U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Can ‘Empiricist’ Mean?

I write to you from the 46thAnnual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.  This is a wonderful conference, and I’m delighted to be here along with USIH President Sarah Gardner to represent our organization and our discipline at this meeting.  We have been warmly welcomed and have thoroughly enjoyed the scholarship and the fellowship of this gathering.  Still, we’re both a bit nervous about our panel, which will be taking place in less than two hours.  I worry that my paper isn’t philosophical enough.  But, as the kids say, “It is what it is,” and I know I can trust this hospitable group of scholars to help us find fruitful connections between our work and theirs.

In the meantime, today is my regular posting day, and I want to redeem the time by returning to a concept that I championed in my most recent post, a polemical defense of historians’ public engagement, particularly public engagement that foregrounded facticity as the sine qua non of any legitimate historical account of the past.

The concept I turned to in that post and that I keep returning to in my own work is the idea that history is an empiricist discipline.  I am aware that at least one person – perhaps even a few people – misread that statement as tantamount to claiming that history is a science.

No.

“Empricist” is not, in any usage you have ever or will ever read from my pen, a synonym for “scientific” as that term is generally (or even specially!) used, and to say that a discipline is empiricist or that a narrative is empirically grounded is not to claim any sort of scientific certainty.  I suppose some people may conflate “empiricist inquiry” with “scientific inquiry,” but those people are leading you astray and you should take their condemnations of empiricism with several grains of iodized salt.

History is not a science as either the term “history” or the term “science” is customarily used in the English language, and I shall cast a baleful eye upon anyone who suggests otherwise.

But if “empiricist” doesn’t mean “scientific,” whatever can it mean?

Well, as I’ve mentioned at the blog before, when I teach about the Early Modern period in European and Transatlantic thought, I usually juxtapose the “discovery” of the Americas and the flurry of speculative work following that alongside the Protestant reformation, noting that both of these phenomena reflect a broad “empiricist turn” in Western thought:  that is, a turn away from an epistemology grounded in received authority, toward an epistemology grounded in experience and observation.

In this framing (which is not particularly controversial, I would like to think!), Scottish Common Sense philosophy is an expression of the empiricist turn – but so is, I would argue, the Second Great Awakening, where wondering where one was being sent for eternity based on the inscrutable mystery of predestination gave some ground to knowing that one had become a child of God because one had experiencedan inner transformation (sometimes accompanied, to be sure, with fainting fits, cries of anguish, and the occasional rolling in aisles.) However it manifested, that conversion experience allowed one to claim, from the authority of his or her own interior observation, “I know I am a child of God.”  Let’s set aside the inside baseball of whether one could fall out of grace, lose one’s salvation, etc. – the important thing here is that the interiority of people’s lives, the sense (and “sense” is really important in the idea of common sense philosophy) that they had been transformed by an encounter with the divine, a change they could observe in their own hearts, could serve as the basis for that claim.  This is epistemology rooted in observation and experience, not in syllogistic logic and received authority.

This is a big deal, especially in teaching the U.S. history survey (and it is, as I’ve said before, one of the reasons that Jill Lepore’s These Truthsis such a useful survey text for me).  I spend a lot of time unpacking the implications of the continuing democratization of the construction of knowledge has meant – what it has meant for religion, for politics, for economics, for culture, for education, for scholarly inquiry.

And, at this conference of philosophers, as I prepare to present a paper on the mutually constitutive relationship between texts and communities – the chicken-and-egg problem of interpretive communities and their canons – I am pleased to be reminded, and to remind you all, that Pragmatism is an empiricist mode of engagement with the world, a multi-perspectival movement toward a more reliable and more workable and more complete understanding of both the situation in which we collectively find ourselves and how that situation might be changed.

Syllogisms don’t obtain, systematic theologies don’t obtain, formulaic articulations of what will be true in every case don’t obtain – Pragmatism is the philosophy of experiment. That doesn’t mean it’s “scientific” in the sense of being a nomothetic mode of thought.  Quite the opposite.  “Truth happens to an idea…”

Not sure truth is going to happen to the ideas in my paper, which I am delivering in less than an hour. But, barring some unforeseen disaster, the paper itself will happen, as will my colleague’s paper, and the two of us will do our best to work toward a clearer or better understanding of our themes, drawing from the observations and perspectives of our interlocutors and hopefully refining our work accordingly, so that we can tell a better and more deeply meaningful story about the pasts we have called into view, if not called into being.

That’s empiricist work. That’s historical work.  That’s the collaborative enterprise in which all of us are engaged – even those of us who wish to foolishly insist that to call history an empiricist enterprise is to claim nomothetic authority for historical narrative.

