Empiricism empiricism emerged during this period, originating

is defined as a theory that claims, ‘our knowledge is primarily obtained
through sensory experience and impressions, rather than through rational
deduction or innateness’.1 Moreover, empiricism
states that ‘true knowledge of the world can only come from physical
experimentation and investigation, rather than other sources such as
This idea links the use of scientific methods with empiricist history and
allows empiricism to approve a and disapprove theories. Galileo supported this as he stated that ‘beliefs must
be tested empirically to check that they work within the laws of physics’.3 This
link between these methods and empiricism paves way for a more scientific
approach towards history as a discipline, which is an example of its
usefulness. Empiricist John
Locke in his work ‘Essays Concerning
Human Understanding’, put forward the epistemological view of ‘Tabula Rasa’: that every individual is born
as a blank state and therefore all the
ideas that individuals build up in their life are through their experiences.4 This concept in empiricism is another example of its usefulness
as a historical method as it allows
for theories of past historical events to be made that relate to the sensory
experiences of individuals. Although
empiricism is useful as a historical method, there are limitations of the
theory. For example, the senses can be described as being misleading, in
certain cases being clouded by drugs, brain injury etc, making it difficult to
differentiate between empirical claims that are true or false. As the idea of
sensory impressions is fundamental for explaining empiricism as a historical
method, the notion that senses could be false invalidates aspects of the theory
and shows an example of a limitation of empiricism. In this essay, I will be discussing the usefulness and
limitations of empiricism as a historical method.

The origins of empirical
approaches to history can be noted back to the scientific revolution of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.5 The central theory of
empiricism emerged during this period, originating with the philosophy of thinker
Francis Bacon and flourished during the eighteenth century. It was carried
forward by British philosophers such as George Berkley and David Hume. An example
of why empiricism as a historical method is useful is because many of the
current disciplines which are now ‘familiar in history, sociology and
anthropology emerged during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth-century’,
as a result of the early empiricist theory.6 Also, ‘for the last 200
years, most historians have drawn their professional ideas from empiricism’,
with the theory remaining the predominant,
central theory of most historiography and research methods.7 Moreover, empiricism is regarded
as the most influential school of historical thought over the course of this
century,8 highlighting the significance
of empiricism as a historical method and its continuing importance to history.
The fact that empiricism has continued to play a part in history today, shows
its usefulness as a historical method and reiterates the view that empirical
history is highly influential. Berkley stated that
‘philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth… those who
have spent the most time in it should
enjoy a greater evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts than
other men’.9
Berkley referred to the idea of empiricism in historical philosophy and reinstated
that by following empiricist thinking, one would be less susceptible to
problems in that field (history). Another general advantage and a usefulness of
empiricism is its tendency to ‘keep investigations close to material reality,
leading to a more standardized analysis of natural phenomena that can be
readily verified’.10 This reiterates the point
that as a historical method, the empiricist approach towards the study of the
past would be more scientific than other historical approaches such as

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