Empiricism vs. Rationalism

 Empiricism vs. Rationalism


Epistemology is the study of knowledge, what knowledge is, what we can know and how we can know it. The two main parts of Epistemology are Empiricism and Rationalism. The disagreement between rationalism and empiricism is the way in which we gain knowledge. Rationalism is a theory that reason is the basis of all certainty of knowledge whereas empiricism is based on the principles that all knowledge comes from experience especially that from our senses and that the knowledge we acquire is the basis of our understanding. Rational knowledge occurs in any situation where we are taught something. Impersonal or propositional knowledge are examples of rational knowledge for the reason that through both logic is used to acquire knowledge. Rational knowledge requires the mind to be active in gaining knowledge whereas experience is downplayed. Descartes is a key rationalist thinker.


Empiricists share the view that there is no such thing as innate knowledge, and that instead knowledge is derived from experience either sensed via the five senses or reasoned via the brain or mind. A key Empiricist is John Locke. Each theory, however, has a problem of knowledge because you can never solely have empirical or rational knowledge. This essay will explore the arguments for each theory in turn.


The fundamental idea of Empiricism is that we can only be sure of something once it has been tested, proven and experienced. An Empiricist would argue that we ought to only make decisions once a person has got the information needed in order to make fact, usually by using the five senses. Empiricism has been used to explain aspects in philosophy and science. Empiricism in philosophy focuses on  the roles of experience and evidence and the use of humans’ sensory awareness. In science, empiricism is associated with the knowledge that is based upon evidence, which has been gained through scientific experiment in order to prove.


It may be argued that Empiricism is ‘simpler’, as rationalism has one more entity that exists which is innate knowledge. According to empiricism, the innate knowledge is unobservable and inefficacious, it does not do anything. It is knowledge that may never be used. Using ‘Ockham’s Razor’, a principle that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, Empiricism is easily the simpler theory.


Another argument, is the argument of color. Those with a sight impairment would be unable to know what colors look like as they would be unable to see them. The only way to have known about colors would be to see them and experience them. However, Descartes and Plato would reject this argument, arguing that we have innate knowledge of the forms [mathematical objects and concepts], moral concepts [goodness, beauty, virtue and piety] and possibly color. Descartes believes that the idea of God, or perfection and infinity and knowledge of existence is innate.


Empiricists may argue that people are influenced by other factors such as their political outlook, faith, values and social perspective. To use the example of faith, Empiricists would say that people are unable to believe in religious beliefs because they have not be proven.  They would argue that there was no hard confirmation to prove anything. It therefore holds no ground.


Rationalists have been wrong about their ‘innate knowledge’. Some medieval rationalists claimed that the notion of a vacuum was rationally absurd and therefore it was impossible for one to exist. However, science has proven that it is possible, therefore reason is not the only way to discover the truth about a matter. This shows that the advance in science has helped to argue for empiricism. Much of science is founded on empiricist principles, and would not have advanced without it. If our conclusions are based upon empiricism, we are able to change our theories and improve upon them, showing previous mistakes.


Although some will argue that such knowledge gives us fundamental truths about reality, in others there is a disagreement about the nature of reality and the self. This particular argument shows little ground for the idea of innate knowledge.


Rationalism will argue that morality is innate, arguing that there is no way to get a sense of right and wrong using the five senses. As we cannot experience things such as justice, human rights, moral duties, moral good and evil using senses, empiricist theory lacks support.


The poverty of stimulus problem gives further support for rationalism. Young children use language in ways that they are not explicitly taught. For example, they form original sentences from words that they haven’t put together in that way before and start to understand grammatical rules before they even understand the properties of nouns, verbs and adjectives. If we are only able to have knowledge by experience, then how is a young child able to speak as they do?


As discussed before, Rationalists are believers of an innate knowledge, which differs among different philosophers. Plato argues that we have an innate knowledge of the Forms, mathematical concepts, moral concepts and perhaps color. Descartes pointed out that the idea of God or perfection and infinity, and knowledge of our own existence is innate knowledge.


It is argued that Empiricism undermines creativity as according to such a theory, things can be combined and separated. Rationalist thinkers believe that people come to experience with ‘ready-made’ tools for creativity. For example, Plato would argue that we are in touch with abstract, immutable realities which provide lots of material with which to create.


According to Empiricism, human beings can be controlled and manipulated easily. If humans are nothing other than what the experience then, in theory, they should be able to be made to do what they are taught. Rationalism argues that there is an invariable core, human nature, which refuses to be manipulated, making us unique.


It is fair to conclude that both Empiricism and Rationalism have fair points to argue their perspective in ways that human beings gain knowledge. The arguments appear well balanced, it does not give a clear side as superior, therefore it would be fair to believe that a combination of the two would be the best solution in order to understand epistemology. It would be logical to use both theories together in order to gain knowledge most effectively, using both reason and experience to form the best possible view of anything.

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