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History & Systems of Psychology
Chapter 5 – Empiricism

After Descartes
Reactions to Descartes led to modern philosophical developments.
British & French empiricists denied the concept of innate ideas, said all knowledge comes from experience, used mechanistic explanations of the mind (Ch. 5)
German rationalists focused on the idea of the active mind (Ch. 6)
Romantic philosophers said both empiricism & rationalism limited, urged focus on whole person, including emotions and uniqueness (Ch. 7)

Empiricism Defined
The epistemology that asserts:
that sensory experience constitutes the primary data of all knowledge;
that knowledge cannot exist unless this evidence has first been gathered; and
that all subsequent intellectual processes must use this evidence and only this evidence in formulating propositions about the world

Positivism defined: “The contention that science should study only that which can be directly experienced.”
Publicly observed events – i.e., those that can be observed by more than one person
Positivism believes that only scientific information can be considered valid.
Scientism – the almost religious belief that science can answer all questions & solve all problems.

We will look at several empiricists to get an idea of the different directions this school of thought went, particularly with reference to psychology.
They often focused on principles of learning (because they did not believe in innate knowledge), and typically had a mechanistic and deterministic view of human nature.
Associationism was one of the important contributions of the empiricists for psychology, and they laid the foundation for behaviorism.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Founder of British empiricism, friend of Galileo & Descartes, worked with Bacon
Empiricist –knowledge from sensory experience
Materialist - universe consists of matter & motion (Galileo), & humans no different
Mechanist - people as machines functioning within a larger machine (universe)
Strict determinist – there is no free will

John Locke (1632-1704)
No innate ideas, source of all ideas is input thru senses (“sensation”) - “white paper” (tabula rasa) analogy
(but also emphasized reflection on those ideas through a reasoning process, so was not totally opposed to rationalism)
Also argued no innate morality, children had to be taught right from wrong (revolutionary thought)

Locke, cont.
Because he believed we had to learn (vs. having innate ideas), he studied principles of effective learning.
Very influential in educational psychology through ideas on how children learn—i.e., importance of healthy conditions and praise

David Hume (1711-1776)
Philosopher who believed understanding human nature was foundational to all other sciences
Aspired to be the Newton of “moral philosophy” (social sciences); science of humanity to be empirical & experimental through observing relationship between experiences & behavior

Hume, cont.
Unlike many empiricists who focused on sensory experience, Hume focused on cognitive experience (perception) as the most important determinant of behavior; and he was not convinced our perceptions are accurate.
Foundational to important idea in modern psychology that it is not reality that governs our behavior, but our perception of reality.

Hume, cont.
Association of ideas: observed universal principles of association
Law of resemblance: similar ideas
Law of contiguity: same time or place
Law of cause & effect: preceding event seen as causal
Causation: connection of two events does not necessarily imply causation

Hume, cont.
All beliefs result from recurring experiences and are explained by the laws of association.
There is no such entity as the “mind,” which is only our term for the collection of perceptions we are having at a given time.
The “self” is also a product of the imagination, resulting from our association of a series of unrelated experiences.

David Hartley (1705-1757)
Physical explanation of thoughts: agreed with Newton that sensory experiences cause vibrations in the nerves, which are then transmitted to the brain; ideas are weak remnants of those vibrations
Associationism: experiences consistently occurring together recorded in the brain as connected; utilized law of contiguity but with a difference—attempted to correlate mental activity with neurophysiological activity
Association & behavior: Behavior occurs automatically in response to sensory stimulation & becomes associated with environmental stimuli; first explanation of learned behavior

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Accepted basic tenets of associationism, but replaced “mental mechanics” with “mental chemistry” – based on idea that chemicals can combine to produce something entirely new – in same way, ideas can combine to produce entirely new idea
Attacked common idea that human thoughts, feelings, & actions could not be studied scientifically – any system governed by laws is subject to scientific study, so mental science could be developed & equal to physical science