Fictitious Empiricism, Material Experiments. Conditions for Thinking the Enlightenment “Issue of Empiricism”

Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 331)


Historians of ideas currently believe that empiricism as a philosophy, a practice and a discourse was responsible for the very origin of modern science. In this paper, I call this idea into question by considering the semantic changes of words and expressions related to empiricism, experimentation and observation.

Tracing the semantic patterns, their authors, contexts and audiences related to these topics from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century yielded several results. (1) Up until the end of the eighteenth century, empiricism was given a negative connotation, mostly because the term ‘empiric’ was used to refer to a quack. (2) Observation and experimentation were mostly used by physicists and experimentalists during the eighteenth century, but not by naturalists. (3) The period from 1780 to 1840 saw the main semantic changes that formatted nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought: observation became the new watchword for naturalists, just as experiment had been for those from the experimental sciences—physics, chemistry, physiology—who had previously relied both on observation and experimentation, and, eventually, (4) empiricism, as a technical term, started to be used as a label to designate the ideas and works of the two previous centuries’ philosophers who supported the reliance on experience. These results gave rise to the challenge towards the belief that there is an implicit equivalence between practice and words, and that epistemological history analysis can avoid the demands of semantic analysis. The words used by scholars are subject to semantic transformations and exhibit proper dynamics that interact with contexts, practices and changes in ideas.


Empiricism Observation Experimentation Empiric Enlightenment Semantic analysis Nineteenth century 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyFPSE, University of GenevaGenèveSwitzerland

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