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Hume Studies Volume 32, Number 2, November 2006, pp. 366-369 Robert G. Meyers. Understanding Empiricism. Chesham: Acumen, 2006. Pp. 183. ISBN 1-84465-059-6, Paperback, £13.99. Understanding Empiricism is an ambitious book. It is often a little breathtaking in its scope. Of course it is difficult to tackle a topic such as this in a short space of time. Introductions to this and that are notoriously difficult to get right. This book gets it right some of the time. One way to deal with the scope of material—understanding empiricism and its history—is to present material without reference, without backing quotation, and with a large number of assertions. This is how Meyers chooses to deal with his material (a lot of the time). Perhaps the hardest chapter for the novice is Meyers's first chapter, the one in which he explains what empiricism is. For a book with the title that this one has, one might have expected the material of chapter one to constitute the entire book (expanded and defended, of course). Meyers distinguishes between what he calls "justification empiricism" and "concept empiricism" and employs the term "empiricism" without adjective to refer to the former. It may be hard for the student to understand why Meyers's discussion of empiricism is so restricted (some have claimed that it is not so easy to keep these two aspects of empiricism firmly disentangled). This is not to say that Meyers does not have his reasons, but he is wrong to think that the beginner doesn't need to know what these reasons are. After all, it is precisely dissatisfaction with starting points that draws many students into philosophy in the first place. And while one is at it, when introducing empiricism one would do well to warn the student against over rigid adherence to labels. Michael Ayers, for example, has argued that, while Locke is a concept-empiricist, he is a weak rationalist in so far as he held a rationalist ontology. It is true that there is room in Meyers's account of empiricism for just such manoeuvrings. After all, Meyers allows that empiricists may hold doctrines traditionally associated with the rationalists, just so long as s/he denies the possibility of a priori knowledge of real existence (3). This—the denial of a priori knowledge of real existence—is the defining feature of Empiricism for Meyers. He refers to it in one place as the "principle of empiricism" (29). Presumably, adherence to this principle is what defines justification empiricism (although Meyers is not clear about this). Using this as one's benchmark, it turns out that the early Bertrand Russell is not an empiricist , as he allows that one can have a priori knowledge of things that subsist. The early logical positivists are both empiricists and verificationists. Meyers is clear that he does not want to mix empiricism with verificationism. Indeed, those who attack the positivist's verificationism sometimes take themselves to be attacking Hume Studies Book Reviews 367 empiricism—but this would not be the case the way Meyers sets things up. As Meyers puts it, "To build the re j ection of metaphysics into empiricism thus clouds the issue" (6). So we have empiricism delineated by Meyers. Next Meyers turns to a survey of the history of empiricism. For reasons he does not explain, he begins with Locke and he largely concentrates his discussions in the first part of the book on the work of the great British Empiricists—Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. It arguably would aid the beginning student's understanding to be told that empiricism has a longer history, and to mention the work of Aristotle as well as to explain about the development of science (ancient and medieval, as well as modern). (I can imagine Meyers's reason for starting with Locke, but it would have been nice if he had been explicit about it.) My greatest reservation about this book comes from the handling of this part of the history. Leaving aside the abruptness of his starting point, Meyers takes us through the work of these early modern empiricists at a clip. It is hard to judge what a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 366-369
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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