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Rationalism vs. Empiricism

The major difference and disagreement between empiricism and rationalism is the way all people obtain the knowledge. Basically, rationalism is the approach according to which reason is the foundation of all certainty of knowledge while empiricism is established on the concept that all awareness comes from experience particularly that from the senses and that the knowledge people acquire is the foundation of general understanding (Chomsky, 1988). Every approach, however, has a trouble of knowledge as it is not possible to have empirical or rational knowledge solely.

Thesis: Though both positions have own weak and strong point, it is impossible to chose one, which would be applicable to all situations in life as well as to absolute universal truths and to particulars. In other words, knowledge does not have to choose any sides; it can be of both positions.

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Rationalism and Empiricism

Rationalism and empiricism are opposed positions within the epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dedicated to investigating the nature, sources and restrictions of knowledge (Cottingham, 1988). Empiricists have at all times asserted sense experience is the basis for all knowledge. The senses, they declare, provide people with all raw information concerning the globe, and lacking this raw material, awareness would not exist at all. The perception initiates a course of actions, and from this course come all the beliefs. Basically, empiricism declares that sense experience alone provides beginning to all the beliefs and all human knowledge (Cottingham, 1988).

However, humans appear to have certain beliefs, which cannot be read off the sense knowledge, or proved from the sensitivity people might be capable to have. Due to this, there historically has been warring camp of thinkers who provide the opposing answer to the problem of where the beliefs eventually do, or should, come from. Rationalists have asserted the ultimate basis for all awareness is not senses but reason. They claim that without preceding categories supplied by reason, human beings could not arrange and interpret the sense experience in any way. People would be faced with only one enormous, undifferentiated whirl of sensation, suggesting nothing. Rationalism, basically, holds that all the rational beliefs, and the whole of knowledge, consists in initial principles and inborn concepts (concepts that people are born having), which are somehow created and qualified by reason, together with anything rationally deducible from these initial principles (Cottingham, 1988).

How can reason provide any mental category or initial principle at all? The rationalists have asserted people are born with several essential categories in the minds ready for usage. These provide people what the rationalists recognize as inborn knowledge. Instances might be definite categories of space, time, and cause and effect. Humans naturally think in terms of cause and effect. And this assists in organization of the experience of the globe. For instance, rock hits window, and then it breaks. We do not see the third thing recognized as causation. But we think it has occurred. The rock caused the window to break. However, this is not experienced like flight of a rock or shattering of glass. Experience does not appear to force the notion of causation on us. We merely utilize it to interpret what humans experience. Cause and effect are the categories, which could never be recited of the experience and must, thus, be brought to experience by the previous mental nature to attribute the link. It is rationalist point of view.

Rationalists evolve their view in two ways. First, they assert there are instances where the content of the concepts or awareness outstrips the data that sense experience may provide. Second, they create stories of how reason in one form or another provides additional data concerning the globe. Empiricists present harmonizing lines of thought. First, they evolve the accounts of how experience provides the data that rationalists cite. Second, empiricists hit the rationalists' believes of how reason is a resource of notions or knowledge (Cottingham, 1988).

Rationalism is not the uniform position. Many rationalists will merely assert some truths concerning reality may be discovered via pure reason (examples comprise the truths of mathematics or geometry and at times morality) whilst other truths do need experience. Some rationalists go further and assert all truths concerning reality must somehow be attained through reason, generally because the sense organs are not capable to straightforwardly experience outside reality at all.

Empiricism, alternatively, is more uniform in a sense that it opposes the idea that any type of rationalism is possible or true. Empiricists can disagree on just how people obtain knowledge via experience and in what sense the experiences provide humans with the access to outer reality; however, they all agree that knowledge concerning reality demands interaction with reality (Woolhouse, 1988).

The Differences between Rationalism and Empiricism

With rationalism, believing in innate notions presupposes to have ideas before we are born. Inborn ideas may clarify why some people are naturally better at certain things than other humans are - even if they have had the identical experiences. Thinking that reason is the major resource of data is one more obvious difference of rationalism. Rationalists believe that the five senses only provide the opinions, not reasons. For instance, in Descartes’ wax instance, he clarifies how candle has one shape to start with - but when this candle is lit, it starts to melt and take on totally dissimilar form than it had began with. This argument confirms that the senses may be misleading and that they should never be trusted (Loeb, 1981).

