbalance of humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) were entirely responsible for disease.

Thus empirical first served to separate the skilled artisan from the thinker, then the skilled professional from the philosopher. The trial-and-error in that root (applied with an open mind of course) became foundational for science—despite the fact that some sciences don’t permit trial and error (e.g., astronomy, geology). In modern times the qualitative approach to using observation yielded to the dominance of the quantitative approach. (The greedy manufacturers of instruments got the upper hand and caused all this—as arms manufacturers cause war.) And therefore the empirical approach, if deprived of trial-and-error, replication, and precise measurement, is no longer an acceptable avenue to the gathering of insight into the darkest shadows of reality.

I hope this exposition is a helpful nudge back to a more comprehensive approach to genuine science. But now you wonder about empire, don’t you. Is that connected here somewhere, or was I once more yielding to linguistic urges in framing the title of this post? The latter. Empire comes from the Latin imperium, meaning rule or command. Its root is once more im-, meaning in, and parare, to order.

The above composed by a financial contributor to Online Etymology Dictionary.


  1. I've always like the word 'empeiria'; so very rich. Empeiria plays an important role in Plato's Gorgias, which is an attack on the underlying assumptions of the rhetoricians and sophists who traveled from city to city claiming to teach the craft of persuasion, and one of the key texts in which a philosopher really begins to work out systematically what philosophy is. Socrates asks Gorgias (the most famous rhetorician) what craft he teaches, and after raising some objections to Gorgias's answers, he is challenged to give his own opinion what craft Gorgias teaches. Socrates says he doesn't think Gorgias teaches any craft (techne, which can also mean skill) at all; rather, Gorgias teaches empeiria (usually translated as 'knack'). And the difference is pretty much what you point out here: techne is skill that proceeds from an understanding of the field, while empeiria is skill that proceeds from having picked up some tips and tricks and recipes through long acquaintance. (This turns out to be crucial to the argument, because Gorgias claims to teach how to persuade even in matters of justice; but, as Socrates points out, there is a problem with claiming to teach people how to persuade others about what is right and wrong if this doesn't proceed from understanding of right and wrong!) Thus the notion played a big role in the early war between the Socratic philosophers and their Sophist opponents. But Aristotle played a big role in rehabilitating empeiria: his account of knowledge insists (unlike later empiricism) that we don't get knowledge directly from the senses, but only from empeiria, which requires the senses and memory working over a long period of time -- the more empeiria you have, and the more diverse it is, the more your mind has to work with in understanding the world.

  2. I see, Brandon, that my choice of "empires" happened to be appropriate. You've greatly expanded the concept here, and in a delightful way. I'm very pleased to Aristotle, in this case too, as so often, was on the right side of things -- and my luck that I've stumbled on his encompassing definition of empirical when the modern sense fenced me in too much.