University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

The Cultural Impact of Empiricism


I shall discuss in this lecture the cultural impact of Empiricism. I myself am an Aristotelian. And my point of view will not be simply historical, but philosophical as well, that is, not neutral, but critical. I intend, moreover, to make things as plain as Logic demands. Even if my approach, thereby, may seem to lack amenity.

What does Empiricism mean? As a psychological disposition, it means a tendency to emphasize the value of experience and to distrust abstract reason. But it is as a philosophical conception, not as a psychological mood, that I am going to discuss it. As a philosophical conception, Empiricism means a theory according to which there is no distinction of nature, but only of degree, between the senses and the intellect. As a result, human knowledge is simply sense-knowledge (or animal knowledge) more evolved and elaborated than in other mammals. And not only is human knowledge entirely encompassed in, and limited to, sense-experience (a point which Kant, while reacting against Hume, admitted like Hume); but to produce its achievements in the sphere of sense-experience human knowledge uses no other specific forces and means than the forces and means which are at play in sense-knowledge.

Now if it is true that reason differs specifically from senses, the paradox with which we are confronted is that Empiricism, in actual fact, uses reason while denying the power of reason, on the basis of a theory that reduces reason's knowledge and life, which are characteristic of man, to sense knowledge and life, which are characteristic of animals.

Hence, first, an inevitable confusion and inconsistency between what an Empiricist does -- he thinks as a man, he uses reason, a power superior in nature to senses -- and what he says -- he denies this very specificity of reason.

And second, an inevitable confusion and inconsistency even in what he says: for what the Empiricist speaks of and describes as sense-knowledge is not exactly sense-knowledge, but sense-knowledge plus unconsciously introduced intellective ingredients, -- sense-knowledge in which he has made room for reason without recognizing it. A confusion which comes about all the more easily as, on the one hand, the senses are, in actual fact, more or less permeated with reason in man, and, on the other, the merely sensory psychology of animals, especially of the higher vertebrates, goes very far in its own realm and imitates intellectual knowledge to a considerable extent.


If we consider, from a historical point of view, the cultural meaning of Empiricism, we must observe that Empiricism, which, as a psychological disposition, is one of the eternal trends inherent in the human mind, developed as a philosophical theory, especially in England, and especially in the XVIIth Century.

At the same epoch, Rationalism developed and took the upper hand in France, simultaneously with the ascent of the bourgeoisie and the gentlemen of the robe. French Rationalism and British Empiricism were to merge in the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, and Nineteenth Century Positivism. Let us say that Empiricism was a philosophy particularly appropriate to the rise of a commercially dominated regime of social life, as far as the mental patterns connected with trade activity and liberal-economic habits were concerned.

A particular feature of this philosophy is the fact that it exercised its power of criticism and negation, in the intellectual field, with all the more energy, clear conscience and security, -- as it worked, in the cultural field, against the background of structures of civilization which were unconsciously assumed as lasting and indestructible, and in which in actual fact, the values inherited from classical humanism and old Christendom -- though more or less jeopardized -- were still preserved and stil alive, -- and still treasured, in the practical and affective realm, by Empiricist philosophers themselves.

And this work of criticism and negation was, moreover, justified to a large extent by the angelistic ambitions and arrogant failures of the other fellows: Seventeenth Century Rationalism, as well as, on the traditional side, by the intellectual rust and red tape, laziness and blind conservatism which impair, as a rule, the official and accepted schools intent on the defense of an established state of civilization.

Thus it is that, in the course of the last three centuries, Empiricism could grow in power as a kind of loyal opposition to the ruling ideas which contributed its part to the intellectual balance of the Western World, while the extreme consequences of its own essential tendencies were prevented from coming into actual existence by the intellectual and moral structures of the existing civilization.

The negative forces were, however, going their way. Empiricism was making human minds more and more uncertain of the highest values on which western man lived. And at the same time the very structures of this civilization which had been assumed to be indestructible were secretly disintegrating. In the higher fields of human thought God was no longer God, but a celestial guarantor -- strictly forbidden to intervene in his own work once made -- of man's domination over nature, of a good state of affairs for the commonwealth, and of the moral order necessary to the prosperity of commerce and industry. Deism, which was naturally to engender atheism, was the religion of Empiricism, just as today Atheism is the religion of Dialectical Materialism.


Let us turn now toward the logical content of Empiricism, considered purely in itself, and bring out its logical implications unmitigatedly expressed.

