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Empiricism is supposed to be the doctrine that all knowledge arises from (and for some is limited to) sense experience, but it’s striking how many people can be called empiricists who don’t admit anything like a normal sense experience. Normal sense experience encounters objects that are rough and scratchy, multicolored, bland or sugary with too much cumin, etc. There are colors that clash or go well together, smells that give rise to seemingly random intense memories, taste experiences that we will go miles out of our way to have, etc. But a good deal of empiricism (say, that of Locke or the doubters of “qualia”) doesn’t admit the reality of any of these experiences. All that’s there to sense is a coloring-book outline of the world, which we, the disembodied observer, view from an observation deck behind six inches of plate glass. Carry this sort of empiricism far enough, even the coloring-book shapes will fade into an equation. Such empiricism has the odd effect of insisting on the primacy of sense and yet cutting us off from anything sensuous. Perhaps only poets are real empiricists, or at least only those who don’t try to replace the sensual world with a substitute.

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