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Rationalism Vs. Empiricism

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Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of human knowledge. It is concerned with deeply abstract issues such as what is consciousness? what is experience? what does it mean to know? how reliable is human perception? what are the limits of human knowledge and understanding? The main issue in epistemology during the age of Enlightenment was the method in which knowledge is acquired, and the significance of reasoning and sense perception in the process. There were rationalists, philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, who stressed on the role of deductive reasoning based on axiomatic principles. For empiricists such as Bacon and Locke, the origin and basis of knowledge was sense perception. The two dominant approaches to epistemology, rationalism and empiricism, differ sharply with regard to what constitutes the actual source of knowledge.

Rationalism says that knowledge can be obtained deductively by reasoning. Empiricism says that knowledge can be attained inductively from sensory experiences. Empiricism put all its emphasis on human observation and experience, and was oriented primarily towards practical research. Rationalism put thought, reason and the process of acquiring knowledge in the focus (Lazerowitz, Ambrose 185).

The term “Rationalism” derives from the Latin term ratio (“reason”), and is generally understood to refers to the view that all truth has its origins in human thought, unaided by any form of supernatural intervention or an appeal to the experience of the senses. The phrase “the autonomy of human thought” is sometimes used to refer to this position, which stresses that human beings, by due and proper use of their natural ability to reason, may develop a series of truths which are universal and necessary. Rationalists posit a special mental faculty known as intellectual intuition (Carruthers 113). Rationalism often appeals to the notion of “innate ideas,” meaning ideas which appear to be naturally implanted within the human mind.

The origins of an exclusive appeal to reason lie in a desire to break free from any dependence upon divine revelation for reliable human knowledge of the truth. Nonetheless, many rationalist philosophers had religious leanings and argued that the existence of God could be defended purely on rational grounds (Joad 112). The most important of the rationalists were Descartes and Leibniz, who are generally regarded as the most significant philosophers of rationalist thought. Descartes constructed an argument for the existence of God, which makes no reference to either the experience of the human senses or any truth which is derived from supernatural revelation. Descartes was a skeptic who did not trust the authenticity of sensory perceptions. Descartes refused to allow human experience or sense perception to have any decisive role in the formation of human knowledge. Scientific exploration and investigation of the world held no significance in his approach, as he declared that knowledge derived from sense perceptions could be of no genuine significance. At the same time, the traditional approach to the understanding of God based on divine revelation was also discounted.

For Descartes and Leibniz, the science which had most to offer was pure mathematics. Like geometry, all knowledge could be stated in terms of axioms and principles. Euclid had demonstrated that , on the basis of a series of principles, an entire geometrical system could be devised. The basic principles were not derived from experience or sense perception, nor from divine revelation, but from the process of reasoning itself. Descartes argued that a series of “universal concepts of reason.” could be deduced in a similar manner, and set out in terms of certain fundamental mathematical and logical relationships. These could then be applied to human sense and perception. It is important to note that Descartes was denying the priority, not the possibility, of empirical data (that is, data derived from experience). Descartes favored interpreting such data in terms of the patterns and ideas generated by the human mind, independent of sense experience.

Rationalism became particularly prominent during the Enlightenment, the period of western culture which was dominated by the general acceptance of the priority and universality of human reason. Rationalists saw the triumph of scientific method as the triumph of rationalism However, the growing tendency of natural sciences to rely on experimentation and observation raised considerable difficulties for rationalism.

The alternative to rationalism was an appeal to experience, generally known as “empiricism.” Empiricism gained increasing acceptance and credibility from the late seventeenth century, although its origins lie in Francis Bacon and much earlier, in Aristotelian thought. The original conflict between rationalism and empiricism in fact can be traced to the Plato and Aristotle. During the Enlightenment, with the efflorescence of science and philosophy, this conflict intensified. One of the major contributions to the development of empiricism was John Locke, whose Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) attacked the notion of “innate ideas” and principles of which Descartes would make so much.

Locke argued that children enter the world that children enter the world with no preset ideas. At birth, the mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa. God does not implant ideas within our minds from birth, but provides us with the faculties which we need to acquire them. For Locke, the primary source of knowledge is human experience and sense perceptions; reason is brought into matters to reflect on those perceptions. It is not seen as a primary source of knowledge. Locke criticizes those who appeal to mathematics as a means of interpreting the data of experience. The general principles to which rationalism appealed are, in Locke’s view, the conclusions rather than the foundations of science. Further, Locke declared that the idea of God is not innate. All human knowledge of God, including both God’s existence and nature, derives form experience. The idea of “God” is constructed, according to Locke, by the human mind on the basis of its experience.

The fundamental issue to emerge from this debate between rationalism and empiricism is whether certain truths are a priori or a posteriori. The former is typical of rationalism, and holds that truth arises within the human mind itself. The latter holds that truth arises from reflection with in the mind on what the human faculties experience through sense perception (Cassam 43).

After Locke, George Berkeley took up the mantle of furthering empiricism. Berkeley noted that we can never have sensory experiences of physical objects. We can only experience qualities. The actual experience of a physical object constitutes only the experience of qualities (Aune 51). For example, we perceive a tree as a certain size and shape, we perceive the diameter of its trunk, the length of its branches, the brown color of its trunk and branches, and the green color of its leaves; we can feel its rough texture through touch, we can smell its earthy fragrance, but we can never perceive its substance itself. We can only perceive its qualities, not the substance. Berkeley’s empiricism is radical in comparison to Locke, because he shatters the belief in the existence of physical substance. According to Berkeley, material world exists only in our perceptions. For Berkeley, matter and the physical universe do not have any objective existence. Nevertheless, Berkeley believed that mental substances exist, both in the form of finite minds and also in the form of God who is infinite mind.