For Empiricism there is no essential difference between the intellect and the senses. The fact which obliges a correct theory of knowledge to recognize this essential difference is simply disregarded. What fact? The fact that the human intellect grasps, first in a most indeterminate manner, then more and more distinctly, certain sets of intelligible features -- that is, natures, say, the human nature -- which exist in the real as identical with individuals, with Peter or John for instance, but which are universal in the mind and presented to it as universal objects, positively one (within the mind) and common to an infinity of singular things (in the real).

Thanks to the association of particular images and recollections, a dog reacts in a similar manner to the similar particular impressions his eyes or his nose receive from this thing we call a piece of sugar or this thing we call an intruder; he does not know what is sugar or what is intruder. He plays, he lives in his affective and motor functions, or rather he is put into motion by the similarities which exist between things of the same kind; he does not see the similarity, the common features as such. What is lacking is the flash of intelligibility; he has no ear for the intelligible meaning. He has not the idea or the concept of the thing he knows, that is, from which he receives sensory impressions; his knowledge remains immersed in the subjectivity of his own feelings -- only in man, with the universal idea, does knowledge achieve objectivity. And his field of knowledge is strictly limited: only the universal idea sets free -- in man -- the potential infinity of knowledge.

Such are the basic facts which Empiricism ignores, and in the disregard of which it undertakes to philosophize. The logical implications are: first, a nominalistic theory of ideas, destructive of what ideas are in reality; and second, a sensualist notion of intelligence, destructive of the essential activity of intelligence. In the Empiricist view, intelligence does not see, for only the object or content seen in knowledge is the sense object. In the Empiricist view, intelligence does not see in its ideative function -- there are not, drawn form the senses through the activity of the intellect itself, supra-singular or supra-sensual, universal intelligible natures seen by the intellect in and through the concepts it engenders by illuminating images. Intelligence does not see in its function of judgment -- there are not intuitively grasped, universal intelligible principles (say, the principle of identity, or the principle of causality) in which the necessary connection between two concepts is immediately seen by the intellect. Intelligence does not see in its reasoning function -- there is in the reasoning no transfer of light or intuition, no essentially supra-sensual logical operation which causes the intellect to see the truth of the conclusion by virtue of what is seen in the premises. Everything boils down, in the operations, or rather in the passive mechanisms of intelligence, to a blind concatenation, sorting and refinement of the images, associated representations, habit-produced expectations which are at play in sense-knowledge, under the guidance of affective or practical values and interests. No wonder that in the Empiricist vocabulary, such words as evidence, the human understanding, the human mind, reason, thought, truth, etc., which one cannot help using, have reached a state of meaningless vagueness and confusion that makes philosophers use them as if by virtue of some unphilosophical concession to the common human language, and with a hidden feeling of guilt.

To sum up, from the Empiricist point of view, man should be capable only of what an animal in which sense-knowledge had reached its highest point of development would be capable of; though, as a matter of fact, this same animal, namely, the Empiricist philosopher himself, uses supra-animal intelligence and supra-animal universal ideas, without admitting it.


So much for the Empiricist principle. What about the theoretical results which follow with logical necessity?

In his little book on The Personality of Animals, Mr. H. Munro Fox, Professor of Zoology at Bedford College, London, observes that "the chief difference between the sound-language of animals and human language is that while an animal's sounds or movements express its feelings and may communicate feelings and intentions to its fellows, we do more than this. We have words for things, and words for thoughts, and we make these words into sentences. With animals, this is, of course, not so. If I take a banana away from a chimpanzee, he can show that he is angry; if he wants a banana, he can show that he is hungry; if he gets a banana, he can show that he is glad. His movements and expression indicate that he is angry, hungry, or glad, even if they are made unwittingly. But the chimpanzee cannot say anyting about a banana. Animals have no conversation."

The most highly developed of conceivable animals cannot have conversation: because conversation presupposes universal ideas, and presupposes the notion of truth, as preassumed background making intercommunication possible, and as implicitly connoted by all that is said. Now, Empiricist philosophers have conversation: but inconsistently with what is logically allowed by their theory. For there is no room for universal ideas in this theory, and there is no room for truth in it, in the full sense of the word truth, which means not only conformity between a representation and a thing, but conformity known as such (through implicit or explicit reflection): something which is totally irreducible to any operation of sense-knowledge, which deals only with particulars.

