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Empiricism And Ways Of Its Application To The Study Of Language

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Science, a combination of discoveries and mysteries, is undoubtedly one of the most visible manifestations of the human intellectual potential, but in the meantime, a lantern for mankind. If used wisely, science represents an unperishable source of knowledge and progress, but most importantly, a powerful weapon that permits man to be ahead of his time. The concern for such a rightful use of anything scientific certainly explains why Rabelais (2004) pointed out, “as the wise man Solomon saith, Wisdom entereth not into a malicious mind, and that knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul, it behoveth thee to serve, to love, to fear God, and on him to cast all thy thoughts and all thy hope” (p.186). Although Rabelais’s (2004) ideas suggest a rather spiritual perception of science (referred to as knowledge), what they mostly show is that knowledge is a path towards hope, which in turn makes all things possible. In short, scientific prowess has permitted to achieve great exploits throughout man’s history, some of them considered as miracles.

However, as advocated by a movement of philosophers (the enlightenment philosophes), knowledge cannot be said to exist if it is not subsequent to any experimentation, or else, observations that confirm its validity. In other words, knowledge should rely on solid evidence before it can be considered to be reliable. This doctrine, which emerged during the enlightenment, is known as empiricism: the belief that the foundation of an idea is based on nothing but practical experience. Still, before tackling this issue more deeply, one can note that so many important questions need to be raised.

Indeed, some of these questions are following: How worthy is a piece of scientific writing – especially in the humanities – that does not rest on solid evidence? From the same perspective, how to determine whether a researcher’s work is based on ascertainable evidence or not? What then is evidence? Besides, how did it come to be perceived by the enlightenment philosophers as fundamental to empiricism and a sine qua non for the establishment of knowledge? These are some issues that the present paper will attempt to address. What follows therefore is a series of headings and sub-headings, each examining a specific aspect of the major issues in this discussion, i.e. the enlightenment, empiricism, knowledge in relation to evidence, but mostly, how empiricism and the belief it involves apply to the field of linguistics.

The Enlightenment

The eighteenth century is generally thought of the as the century of philosophy, in reference to the significant philosophical production associated with the enlightenment. This great movement, essentially philosophical, emerged in the early eighteenth century and culminated for decades before it was brought to an end around the end of the century. Still, some scholars would argue that Isaac Newton’s (1687) Principia Mathematica is the work that has set the foundations of the enlightenment as a movement. The enlightenment is mostly thought of as involving significant social progress. That is certainly why most of its thinkers would argue that it was not an epoch or the indicator of a particular period throughout the evolution of mankind but rather a process towards significant social change.

The enlightenment was marked with liberation from medieval beliefs, religious dogmas imposed by the Christian church, and the ideas propagated by Plato and Aristotle, who had remained uncontested for long. Immanuel Kant (1784), an influential enlightenment philosophe, described the enlightenment as follows:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, 1784)

From the previous lines, one can figure out that the enlightenment was in its essence a revolutionary concept. Indeed, philosophers during that time sought collective awakening by inciting individuals to some form of intellectual struggle, where all dogmas (religious, ideological, and mostly political) would be challenged or regarded with a critical mind. More precisely, this hostility to the “unverified” phenomenon aimed at various sociocultural states of affairs, notably traditions, superstitions, prejudice, myth and miracles, all considered as carriers of authority. (Bristow, 2017)

Furthermore, one of the major reasons why the enlightenment philosophes saw the urgency of getting rid of the medieval philosophy was that the principles of some philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle had been accepted for centuries with no possible rejection. That is, no philosopher could reject or critique his predecessors’ ideas. It was clear that this situation had become unacceptable; hence the following views from Immanuel Kant (1784):

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! […] For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom […] freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” (Kant, 1784)

Now, what is important to note about the enlightenment is that it was perceived by its philosophes as a driver of change and progress, one that was meant to gradually render individuals self-directed and self-confident in the way they think and do things. This, therefore, was shown in two major ways.

Réné Descartes and Rationalism

So far in this paper, most of the discussion has dealt with the exploration of the concept of enlightenment and the importance of knowledge, the true knowledge. Yet, another important section of the discussion should be based on describing how to arrive at knowledge, with the aim of placing a considerable focus on empiricism on the one hand and the role it plays within the discipline of linguistics on the other hand. Therefore, as a means to that end, it would be judicious to touch on the notion of rationalism, since it represents, in a way, a bridge towards empiricism.

