I was thinking that even Hume, or the Logical Positivists, despite being the standard bearers of empiricism, still hold on to a lingering rationalism, since they believe the independent existence of relations of ideas and rules of logic.

A true empiricist would have to go all the way, and deny that relations of ideas and rules of logic have any independent existence, and are ultimately forms of sense data as well. Presumably the mind has a way of sensing its own thoughts, just like it can sense sight and sound.

Another way of looking at it is through Quine's questioning of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". If everything is synthetic, than doesn't that mean that there are no ideas and proportions just facts? A mind-body physicalist would say that even logical propositions are just configurations of neural patterns, and therefor just facts?

Has anyone held such a radical form of empiricism? That there is no such thing as an idea or a proposition, just facts?

4 Answers 4


The problem with empiricism in general is that it lacks the necessary resources to conclude what it needs to conclude. This can be best understood in terms of the possibility of extracting a pattern out of a set of data. In order for the pattern to qualify as such there must be some objective standard to determine that qualification. This, in turn, assumes that some degree of organization is somehow better than the lack of organization.

However, the law of entropy teaches us that the most natural preference is one of low energy and maximum chaos. Any subsystems within the natural order which exhibit a state of high energy must be regarded as disturbances which eventually need to be suppressed. This also implies that any supposed pattern within the data can only be regarded as such in the virtue of being an anomaly. Any given anomaly is just as qualified as the next as a possible candidate for a pattern, and therefore all such patterns lack any demonstrable value.

Of course this isn't the conclusion that the empiricist wants to conclude, so he has to resort to some logical fallacy such as circular reasoning or question begging to give the appearance of a valid conclusion. The very fact that empiricists appeal to logic is evidence of this sort of circularity since such an appeal assumes that the veridical representation of reality is preferable to falsehood.

Kant correctly concluded that some a priori principle is required in order for pattern recognition to be possible.

"But that in which our sensations are merely arranged, and by which they are susceptible of assuming a certain form, cannot be itself sensation. It is, then, the matter of all phenomena that is given to us a posteriori; the form must lie ready a priori for them in the mind, and consequently can be regarded separately from all sensation." (Critique of Pure Reason, A19/B33)

For that reason, an empiricist can make no legitimate appeal to ideas or facts, because all concepts assume an organization according to some governing principle whose origin is not to be found in the data. Therefore, the best way to argue that ideas don't exist is by simply remaining silent. Any attempt to communicate would be self-refuting.


This suggestion bears similarity with the already existent and widely criticized eliminative materialism, although it is reminiscent of reductionist accounts of mental phenomena as a whole. Indeed, your recognition of the connection between the Humean temptation to reduce all mental phenomena to the impressions themselves (at the cost of an existent subject that actually experiences the said impressions) and the notion of reducing all such things as conceptions, judgments and ideas to certain facts is a natural event, for there just is such a connection between the two methods.

Granted, in one the 'self' and its functions are being reduced to a very messy ontological group of entities (that Hume still considered such impressions to be 'mental' despite ridding of the 'self' welcomed Kant's swift criticism and objection that an active agent is required for all the facts of experience to be accounted for) and in the other the 'self' is being reduced to a precise ontological group of entities, such as particular neural patterns in the mind. But there is occurring in each an austere reduction of certain supposed facts regarding the unseen self to supposed facts regarding seen particulars. In each case the notion of the self, be it a substance or not, is being equated to that which is a part of our experience. And in each case our judgement is being reduced to the parts that constitute it.

But this view has very hard-to-swallow consequences, that many philosophers have deemed crippling. For one, it is very questionable if everything the eliminativist thinks can be reduced/equated to some other ontological entity can indeed be so. For one, it seems that the old notion that the whole is greater than the parts still sticks. So for example, the judgement, which is obviously a mental act, in analytic philosophy has been found to be in no way reducible to its parts, or 'terms'. Indeed it is just the other way around. This has even been known since Jean Buridan. For example, take the classic analytical example of the 'Morning Star' and the 'Evening Star'. Each term in itself has a different meaning, but each term nonetheless names the same thing. The only way in which one can know what the single term refers to is in the whole of the judgement as represented in the proposition.