Animals have no science; and the most highly developed of conceivable animals cannot have science: because together with the notion of truth, science implies the notion of necessary law. Now Empiricist philosophers are concerned, very much concerned, with science: but inconsistently with what is logically allowed by their theory. For there is no room in this theory for necessary laws. Any necessary law refers (in a direct way if it is a so-called causal law, in an indirect way if it is a statistical law) to a certain nature, which may remain unknown in itself, but which is the reason for the regularities through which we recognize the existence of a necessary connection between two phenomena.

Animals have no philosophy; and the most highly developed of conceivable animals cannot have philosophy: because philosophy implies, not only the notion of truth and that of necessary law, but also the notions of Being and essence. Now Empiricist philosophers are concerned, and very much concerned, with philosophy: but inconsistently with what is logically allowed by their theory. For, in point of fact, there is no room in this theory for philosophy, if it is true that philosophy lives, willy nilly, on Being and essence as valuable objects of intellectual grasping and abstractive visualization. The grasping of an object such as an essence or a nature, brought out in its intelligible, supra-sensual components, makes no sense for the Empiricist theory, which denies universal ideas and universal natures. How could the grasping of objects such as Being and the transcendental properties of Being make sense for it? In the Empiricist view, Being means only the fact that a fact comes under sense observation, or the fact that a Predicate is connected with a Subject through the copula. It is not surprising that Empiricism was led by the development of its inner logic to terminate in Positivism, which is not philosophy but a pseudo-scientific escape from or substitute for philosophy.

Although they naturally love their Principle more than themselves, as every creature does, animals have no religion; and the most highly developed of conceivable animals cannot have religion: because religion implies not only the notion of truth and that of law and that of Being, but the notion of God. Now Empiricist philosophers are generally interested in religion, preferably under the name of religious experience, and they do not mind offering their own views on God. But this is inconsistent with their theory, at least if religion has anything to do with truth. For in this theory ther is obviously no room for any demonstratioin of the existence of God, no more than for the notion of a transcendent Being which is at the peak of existence and which is not a thing. In the Empiricist view, religion is at best a myth-making function, causing life to be less dreadfully isolated and more dramatically telling. A religion which gets rid of truth is no more religion than a positivistic philosophy for which science alone is capable of really knowing, is philosophy.


It is time to consider the practical results produced by Empiricism in the realm of culture. These results, in my opinion, fall under the three following headings: The complete relativization of moral values. The high-powered narrowing of the human mind. The disarming of freedom.

The complete relativization of moral values. It is clear that with the intellectual equipment I previously described, the standards and values at play in human life can be understood only in terms of sense experience, and consequently lose any intrinsic universal and unconditional validity founded either on the truth of human nature as accessible to human reason or on the eternal truth of divine Reason.

When it comes to Ethics, we have only relativized or subjectivized values, which deal with the patterns of conduct accepted by a social group in a certain place and at a certain moment, and which are data of observation for the psychologist, the anthropologist and the sociologist, but which are in themselves as impossible of rational justification and as extraneous to the field of truth and error as an emotional outburst or a national liking for beef, borscht or spaghetti. How could moral obligation derive from the sway of the idea -- the universal idea -- of the good over man's practical reason? It can derive only from psychological pressure created by habit, fear and social taboos.

There is no room, moreover, in the Empiricist view for the notion of bonum honestum, the good for the sake of good: it is replaced by the notion of the "good state of affairs", meaning an advantageous state of affairs. Utilitarianism -- that is, the holy empire of the useful, or of the means, with a chaste looking away from any end, or a naive looking for some means irrationally made into an end, -- utilitarianism is the ethics of Empiricism. But inevitably, after some futile philosophical attempts, by the author of Defense of Usury and his disciples, to make the principle of utility wind up in the "greatest happiness of the greatest number", Empiricist morality was finally to fall back on the biological notion of adjustment to the environment. Then everything is happily settled. Woe to the dissenter! We believe in a given set of standards and values because we have been told. That's all. And we must bless science for making us aware of this glorious human fact.

When it comes to social philosophy, there is no room, in the Empiricist view, for the notion of the common good, which deals with an intelligible, supra-sensual and supra-singular object, with a good which transcends utility, (for it is an end good in itself, a bonum honestum), and which is not the sum total of the particular goods of the individuals, but the good of the social whole itself, as common to the whole and its parts and flowing back upon the individual persons: since a person as such is a whole, so that human society is a whole made up of wholes.

