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Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Empiricism is the theory that human knowledge comes predominantly from experiences gathered through the five senses. In empiricism, concepts are spoken of as a posteriori or “from the latter” meaning from the experiences.

As philosophical theory, empiricism attempts to explain how humans acquire knowledge and conceptual understanding. In science, empiricism heavily emphasizes the use of experiments to collect evidence so that theories are applied to real world observations and recorded as empirical data. Empiricism is an important concept in IT as well. In areas including software development, data analytics and project management, empiricism is an evidence-based approach that relies on real-world data, metrics and results rather than theories and concepts.

Agile software development and agile project management, for example, are considered empirical approaches: Both are conducted in small sections called iterations; at the end of each iteration, the results are reviewed and critiqued by the project team. The decision as to what the next step should be is based on the experience of the iteration, in the form of the review. In the agile retrospective, each team member answers the questions, “What worked well for us?” and “What did not work well?” The answers to those questions guide another: “What actions can we take to improve our process going forward?”

The term empiricism comes from the Greek word for experience: empeiria. Empiricism contrasts with rationalism, according to which knowledge is said to also be largely developed through exploration of concepts, deduction,  intuition and revelation. In rationalism, deductions based on intuition can create knowledge that is gained without prerequisite sensory experience, making them prior to experience (a priori). Empiricists, however, sometimes argue that all these mental processes also come from primary experiences initially.

This was last updated in July 2016

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