Just…no.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I confess to not seeing how or believing that the Second Great Awakening is “an expression of the empiricist turn” insofar as the experience being referred to is not one either the Scottish philosophers of “common sense” or those labeled empiricists in the history of philosophy would recognize as universalizable or generalizable (although it is possible that my vision may be occluded and my belief mistaken). In other words, the experience they valorized, be it from the senses or as part of or integral to _common_ sense, would in principle and/or praxis, have to be realizable by everyone (in that sense, it is in turn or even simultaneously both subjective and objective) to provide a sound basis for the sort of intuitive certainty that, in the end, validates or confirms our common knowledge that springs from the senses. Sectarian or religious experiences within Christianity that are not available to a non-Christian, therefore, would not qualify within this model or picture. One way to express this would be to say that these types of religious experience have subjective grounding (hence the stress on the first-person epistemic authority accorded ‘the interiority of people’s lives’) at the expense of objective availability or simply objectivity. This does not mean that such experiences did not occur. Nor does it imply that empiricism or common sense realism did not influence people of Christian suasion or that this or that philosopher was not religious. And more than one of these philosophers endeavored to reconcile or integrate their religious convictions with their philosophical beliefs within an overarching philosophical worldview. In the case of the Scottish sense philosophers, ordinary experiences are capable of providing “intuitively certain assurance of … ‘first principles’ upon which sound morality and religious beliefs could be established,” but those principles are in reference to something far different from the kinds of numinous religious experiences peculiar to a particular (or even several) tradition(s) of Christianity.

    • Well, I didn’t say that the Second Great Awakening was a species of Common Sense philosophy, but that both were manifestations of an underlying turn toward empiricism — and I defined empiricism as a matter of judging what is true based on observation/experience rather than received authority/syllogism. To say that “sense” was important or common (!) to both religious and secular framings of truth at the time is not the same as to say that both had a common, narrow definition of sense. (However, I would suggest that there’s more overlap in those definitions/understandings than you think.) But as they’re usually (and unfortunately) presented to undergraduates, the Enlightenment is portrayed a manifestation of reason while the Second Great Awakening is portrayed a manifestation of some “contrasting” trait framed as (usually) “piety” or (occasionally) “emotion.” They were both, rather, manifestations/evidence of an axial shift in the very grounds of knowledge: no longer deduction based on received authority but induction based on observation / experience; both Common Sense Philosophy and the Second Great Awakening are manifestations of an empiricist / experimental turn. The latter claim particularly — that the varieties of religious experience were experimental in the sense (!) of manifesting in/as observable phenomena (whether observable by the religious person or by one seeking to understand their view from the outside) — isn’t new and isn’t mine alone, clearly. But it’s a claim I emphasize in teaching the history of this period, and “empiricist” is a framing that broadly encompasses both these historic phenomena–and quite a bit else besides, including, as I argue, history as a mode of inquiry, even (or particularly) when history seeks to understand the interiority of past life / lives.

      • Thank you (for more than repeating or reiterating or what you said in the original post). If you read again what I wrote, I did not claim that you said “the Second Great Awakening was a species of Common Sense philosophy.” And as for the “grounds” of knowledge, I don’t see the Great Awakening as a “manifestation/evidence of an axial shift in the very grounds of knowledge: no longer deduction based on received authority but induction,” as the Second Great Awakening, epistemically speaking, is best viewed, I think, in the fundamental theological framework provided by Martin Luther himself. I was not addressing what students generally or usually have been taught, about which I am ignorant, although if I recall correctly, when I was a teaching assistant at university for a course on religion in American history, some reference was made to Romanticism. The Second Great Awakening is therefore not a reflection of any of the national variations on Enlightenment ideas and themes, be it empiricism or (scientific) experimentalism, what have you, indeed, it appears to be a more than plausible argument that it represents an incarnation of several ideas common to Romanticism (of course there are themes in Romanticism that are contrary to a few Christian beliefs and values, but that does not rule or crowd out the aforementioned point), as even the Wikipedia entry happens to note. What was unique to the religious experiences concerned was not their “observability” in either of the two modes you cite (it is commonplace for individuals to claim, right or wrong, something close to infallibility for knowledge of their own minds, but here it it transferred to knowledge of their own hearts) but rather their emotional expression, interiority, and corresponding sense of religious or spiritual authority (again, the path cleared by Martin Luther) which spread as fervent religious contagion. Please have the last word as this ends the contribution from my end.

    • Bill, yes, there’s pretty clear evidence that the first Great Awakening was a matter of empiricism, even as that term might be narrowly understood as explicitly connected to philosophy and science of the day, never mind as I am using it more broadly. I mean, the claim that the First Great Awakening is a manifestation of a long/broad empiricist turn in Transatlantic thought is also something I teach. And again, it’s about by whose authority and on what basis something can be said to be known. “My heart was strangely warmed” carries evidentiary weight, and the hearer of the word — not the church, the synod, the preacher, etc — is the one who must evaluate that evidence. Indeed, the whole business of evaluating evidence as the route to arriving at knowledge — in this case, knowledge about the state of one’s soul, or the work of God in one’s life — is a calling card of the long empiricist turn. (Lepore wants to pin a starting point for talking about this way back into the Magna Carta, and that’s useful for her for other reasons in her book, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be that precise.)

      Anyway, all of this is no less true for the Second Great Awakening. And let’s not forget that drawing a sharp distinction between the FGA and the SGA, or saying that these are discrete “events” — however broadly one defines an event — that should be considered as two separate phenomena, is something many historians wouldn’t do. At the very least, it makes good sense to note a through line tying them together. And empiricism is a pretty good through line, because it can be useful for holding both in connection and in increasing tension (rather than in opposition) people’s understanding of the nature of that which can be known or that which can be said to be knowledge (“the nature of truth” could be used here) and the increasing multiplicity and perspectivalism of the means of knowing (“pluralism” could be used here). Neither of these is “opposed” to empiricism, they both sort of unspool and play out within it/as part of it. As is clear (I hope) from the post above, Pragmatism is a pretty standard example for this idea of a tension within empiricism.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.