Having a congenital loathing for such notions, basic as they may be, Empiricist social philosophy is bound to oscillate, without finding any superior solution, between anarchistic individualism, in which the only criterion is the advantage, utility and free pleasure of the individuals, and bee-hive totalitarianism, in which the only criterion is the advantage, utility and power of the state separately considered.

Let us pass to our second heading. It has to do with the repurcussion of Empiricism on the very functioning of modern reason. At this point we are confronted with a significant historical phenomenon: the advent of a way of thinking which was not new in itself, to be sure, but which was new as an all-pervading and all-controlling intellectual pattern, and which is characteristic both of modern man and of the decay of Western humanism. The phenomenon can be described as a high-powered narrowing of the human mind.

In the Empiricist philosophy the power of vision or intuition of the intellect was denied. In modern man this power of vision or intuition, which is of the essence of the intellect, has narrowed in actual fact to a considerable extent. Because Empiricist philosophy has made us unable both to perceive the great testimony given by modern science, especially physics, of the spirituality of the human mind, and to realize how science and metaphysical wisdom ask to be completed by one another. Average intelligence, in modern times, is short-sighted intelligence, adorned with the glasses of scientific equipment.

The tragedy of the great Empiricist philosophers came from the fact that not only did they deny the prime intellectual intuitions on which metaphysical knowledge depends, but they were actually lacking in these intuitions. They did not see (through the intellect's power of vision) when it came to the supra-empirical horizon of Being and essence brought out at the level of metaphysical intelligibility. And they did not know that they saw through the intellect's power of vision when it came to the scientific handling of the world of experience. Thus they indeed endeavored in a sincere and earnest fashion to build a comprehensive system giving account of all the human riches inherent in Western culture; no one was more generously attached to these human riches than a John Stuart Mill for instance: but they only succeeded in building cathedrals in paper and worlds in the air.

The modern man does not even feel such tragedy. Unaware of his own intellect's spiritual activity, which he cannot do without, but which he has repressed in his unconscious, he gladly enjoys a mental behavior in which human reason limits itself to the most clever and intelligent use and penetration of the animal field of sense-experience.

Such narrowing of the mind is high-powered indeed. The myopic intellect uniquely concentrated on the empirical world acquires increased efficacy in this inexhaustible limited field, especially thanks to theat wonderful instrument, the mathematical analysis of sense-observable and measurable phenomena. What is wrong is not physico-mathematical science, which is a splendid token of the creativity of the human spirit. What is wrong is the fact that the modern man has sacrificed wisdom to science instead of uniting them. Thus the extraordinary power he is gaining over matter is paid for by his estrangement from human and spiritual realities, and his desparate loneliness.

Modern intelligence is more concerned with producing images and signs than with listening to what things intrinsically are. It is fixed in signs, especially practical signs. It is more concerned with verification than with truth. All its strength lies in more and more perfect specialization. And any kind of universal and unity-making knowledge is a dead letter for it. All this signifies that the modern man exercises the spiritual power of the intellect in ways of the most successful achievements of the mind of insects, for insects -- though they cannot go in for theoretical physics, a work of the mind which gives the lie to the principles of Empiricist philosophy -- insects are perfect specialists, perfectly fixed in their mental signs and perfectly equipped for mental verification unconcerned with truth. And all this causes the modern man to tend, as long as he does not revive in wisdom, to a kind of technocratic specializing and mechanizing of intelligence akin -- though infinitely more powerful -- to the technocratic mental organization of the world of insects.

Furthermore, if under the pressure of the intellect's natural aspirations he longs for some global interpretation of existence, the modern man, being deprived of the genuine tools of metaphysical knowledge, has to content himself with some sort of dreaming system, either Hegelian Logicism and Deification of Human History, or Existentialist Irrationalism and Despair of Human Destiny.

I have termed our third heading the disarming of freedom. Our Western culture offers us today an astonishing spectacle, -- the spectacle of a political regime -- democracy -- which consists essentially in a moral rationalization of political life, but which must deal in actual fact with a nominalistic cast of mind only interested in physical measurements; and the spectacle of a civilization which lives on such spiritual tenets s the dignity of the human person, human rights, human equality, freedom, justice and law, fraternal love, but in which human reason grown empiricist has no means of establishing the objective validity of these tenets, repudiates any unconditional truth and absolute value, and asks: what is person and what is dignity? What are inalienable rights? What is essential equality? What is freedom and justice and love? -- as Pilate asked: What is truth.

