Introducing: Empiricism


At first sight you might think that this was a simpler read than the Baggini. It’s done as a comic, with one author’s head photographed and stuck inside the drawings. However, the thought-experiments cover a wide array of subjects within philosophy and this investigates one knotty one from the start to the present. It takes us through John Locke and Bishop Berkeley, Hobbes and AJ Ayer. None of these is naturally amenable to sound-bite summaries, so the pictures and text have to get quite detailed whilst pretending to be chatty and chummy. It’s sometimes hard to make the connection between one page and the next even if you studied this for a year (as I did).

Empiricism is, if you want a one-line description, the study of how we can know anything for a fact just through investigation. It became the root of the Scientific Method, testing hypotheses through observation. Locke and Hobbes both derived political theories from this bottom-up process that appalled the top-down establishment of the day (although they were both, perhaps ironically, instrumental in inspiring Adam Smith’s thinking on capitalism and Thomas Paine’s actions towards individual liberty). It is, ultimately, a materialist conception of how to live well and discover the truth of things. This doesn’t rule out religion, but functions as well with it as not. If there is a patron Saint of Empiricists it’s Benjamin Franklin, who saw no distinction between belief in reincarnation, inventing bifocals, leading a revolution and flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

This book skims along briskly but covers a lot of ground thoroughly. It might be read in an hour or so but I suspect it’s more use as backfill for when reading something else. It was probably intended as a reference guide for sixth-formers. When I was that age we had Bryan Magee on BBC2 discussing Kierkegaard before re-runs of Grange Hill or Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. These days it would be a podcast or something. The existence of a book such as this makes me feel old. Nevertheless I’m glad it exists and that someone thought it was worth doing.

By Tat Wood