I think this question might be dismissed very easily, but I'd like to try to provoke a sort of blurring-the-lines idea that may be interesting.

I'll start by putting two definitions here, the first of "Knowledge" from Wikipedia, the second of "Empirical" from Google (Oxford English pocket dictionary).


Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.


based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

So, quite basically it seems obvious that the distinction between empirical and non-empirical knowledge would be the distinction between "experience" (or, a postriori) and "theory" (or, a priori). Contra to this common position, I'd like to ask whether we should really consider the "theoretical" ideas as "non-empirical".

First, let's look at what "Empirical" focuses on: "Experience". Now, surely experience mostly refers to some external interference with the subject (from the Wikipedia page: "Experience is the knowledge or mastery of an event or subject gained through involvement in or exposure to it. Terms in philosophy such as "empirical knowledge" or "a posteriori knowledge" are used to refer to knowledge based on experience"). But let's not forget that experience doesn't involve only this kind of interference; it may also involve an intrinsic interference of oneself within itself, as suggested by the "mental" experience part of the Wikipedia article:

Mental experience involves the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes.

From here, there are two options to proceed:

  1. Exclude "mental", or any intrinsic sort of "experience" from the term "Experience" (another option is to exclude it from the term "Empirical"). But here we'll need to work a bit harder on defining which parts of experience are to be considered intrinsic (or, which parts of experience are to be considered empirical). We might rephrase and call the distinction of empirical and non-empirical as "external" and "internal" knowledge.

  2. Redefine the term "Knowledge" (or "Empirical") to erase the clear distinction between "experience" and "theory". Thus leaving us with only one sort of "Knowledge", which may include all sorts of experiences, externals and internals.

If we take upon the first choice, we can happily return to our distinction between empirical and non-empirical knowledge, while noting in our minds that we may have made an artifical, possibly flawed divide of experiences.

On the other hand, if we take upon the second choice, we lose the empirical and non-empirical distinction, and might sometimes muddle our considerations and studies of knowledge by including types of knowledge we wouldn't want to include, thus making us either come up again with a distinction, maybe a more pluralistic one, or a more detailed one, or simply accepting our inability to distinct the sorts of experiences forcefully and reach theories that would include and consider all of them altogether.

So eventually, summing it all up (quite unfairly), my question would be where does "Knowledge" and "Empirical", in all their meanings, converge? I suggested that they ultimately converge in every way possible. I'd love to hear different opinions.

Note: my knowledge of epistemology is fairy limited, so all of this may be just a big nonsense. If so, comment below and I'll delete the question.

  • Hm, knowledge of breathing (how to breath) is neither empirical, nor logical. To what category does it belong? Indeed it is genetical, but regarding philosophy what knowledge is that?
    – rus9384
    Jun 22, 2018 at 10:59
  • @rus9384 I'm not entirely sure that I want to answer that, as it's not exactly relevant to the question itself but rather to its premises (which were taken from the dictionary), but I can say that it is quite possible to consider the knowledge of breathing empirical, coming from an instinct (like many genetical knowledge). Jun 22, 2018 at 11:36
  • You can also consider the notion of knowledge regarding computer science (neural networks). It differs and it invoves the inner state of NN. Therefore, there is the starting state and the change of that state and it's hard to distinguish different kinds of knowldge here.
    – rus9384
    Jun 22, 2018 at 11:54
  • Knowledge is never empirical. We may have knowledge of empirical facts but this is not 'empirical knowledge'. But sticking to your terminology there is definitely such a thing as non-empirical knowledge. Often it is much more certain than the theory-laden evidence of our senses. This is why Descartes chose an item of non-empirical knowledge for his axiom. .
    – user20253
    Jun 23, 2018 at 11:25
  • I do not see an answerable question here, the title "question" is subject to the perennial controversy between rationalists and empiricists, "I'd love to hear different opinions" is a discussion invitation and is off-topic on this site. Moreover, "distinction between empirical and non-empirical knowledge would be the distinction between "experience" (or, a posteriori) and "theory" (or, a priori)" is not what most people mean by the distinction. Mystical or "subjective" experiences, for example, are not considered to be either theoretical or empirical.
    – Conifold
    Jun 26, 2018 at 17:57

3 Answers 3


The issues regarding knowledge are complex.

See Knowledge How :

It is common in epistemology to distinguish among three kinds of knowledge. There's the kind of knowledge you have when it is truly said of you that you know how to do something—say, ride a bicycle. There's the kind of knowledge you have when it is truly said of you that you know a person—say, your best friend. And there's the kind of knowledge you have when it is truly said of you that you know that some fact is true—say, that the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Here we will be concerned with the first and last of these kinds. The first is usually called “knowledge-how” and the last is usually called “knowledge-that” or “propositional knowledge.”

If we stay at the definition quoted in your post, we have to consider also :

"Knowledge is a familiarity [of] skills, acquired through education by learning."

This case will cover two well-known examples : counting and chess-playing.

In both cases, we will not call them "knowledge of facts". At the same time, we do not say that these skills are "verified by observation".

Thus, are they non-empirical ? Are they base on pure logic ?

For sure, they are not aquired by introspection. Thus, the question is :

is the knowledge aquired with a learning process empirical ?

While the "empirical" attribute concerns the source of knowledge, the dichotomy a priori vs a posteriori refers usually to its justification.