It is a great pity that a civilization should grow unable to justify in reason what is its own reason for existing; and that men should grow unable to believe in the intrinsic truth of the very things for the sake of which they are demanded to give, if necessary, their own lives.

The whole issue is appendent, in the last analysis, to the question of whether there is a certain universal essence which is called human nature. Empiricism ansers in the negative. If there are other philosophies for which, in one way or another, universal essences grasped by the mind express a basic reality, then, on the basis of such philosophies of universality, as Professor Yves Simon puts it, "to speak of the common nature of men makes sense; to speak of a natural foundation for the brotherhood of men makes sense; to speak of natural rights makes sense; to speak of rights belonging to all men on account of the unity of their nature makes sense; to speak of equal justice for all makes sense; but none of those things makes any sense in the framework of a consistently nominalistic philosophy."{1}

It is to be observed, furthermore, that the inner logic and inherent tendencies of a theory may be held in check by a conflicting moral environment. As long as we lived in a world in which justice and brotherhood were, even when not actually practised, at least unquestionably accepted as supreme standards in the scale of values, the extreme consequences of the Empiricist principle could not take form in actual existence; it was only in a hidden manner, inside human consciousness, that its work and power progressively developed. Now we are facing a world in which all the energies of ruthless domination, armed with the most powerful techniques, and all the savage trends to crush freedom have been let loose, and in which the Empiricist and Nominalist sweeping away of the unity of human nature, as well as of all essential universality without which personality, rights, justice, natural law, freedom, equality, brotherhood become meaningless, is free to enforce in actual existence its most extreme logical implications. And when we turn to our fellow-men to defend with them -- against those anti-human trends, and especially the threat of the Unholy Empire of Atheistic Theocracy -- freedom and our western civilization, we find our fellow-men -- great as their devotion, deep as their good will and healthy feelings may be -- intellectually and rationally disarmed, by virtue of the secret workings in them of the Empiricist and Nominalist leaven, in the face of the most dangerous and infectious errors with which modern mankind was ever confronted. One of the results of the impact of Empiricism upon Western culture is the intellectual disarming of freedom.


To finish this lecture I have a few words to add. Obviously, physical power in all its forms, as well as an effort to help people everywhere against want and distress, is needed for the defence of freedom and Western civilization. But obviously collective certitude with respect to the moral values by which a community of free men lives, and collective intellectual faith in the objective truth of these values, are also and first of all needed. If we want men to suffer and fight for freedom, we must have men hope in freedom. And we must have them believe in freedom. There is no hope without faith.

There can be no leadership with regard to a civilization if there is no leadership, I do not say by means of a totalitarian shibboleth, I say by means of the free workings of the mind, with regard to the basic certainties and ideals which are the life-giving and unifying sould of this civilization.

I am not preaching here for any particular philosophy. I am preaching for any philosophy capable of restoring in men the sense of being and the sense of reason, and the sense of the unconditional value and unshakeable truth of the things which are the treasure of civilized consciousness. A man is bound to die for justice. That means that he stakes his all on the moral value of justice. To stake my all, to give my life, I need to know that the intrinsic value of justice and the obligation to justice are unconditional or absolute -- a thing which no mere statement of fact, as all statements in sciences of phenomena, and no possible consideration born out of Empiricism can ever establish.

I dislike nationalism everywhere, and I hate nationalism in philosophy. There is no such thing as a national philosophy. Although I hold Descartes to be a great seducer of the spirit of my country-men, Cartesianism, thank heaven, is not and never has been French national philosophy. But Empiricism is not and has never been British national philosophy. There is also a great tradition of British Platonism, there is British Idealism, British Critical philosophy, British Christian philosophy.

Neither is Pragmatism American national philosophy. Before the period of Pragmatist ascendency, there were quite other great achievements in American philosophy. I think, moreover, that Pragmatism involves very valuable insights and potentialities, and that what is wrong in Pragmatism is more Empiricism than Pragmatism. I also think that the present diversity of philosophical schools in this country is a token of deep philosophical vitality, and that, in particular, a fecund renascence of metaphysical research, significant for all Western culture, is now in preparation in American thought.

Well, after all these rhetorical precautions, may I be permitted to say that in my opinion your War of Independence is not yet finished? It will come to an end when you set yourselves free from the intellectual heritage of British Empiricism.

{1} Philosophy of Democratic Government, p. 201.