The main spirit of rationalism is that reason, instead of the physical world, is the sine qua non for establishing facts and arriving at the truth. To be more precise, nothing but reason can lead to knowledge. The advocate of this belief was the French philosopher Réné Descartes (1596–1650) who is often considered as the “father of modern philosophy”, although it is believed that before him, Plato (c. 427-347 BC) had also been an important figure of rationalism (Miles, 1999). The fundamental principle underlying Descartes’ (or the Cartesian) rationalism is not difficult to understand. To put it simply, Descartes had recourse to a method of doubt, i.e. scepticism, in order to attain the certainty he had been searching for. Indeed, as subsequent sections in this paper will show, scepticism is a method called on by both rationalists and empiricists as a means to an end, though the two categories of philosophers do no not necessarily make the same use of it.

In a nutshell, Descartes’s rationalist works lead him to a dualistic doctrine built upon mind and matter. This spirit of the dualistic doctrine lays in Descartes’ (1998) “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), which is illustrated in what follows:

“…I noticed that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.” (Descartes, 1998)

John Lock and Empiricism

Empiricism is usually associated with thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776), among others. Still, though Bacon represents a pioneer of the movement, Locke, however, tends to be considered as the most prominent advocate of empiricism. Locke’s (1999) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding has played an important role in laying the foundations of empiricism, without, however, being an absolute rupture with Descartes’s rationalism. Indeed, although Locke and his fellow empiricists suggested that knowledge comes from sense-experience rather than reason, it is important to note that some aspects of Locke’s work were refinements of Descartes’ scepticism.

The empiricist movement, paired with the emergence of the a new form of science, brought with it a great deal of new habits, new reactions to presuppositions, methodology based on a priori, and all kinds of dogmas. This suspicion of a priori judgements was proved to be effective, for instance, in natural science by Newton, but also—significantly—by Locke (Bristow, 2017). Locke believed in a new way of viewing science, a way which would revolutionise both theoretical methods and practical applications of research, the systematic quest for truth.

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Moreover, in identifying the patterns of the theory of knowledge, just like in most of his works on empiricism, Locke was confronted with the problem of deconstructing the idea received on innateness as a criterion for knowledge. Again, the influence of Locke’s (1999) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was fundamental in this deconstruction endeavour. This book suggests that human understanding has limits and that those limits can only be transcended on the basis of rigorous experimentations and the necessity for evidence. Additionally, Locke advocates that ideas, which represent the source of human knowledge, can themselves be derived only from senses, and that there is no way idea could be innate. He affirms:

“The way shown how we come by any knowledge, sufficient to prove it not innate. It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles…It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition, if I should only show…how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions; and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principles.” (Locke, 1999)

Furthermore, in The New Organon, Bacon (2017), another important figure of empiricism, identified three major principles underlying the existence of science as it was meant to be from a purely empirical perspective. These principles regarded the fact that the empiricist should consider science as: (i) “founded on empirical observation and experimentation;” (ii) “arrived at through the method of induction;” and (iii) “as ultimately aiming at, and as confirmed by, enhanced practical capacities.” (Bacon, 2017)

All the ideas developed in this section contribute to showing that science, after the emergence of empiricism, had become systematised and was therefore meant to rely on evidence. Thus, how does empiricism apply to linguistics?

The Relations between Linguistics and Empiricism

Linguistics is most commonly defined as the scientific study of human language. But the question is to know whether or not this definition emphasises the fact that linguistics is involved with one of the most—if not the most—intriguing human behaviours: language. Indeed, definitions of language provided by several linguists illustrate enough the complexity of this phenomenon. For instance, Chomsky (1957) asserts that “A language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements.” Additionally, Ronald Langacker (1967 as cited in Matrood, 2010) considers that “language is a device that establishes sound meaning correlation, pairing meaning with signals to enable people to exchange ideas through observable sequences of sound”.

Linguistics, therefore, is the scientific study of that complex human behaviour (i.e. language) defined above. For this reason, Nasr (1984) observes that “Linguistics deals with human language as universal and recognizable part of human behavior and human capabilities.” It is a discipline that serves three major functions: (i) to observe languages and to describe them accurately, (ii) to find generalizations within what has been described, and (iii) to draw conclusions about the general nature of human language (Hana, 2011). In addition, linguists cherish the desire, through the number of works produced in the discipline, to discover one day the proto-language, i.e. the very first language used by man to communicate. Achieving this aim would help to understand better how languages have evolved and to eventually identify their correlations.

A special emphasis, however, has been placed on the scientific nature of linguistics in this discussion. But what does this imply? In fact, by scientific study of language is meant its “investigations by means of controlled and empirical verifiable observations and with reference to some general theory of language structure. It is a field that deals with the scientific description and analysis of language” (Lyons, 1968)

Thus, it becomes legitimate to affirm that this scientific property of linguistics makes it a discipline to which the importance of empiricism is undeniable. More precisely, linguistic argumentation is a systematic process which needs evidence for its findings to be reliable. However, one may easily think or assume that because linguistic research often has recourse to the philosophy of language, the linguist, therefore, need not base his conclusions on evidence. But viewing the issue from that angle would simply be wrong. Although the philosophy of language is a rhetorical device used in linguistics, it remains an important method for argumentation, and the need for argumentation alone makes linguistics a discipline that can hardly do without evidence.