Now there is of course disagreement about what exactly such things as 'proposition' and 'term' in logic signify in the mind, but what is clear as day is that they signify something in the mind. This is why there is ambiguity in our referencing after all; different terms in themselves signify different concepts in our minds, so that it is only in a judgement that such terms can be accurate and (using medieval jargon) supposited as referencing certain things. There is no problem in the terms themselves; the evening star and the morning star 'are what they are'. The problem is a result of our attitude, our differing concepts, which are obviously the product and act of the collective 'mind'.

Furthermore, it is clear that the judgement, the proposition is in no way of the world in the same way the terms, or possible objects of referent are. We cannot experience 'The man is sad'. We can experience 'man' and 'sad', but we cannot experience what is represented by the conjunction of both, nor the truth hidden within the proposition. That which the proposition represents most immediately is called the 'enuntiable' and it is classified in medieval logic (which is largely neglected by contemporary thought, though it is finding a strong comeback in the likes of D.H Armstrong and other moderate realists), along with our concepts as entia rationis, or beings of reason, products of the mind, and not of the world.

Now as to what this 'mind' is is another matter entirely. Wittgenstein held the 'self' to be the unseen limit upon the world. But what is apparent to many of the analytic tradition is that such a self, such a limit, is not of the world. It is not identifiable with anything that is experienced in the world, precisely because of its nature, and not (contra Hume's fork) because it lacks meaning.

As to Quine, I'm not sure it is accurate to inflate his points about the synthetic/analytic divide to have precedence over discussion about the self and its concepts. For we are not speaking about knowledge and meaning we possess nor the ways in which we can represent such knowledge and meaning (which was the main linguistic concern of Quine). We are rather speaking about conditions for logical reference, which even Quine and his ontological relativity would be hard pressed to find irrelevant to logic itself.


Awesome question, the only person I've been able to dig out of my brain with ideas like these is William James. He starts by saying nearly the same thing you're saying,

"To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as real as anything else in the system."

which goes right up the logical/relational alley but doesn't hit the physicalist side as hard. He does ultimately link what he's saying back to panpsychism, amongst other things, but his approach seems a little less analytical than what you might be looking for.

Would love to see if anyone here can dig up anything more current/directly related to the problem of mind-body physicalism and empiricism.


Your question refers to the domain of ontology: Which entities are needed to describe all phenomena of our experience?

A well known distinction is Popper’s ontology with entities of three different worlds. He advocates a tripartition:

  • world 1: physical objects and events
  • world 2: mental states
  • world 3: objective knowledge and ideas created by the human mind.

Popper describes his three worlds e.g., in Chapter P2, of Popper, Karl; Eccles, John: Das Ich und sein Gehirn. 1982 (Originally: The Self and its Brain. 1972). See also a previous question Are there philosophies that call for things which are not mind nor matter?

I consider Popper’s enumeration a useful point of departure also for the present question.

You do not give a definition how to use the term “fact” from your question. Hence I use it as a synonym of the entities from world 1. I consider also the relations between these entities to be members of world 1. I understand Wittgenstein’s statement “The world is all that is the case.” (Proposition 1 from Tractatus logico-philsophicus) as a description of world 1.

Your term “idea” obviously refers to the entities of world 3.

Popper describes the entities from the mental domain of his world 2 as conscious or unconscious mental states. I consider the whole information processing of animals, notably from the human species, as belonging to world 2.

Your question asks whether one can simplify any ontology like Popper’s ontology by reducing it to one single kind of entity. In particular whether an ontological reduction of world 2 and world 3 to world 1 has ever been advocated by an empirist philosopher.

I do not know about such approach.

Presently, I cannot imagine how to reduce the information processing from world 2 to world 1. Of course information processing is bounded to physical processes from world 1. But information processing adds a new dimension with entities like “information”, “model”, “reference”, "semantics". And also much of world 3 is the content of the information processing of world 2.

Your fictive mind-body physicalist, who considers logical propositions as just configurations of neural patterns, and therefore as facts, misses the distinction between a container (nervous system) and its content (information).

Also I do not understand how you derive an ontological position, which reduces world 2 and world 3 to world 1, on the ground of Quine’s negation of the discrimination “analytic/synthetic”.

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