Thus, in principle, the two do not overlap (see the well-known kantian synthetic a priori).

Thus, we have a new question :

is the knowledge regarding a skill a priori ?

  • Yes, you touch exactly in the essence of the question in your last sentence. This might also even lead to questioning the distinction a priori/a postriori (thought highly unnecessary). I wanted to give more breadth to the question so I didn't address it explicitly as you did in your forming of the question. Jun 22, 2018 at 7:54
  • Learning is some kind of empirical knowledge. The more you do something, the better you do it. Or you could take that knowledge from educator, than the experience is the hearing/reading of his/her words.
    – rus9384
    Jun 22, 2018 at 14:43

What is empirical knowledge ?

I acccept C.S. Jenkins' characterisation :

Empirical knowledge for the purposes of this paper is knowledge which either is, or is ultimately derived (through deduction, inference or other such rational transitions) from, knowledge obtained in a way that involves some essential use of the senses. (C. S. Jenkins, 'Concepts, Experience and Modal Knowledge', Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 24, Epistemology (2010), pp. 255-279 : 255.)

This characterisation clearly recognises a role for the mental in empirical knowledge.

One kind of knowledge looks non-empirical

I can know that I believe that water is wet, say, without undertaking any empirical investigation. (Anthony Brueckner, 'Brewer on the McKinsey Problem', Analysis, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 41-43 : 42.)

**But is it non-empirical ?'

I cite Breuckner's footnote :

... even though I can know non-empirically that I believe that water is wet, say, I cannot know non- empirically that the putative natural kind concept of water is non-empty. That is, if I set aside all my empirical knowledge about the world, then I cannot know non- empirically whether or not my concept of water is like my concept of phlogiston in lacking any instances. (Brueckner, ibid.)

The objection has been raised, 'where does this "belief" come from ?'

Let me say that I never claimed that my belief that water is wet is non-empirical. I said that I know non-empirically that I have this belief - that is where non-empirical knowledge comes in, if it does come in. But now, about my knowledge that I have this belief. Is it the case that this knowledge either is, or is ultimately derived (through deduction, inference or other such rational transitions) from, knowledge obtained in a way that involves some essential use of the senses ?

I cannot see that it is. I do not know that I have the belief by any means that involves some essential use of the senses; I cannot sense my belief. Equally I do not know that I have the belief by any means ultimately derived (through deduction, inference or other such rational transitions) from knowledge obtained in a way that involves some essential use of the senses : I have direct, self-intimating, unmediated knowledge that I have the belief. This is non-empirical knowledge that I have an empirical belief.

  • 1
    So, here from where does this "belief" comes from? Wouldn't it be from mental experience? My point would be, if we consider experience to be empirical, that'd include mental experience. And if we don't consider it as empirical, we'd need to justify it by better defining empirical, at the very least. Jun 22, 2018 at 11:31
  • First, I'm sorry if the quotes were understood as anything but mere marking tool. Second, that last paragraph - that is exactly what I'm asking. You say that it's to be considered as "stretching" (again, marking only) it too far, but by its very definition, experience does involve those mental experiences, as I've shown in the post. You may argue that Wikipedia's definition is simply wrong, and that's absolutely fine, but then I'll ask you to better define "experience" for me. Jun 23, 2018 at 13:47
  • @Yechiam Weiss. You brought up some good points. Proof of which is that I have revised my answer (yet) again. I think my worry is that if you make the counter-move of saying that direct, self-intimating, unmediated knowledge is itself an item of experience, then I don't know where experience ends and can't see that anything would be allowed to count as non-empirical knowledge. It looks as if the empirical engulfs all knowledge, so that there is really no question whether non-empirical knowledge exists.The empirical is or involves sense perception -and my knowledge that I have a belief doesn't.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 23, 2018 at 15:27
  • I'm thankful for your reply, personally I wouldn't want to come to the conclusion I propose, that there is no "non-empirical" knowledge, it's simply a counter-attack for my own thoughts to better understand them. Ultimately, you suggest that we count experience (or, as by now we can simply replace it with, "Empirical Knowledge") as the events that include sense perception (ultimately, the 5 senses). I understand this conclusion, it is essentially my first option. But would like to again push it and ask that in the end, can we represent our thoughts without using those senses? Jun 23, 2018 at 16:27
  • And I understand your worry, this line of thought may indeed leave the realm of knowledge as purely empirical, I simply want to see if there any clear objection to this reasoning that I can accept. Jun 23, 2018 at 16:28

The word "experience" has different meanings in different contexts. Within the empirical/a priori knowledge debate, it primarily refers to "sense data" rather than emotions and thoughts... Empirical knowledge depends on sense data for its justification, whereas a priori knowledge can be known to be true based on reason alone. Examples of a priori knowledge:

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • Bachelors are unmarried
  • A = A
  • A square has four sides
  • But how do you "know" a square has four sides if you are blind? Jul 17, 2023 at 2:58
  • By definition. Square: noun a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. Sep 12, 2023 at 8:12
  • But if you are blind, these are just words, yes you can relate that the term “square” means “a plan figure with four straight sides...”, but you don’t actually know that as a fact, you have to believe the unblind that tells you this. And by believing, how is it different from empirical? Sep 13, 2023 at 9:55

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