According to Wikipedia,

Empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism and skepticism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory experience, in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or traditions; empiricists may argue however that traditions (or customs) arise due to relations of previous sense experiences.

Positivism is the philosophy of science that information derived from logical and mathematical treatments and reports of sensory experience is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge, and that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in this derived knowledge.

Both of them seem same to me. I want to know what's the differences and field of applications with examples.

  • 1
    You have not to consider them as "eternal, un-historical" doctrines, but in their historical context. Empiricism in XVIII century Europe was mainly represented by Locke and Hume and was a "reaction" against Rationalism (Descartes, etc.). Positivism was XIX Century : see Comte and was mainly drived by the impressive development of exact sciences. In the XX Century, the "old" Positivism ... 1/2 Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 9:06
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    ... was replaced by Logical positivism or Logical Empiricism. The main focus was again on the scientific worldview, but tacking into account the XX Century development of math and logic, Relativity th and Quantum Mech. 2/2 Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 9:08
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    A statement like "Empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience" is true but trivially true : it is applicable to Aristotle as well as Hume and Carnap. At this level of "unhistorical" discussion the answer to the question : "What are the differences between Empiricism, Positivism, Logical positivism, Neopositivism" is plainly : NOTHING. Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 9:31
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    @jowehler - I've not said taht it applies to all philosophers ... I've said that, if it is abstracted from the historical context, it applies to all "brands" of empricists philosophers,... :) Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 15:00
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    One of the main differences is that logical positivism claims that anything that is not subject to experiment is meaningless. While empiricism only claims that experience is the most important source of knowledge. So you can think of it as if positivism is a strong stance of empiricism, because empiricism does not deny that metaphysical questions have no meaning, it just says that to answer a question we need empirical experience.
    – SmootQ
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 10:17

6 Answers 6


Somehow on the contrary there is much difference, sometimes even in the sense in which these two are used.

("logical") positivism (so called "logical empiricism" or "scientific empiricism"), a movement associated with the Vienna Circle. Their mission was to 'unite' the science (especially as opposed to metaphysics) and give a correct sketch, description of scientific method (to dispute metaphysics). Their task concerned both scientific theory and language. This movement can be seen as empiricism (which states for example that they are in agreement with the methodology of natural science, and in that they believe that the source and origin of all knowledge is experience) and with a very important role for the (formal) logic "to describe the structure of permissible inference"(linguistic and logic). They are in agreement with empiricists that the origin of all knowledge is experience but they also seek for a "logic of science" with a very unique "authority", which in its turn leads to conformation theory.

To be direct, positivism states that 1) the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge[a uniqueness statement] (but empiricism is about source and origin of knowledge, which states that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience, and of course scientific knowledge is included). 2) this authentic knowledge comes from a special and unique method (scientific method) that is empiricism + specific principles of logic.

It asserts something about authentic knowledge and the method of achieving this authentic knowledge, empiricism is about, what is the basis of all our knowledge, it emphasizes experience and evidence (especially sense perception) to acquire knowledge, to use Kant, the "only knowledge we can have" is a posteriori (based on experience).


Empiricism is the thesis that knowledge comes from experience. Logical positivism is the thesis that the meaning of a sentence is the set of conditions under which that sentence could be verified to be true. (This implies that any sentence which cannot be verified empirically is either meaningless nonsense, or a tautology.) All logical positivists are empiricists, but not all empiricists are logical positivists. For instance, Aristotle would agree that all knowledge comes from sensation. (To my knowledge, he is actually the first to make this claim.) However, Aristotle might well reject that a sentence is meaningful even if there is no way for us to tell whether it's true or not. (I can't think of any examples of sentences that Aristotle would take to be like that, but I also can't think of any reason he would have to deny this either.)


Like you I see more similarities than dissimilarities between empiricism and logical positivism. In a broad sense, empiricism also covers logical positivism. In a narrow sense both differ by the historical time and the opponents of each school of thinking - as Mauro explains in his comment.

A main topic of logical positivism from 20th century was the question, how to separate science from metaphysics. In the end, it was Karl Popper who against logical positivism discovered, that the difference is the possibility of falsification - not verification. This insight of Popper is considered by many as a breakthrough in epistemology.

In any case, also empiricism must concede that knowledge cannot be deduced from experience alone. Science get's its life from the interplay of experience and theory. And theory often uses concepts which are freely created by man, e.g., Hilbert space for quantum mechanics, Riemann manifold for the General Theory of Relativity, gene for Biology.

  • The Popper paradigm shift. Excellent answer.
    – hellyale
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 6:12
  • Logical positivism opposed to "rationalism"? The French wikipedia says logical positivism "is part of a double philosophical tradition, that of rationalism and that of empiricism." (fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cercle_de_Vienne) I don't get it
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:42

From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Logical Empiricism:

The term ‘logical empiricism’ has no very precise boundaries and still less that distinguishes it from ‘logical positivism’. It is therefore hard to map. [...] It does not, however, distinguish logical empiricism from logical positivism, and it is doubtful that any principled such boundary can be drawn along doctrinal or sociological lines. The most that one can say is that if a distinction is to be drawn, logical empiricism is the wider term.


From "Introduction" of The Cambridge Companion to Logical Empiricism:

Throughout this book "logical empiricism" is understood to be synonymous with "logical positivism," or even "neopositivism," unless it is clear in context that a distinction is being drawn. Some logical empiricists thought the names had different reference, but most did not; in any case, by the middle of the 1930s, "logical empiricism" was the preferred term for leading representatives of both camps. Thus, we have chosen it rather than the more well-known but more misleading "logical positivism."


It depends on what type of empirical activity are being recognized in Empiricism. If an Empiricist recognizes internal activities in mind such as reasoning, then it becomes different from Positivism. Pure Positivism only recognizes experiments done in the world outside the mind. Pure Positivism actually rejects universal concepts which are byproducts of mind activities like abstraction. Hence it rejects that type of activities.

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