Deduction is another feature of rationalism, which is to confirm something with confidence rather than the reason. For instance, Descartes tries to prove the existence of God with the help of deductive reasoning. He asserts that as he is thinking, he exists. Since thinking demands thought, and in order to possess thoughts you have to exist. When confirming God exists, Descartes claims that it is not possible to think of God excluding thinking of existence, and as existence is the relationship and not a feature, God has to exist (Loeb, 1981).

Unlike rationalists, empiricists think sense perception is the major resource of information and knowledge. John Locke clarified this by separating ideas into two parts: simple and complex. Simple notions are based merely on the perception, like size, color, shape. Complex ideas are created when simple ideas are united (Aune, 1970).

Another conviction of empiricists is that ideas are merely obtained with the help of experience, and not through inborn ideas (Aune, 1970). Empiricists oppose the concept of inborn awareness as, for instance, if babies had this knowledge, why do they not demonstrate it? Why does a child have to learn to walk, why does a baby not possess this awareness at birth? Lock thought that only with experiences could one shape simple ideas that could then be united into complex ones (Aune, 1970).

Induction is the ultimate feature of empiricists. It is the belief that few things, if any, may be proven conclusively. People know of things by using the sense perception. For instance, it is widely known that color of chalkboard is green and that color of dry erase board is actually white, but it is not possible to conclude that the observations agree with these objects indisputably. There is no way to convincingly confirm that the chalkboard maintains green when people leave the room and stop sensing it. There is no way to convincingly confirm this chalkboard even exists when people stop sensing it (Aune, 1970).

Strong and Weak Points of Both Positions

According to rationalists, all knowledge has to come from the mind. Rationalism deals with the absolute truths, which are universal (such as mathematics or logic). This is one of the strengths of this point of view. Its weak point lies in the fact that it is hard to apply this theory to particulars, which are all over in the daily living, as it is of such abstract character.

The strong point of the empiricist stance is that it is best at clarifying particulars, which humans face on a daily basis (Woolhouse, 1988). The weak point of this point of view is that one cannot possess direct experiences of universal concepts, as people only face particulars.

Given the weaknesses and strength of rationalism and empiricism, it is practical to try to judge which one offers more persuasive account. As the example it is easy to take the wide-spread notions of blackness and whiteness - the keys of the piano. In case if someone turns off the lights in the room, the colors disappear and only appear when the lights are back on. Some of the keys are glossier and brighter than others and at the different position the less-bright keys are even glossier and brighter. There appears to be a tie among the keys, the lighting, and an angle of the perspective. This relation involves a vague number of color blends. Once again it appears illogical to assert one exacting combination is the genuine color of the keys, despite the fact there are many other combinations. Therefore, the innate knowledge of the whiteness and the blackness of the keys is incorrect; for they are not actually 'black' or 'white'.

Gathering all the previous experiences of numerous color blends with the current experience and providing it a distinctive name, such as 'white' and 'black', is almost certainly the resource of error of perceiving the keys as really being black or white. It is this act of intertwining past experiences with present ones and classifying them under the concepts such as 'white' and 'black' that comprise an interpretative part of human experience. Interpretation in its nature is vulnerable to mistake. It is possible to divide the interpretative part of the knowledge, or that which is believably incorrect, like the blackness, roughness, smoothness of piano, with one which is not. We cannot, in fact, get to the issue it itself, liberated of the distorted senses. Thus, humans come to understand that people cannot completely rely on the senses to tell them everything about the globe. As it is not possible to rely totally on senses or innate knowledge, it is obvious that both stances should be utilized simultaneously.


In conclusion, it is important to recognize the strong and weak points associated with every kind of knowledge. Though both positions have own weak and strong point, it is impossible to chose one, which would be applicable to all situations in life as well as to absolute universal truths and to particulars. Hence, knowledge does not have to choose any sides, it can be of both positions.

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