But does this imply that much has been said about evidence in the literature, especially from a linguistic point of view, so that it need not be highlighted in this context anymore? Alternatively, is it still pertinent to ask, “What is evidence?” and “How well can linguistics do without it?” if ever it can do so.

Now, it should be clarified that there is a perspective from which linguistics and empiricism may not necessarily go hand in hand. This happens when the issue of observation comes in. That is, what comes before and after the observation phase? What influence does it have on the process of searching for the truth and establishing knowledge? What is the power of experimentation? Ultimately, what if evidence is missing?

The following sections will tackle these issues as well as the one regarding the role of evidence in linguistic research through the examination of two important methods of research: deduction and induction.

Deduction vs. Induction: Where to Locate Linguistics?

If the Baconian motto that “knowledge is power” is accurate, then it should also be admitted that evidence is the essence. But how to arrive at the truth—and find evidence for it—is what has often led the enlightenment philosophes to diverging opinions, hence the deductive and the inductive methods of research. For instance, Francis Bacon (1620) asserted:

“There are and can only be two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one rushes up from sense and particulars to axioms of the highest generality and, from these principles and their indubitable truth, goes on to infer and discover middle axioms; and this is the way in current use. The other way draws axioms from sense and particulars by climbing steadily and by degrees so that it reaches the ones of highest generality last of all; and this is the true but still untrodden way.” (Bacon, 1620)

Now, how does knowledge of nature come to be acquired? The answer to this question also appears to provide information on whether or not linguistic research relies on evidence and as to how the latter can strengthen the truth. Basically, the difference between deduction and induction resides in their evolutionary status, i.e. whether they are designed to be static or dynamic. Indeed, deduction is meant to be definitive, or else, findings arrived at through deduction are meant to be definitive findings, most of the time. However, induction or an inductive result is subject to perpetual change. That is certainly why induction starts from general observations of how various phenomena evolve.

Consequently, this state of affairs explains why linguistic research tends more to be inductive, rather than deductive. One of the best illustrations of the reason why linguistic research should be inductive is provided by ethnolinguistics, the branch of linguistics which has to do with the study of the relations between communities’ languages and their cultural behaviours. Indeed, ethnolinguistic research cannot be based on a priori judgements. What they require instead is careful observation of how different communities behave, with the researcher being expected to integrate and be part of the community under study. Only such a conduct—for the sake of reliability—can permit to identify patterns in the daily life of communities or ethnic groups. Thus, from general observations of behaviours, the ethnolinguist heads towards specificity and principles that will allow him to provide explanations. But most importantly, evidence for the findings of the research will be derived from the observations that have gone along with the research because, after all, evidence represents the key.

Last but not least, and as mentioned earlier in this discussion, some scholars would argue that empiricism does have limits in the humanities, and particularly in linguistics. Indeed, the reason they put forth is that while the “sciences” are involved with “patterns and regularities”, the humanities, however, have to do with “interpretations and the exceptional”. In other words, the “sciences” are rigorous while the humanities are flexible (Bod, 2015). From this perspective, Bod (2015) further asserts that “The sciences aim for objectivity while the humanities are subjective and speculative.” This view is, therefore, the reason why it has often been assumed that the relation between the humanities (in this context, linguistics) and empiricism is not a matter of essentiality. Still, whether this claim is receivable or not should be examined with some scepticism.


This discussion has dealt with the role played by empiricism in the humanities in general, and linguistics in particular. In order to make this argumentation as coherent and organised as possible, the enlightenment has been explored first, including most of the major concepts that related to it. Among those concepts, light was shed on rationalism and then the concept of empiricism was examined. All the essential notions being covered, the discussion, therefore, emphasised on the implication of evidence within the scope of linguistics. It has been shown that evidence is essential to linguistic research in that it bring the virtue of reliability. Finally, and with certitude, it could be said that science without evidence is comparable to a human body with no traces of life.


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  2. Bod, R. (2015). A Very Short History of the Humanities: Patterns versus Interpretations. University of Amsterdam.
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  5. Descartes, R. (1998). Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis. Hackett Publishing Company.
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  10. Lyons, J. (1968). Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: the University Press.
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  12. Miles, M. (1999). Insight and Inference: Descartes’s Founding Principle and Modern Philosophy. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved from
  13. Nasr, R. (1984). The Essentials of Linguistic Science. London: Harlow Longman.
  14. Rabelais, F. (2004). Gargantua and Pantagruel: Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and his Son Pantagruel. Vol. 5. ISO-8859-1

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