Empiricism, science, and taste or maturity

Say an empiricist is anyone who insists that all our knowledge is derived from sense experience. This is frequently taken as describing a “scientific” outlook, and with good reason, but there is another aspect of empiricism. Another kind of knowledge that rises from our experience of the world is maturity, but this seems almost opposed to the scientific outlook. Why so? The portion of experience that gives rise to science is perfectly communicable, and science itself depends on this communicability. Maturity is maddeningly incommunicable, which is easily one of the most exasperating experiences of getting older and watching people do all the idiotic, ill-mannered and immature things that you once did. Again, science is taught – one learns various propositions, does various experiments, and draws various law-like propositions. But maturity isn’t anything like building up a body of propositions. You simply see that one behavior is right and reasonable, even if you can’t exactly say why, and even if you have no idea how to derive it with any rigor from a more general principle.

Given that science and maturity are both rational, objective, and experiential knowledges of the world, we need to be careful about the criteria of what counts as rational. We are prone to identify the rational or meaningful with the teachable, the public, and the propositional. This is a mistake – and more narrowly, it’s bad empiricism.

It would be one thing if what was reasonable to a mature person, since it is incommunicable, had to be kept private and was not to be imposed on others who did not understand it. But no one thinks that this should be the case. Mature vision, being rational, deserves to some extent to be formalized into law. Though incommunicable, we still force others to treat it as binding, even if they cannot see why.


  1. Ed L said,

    July 8, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    It seems to me that the most maddening result of this lack of maturity is that most people think that, since all knowledge is derived from sense experience, only sensible things can be known per se.

    • July 8, 2010 at 1:59 pm

      An unstable opinion even as it stands since a thing, even when sensible, is only known by the senses per accidens. The senses per se give us only adjectives and verbs, but the nouns require some activity transcending sense.

      • socraticum said,

        March 15, 2012 at 1:39 pm

        That isn’t strictly St. Thomas’ opinion: in the commentary on the De Anima he claims that the animals know the first substance as “the term or principle of an action.” One argument he gives for this is that the sensible per se are not in themselves fearful. Consequently, if some combination of per se sensibles arouses fear, it must be because an “enemy” is known through them. Although, perhaps all you meant by “an activity transcending sense” is that to the degree animals perceive substance or “nouns,” they rely on the divine (or possibly an angelic) intellect.

  2. thenyssan said,

    July 8, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Killer post. Lots for me to think about here.

  3. Pseudonoma said,

    July 9, 2010 at 8:29 am

    “But maturity isn’t anything like building up a body of propositions. You simply see that one behavior is right and reasonable, even if you can’t exactly say why, and even if you have no idea how to derive it with any rigor from a more general principle.”

    Following from the starting point of this general recognition in a more specific and confined direction, I am reminded of the “warnings” Aristotle issues to his audience in the beginning of the his Nicomachean Ethics and elsewhere regarding the peculiar place of ethics as a branch of Politics and, even more broadly, as part of episteme at all. The fact that such knowledge as ethics is not only to be rigorously distinguished from other epistemic endeavors and the expectations of clarity and certainty that we can project for them, but even more that ethical knowledge is of benefit only to a certain man who has already been reared in a certain way and has already cultivated certain and habits —in short, a man who, among other a things, has reached a certain level of maturity seems particularly relevant to the post above. I would like to give further precision succinct expression to this relevance by saying that even if you HAD an idea of how to rigorously “derive [maturity] from a more general principle”, you would still not have a communicable knowledge of maturity but rather, a knowledge all of whose meaning and possible excellence or wisdom would depend on an accompanying critical recognition of its very confinement from and differentiation from all communicable scientific knowledge as such. The question that seems to me to be begged from all of this is: what is the nature of this accompanying critical knowledge that is capable of mediating between the incommunicable knowledge of maturity and the communicable knowledge of science? By way of anticipation, I think that there are good reason for dismissing any approach to this question which would try to ameliorate its demands by interpreting the difference between maturity and science as one representable through the model of a continuum demarcated by poles, e.g. extremities between communicable and incommunicable knowledge…

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