However, David Hume questions even that. Hume takes a stance of extreme skepticism. Descartes and Hume are both famous proponents of skepticism, though one is a rationalist and the other an empiricist. Hume opposes Descartes’ rationalism with a more powerful empiricism. Hume asserts that we can never know the nature of ultimate reality. Hee argues that we shall never know what are the causes of the sense perceptions that we have. We shall never know what are the true qualities of things in the world or why they are as they are. Reason can never discover the nature, the purpose, or the plan of the world. Human understanding is limited, and the things that metaphysics seeks to know, we can never know.

Hume attempted to apply scientific methods of observation to the study of human nature and thought. He wanted to explain why we believe what we believe.  Hume divides all knowledge into two kinds: knowledge of relations of ideas, which is abstract knowledge found in mathematics and logic, and knowledge of matters of fact or real existence. Hume rejects the role of pure reason in the origin of our beliefs as regards matters of fact, stressing on sense impressions. Matters of fact are our beliefs that seemingly inform to us the nature of existing things, but they are always dependent on sense impressions.

In his analysis of human belief, Hume distinguishes between what he calls impressions, which are the direct products of immediate experience, and ideas, which are representations of original impressions. (Hume) Simply put, the book I hold in my hands creates a direct impression, while the book I saw in the library yesterday is now only an idea. Hume claimed that every idea has a sense impression or a product of experience at its basis, in one way or other. The ideas and knowledge we have of our world rests upon our belief in matters of fact, and hence it is very important to explain their origin.

Hume raises a big problem in relation to our knowledge of matters of fact, which is that there is no intrinsic logical connection — as in mathematics — in the cause and effect we observe in the world of experience. For example, we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, because it rose yesterday and the day before and so on, and also because we know that the earth revolves round the sun. However, we must realize that there is no logical necessity, and hence real guarantee, that the sun will rise tomorrow. Extending this line of reason it can be concluded that even the most fundamental laws of science might not hold true universally. Scientific truths tend to be provisional, and as the scope of our experience expands, they can be disproved. Hume takes empiricism to its very logical end.

Hume contemporary, Immanuel Kant also believed that our ideas are essentially empirical in origin. But he disagrees with empiricists, and keeping with the rationalist tradition, believes that one can have exact and certain knowledge of the world — though conceding that this knowledge can be very much influenced by the limitations of our own mind. The two streams of rationalism and empiricism were brought together by Kant. While he agrees that the basis of knowledge is experience, he does not accept the empiricist argument that experience is the sole source of all knowledge. Kant argues that knowledge arises only when both the logical thinking or rationalism and sensory experience of empiricism work together. For Kant, the human mind is not the passive tabula rasa but active in ordering sensory experiences in time and space and supplying concepts as tools for understanding them. Therefore, his position is closer to rationalism than to empiricism. However, Kant believed that we could only know the “phenomenon” or the sensory perception of “transcendental object” or “thing in itself,” which transcends experience. For this reason, his philosophy is known as “transcendental idealism.”

Kant distinguishes between analytic and synthetic truths, which is similar to the Hume’s distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact. In his work “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant deals with the question how is it possible for us to acquire knowledge about our world without needing to derive it from experience (Nash 264). In Kantian terms, this is the problem of “synthetic a posteriori” knowledge. Kant identifies three kinds of knowledge, based on the concepts of a posteriori (Knowledge derived from experience) and a priori (knowledge independent of experience). These categories are 1) analytical a prior, 2) synthetic a posteriori, 3) synthetic a priori.

Hume claimed that all our knowledge of matters of fact comes from experience, implying  that all synthetic knowledge is a posteriori, but Kant posits ‘synthetic a priori’. Kant agrees with Hume that causality about the phenomena of the world cannot be inferred from experience, i.e. a posteriori, but still maintains that they can be intuited a priori. Therefore it is possible to have exact and certain knowledge of causality and the world. To Hume, the category of ‘synthetic a priori’ did not exist, but Kant argues that much of science and philosophy falls within this category.  Kant thus takes a position empirical realism, or “transcendental idealism,” according to which the causality implied in our empirical knowledge is real though this knowledge is subjected to the operations of our cognitive faculties.

To sum up, rationalism argues that that true knowledge is not the product of sensory experience bur some ideal mental process. There exists a priori knowledge that does not need to be justified by sensory experience. Rather, absolute truth is deduced from rational reasoning grounded in axioms. In contrast, empiricism claims that there is no a priori knowledge and that the only source of knowledge is sensory experience. Everything in the world has an intrinsically objective existence; even when one has an illusory perception, the very fact that something is perceived is significant.

Works Cited:

Aune, Bruce A. “Knowledge of the External World.” New York : Routledge, 1991

Carruthers, Peter. “The Nature of the Mind: An Introduction.” New York : Routledge, 2004

Cassam, Quassim. “Rationalism, Empricism and the A Priori.” In, New Essays on the a Priori, ed. Christopher Peacocke, Paul Artin Boghossian. Pp 43-64. New York : Oxford University Press, 2000

Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” 25 May 2007. <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/8echu10.txt>

Joad, C. E. M. “Guide to Philosophy.” New York : Random House, 1946

Lazerowitz, M., Ambrose, A. “Philosophical Theories.” The Hague, Netherlands : Mouton & Co, 1976

Nash, Ronald H. “Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy.” Grand Rapids, Michigan :  Zondervan, 1999

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