Rationalism Essays

Rationalism And Empiricism Essay

Rationalism and Empiricism

Rationalism and Empiricism are most likely the two most famous and intriguing schools of philosophy. The two schools deal specifically with epistemology, or, the origin of knowledge. Although not completely opposite, they are often considered so, and are seen as the "Jordan vs. Bird" of the philosophy world. The origins of rationalism and empiricism can be traced back to the 17th century, when many important advancements were made in scientific fields such as astronomy and mechanics. These advancements were most likely the basis for a sudden philosophical argument: What do we truly know? People wondered whether science was really giving us knowledge of reality. The quest for the answer to this question led to the development of these two schools of philosophy. Two of the most famous philosophers of epistemology are Rene Descartes and David Hume, the former being a rationalist, and the latter an empiricist. In this paper I will attempt to give an understanding of both rationalism and empiricism, show the ideas and contributions each of the men made to their respective schools, and hopefully give my personal reasoning why one is more true than the other.
Rationalism was developed by several important philosophers all around the 17th century. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz are all given credit for developing rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that reason and logic are the basis of knowledge. It says that knowledge is innate, and that it cannot come from sources such as the senses. Rationalists believe that we are all born with a means of obtaining truth and knowledge. Empiricism also came about in the 17th Century, mostly through the ideas of the philosophers Locke and Bacon. Although Hume wrote several decades after these two, he probably wrote the strongest arguments for empiricism, covering some questions not answered by Locke and Bacon. Empiricism says that all real knowledge is based on experience. It claims that people are born with no innate knowledge, and that everything that happens in the mind is a result of our perceptions.
Descartes begins his theory of knowledge by assuming that nothing exists. He trusts nothing, not what he has seen or heard, not anything that he has thought. After careful deliberation, he comes to the foundation of his proof: I think, therefore, I am. What he means by this is that he knows that he exists because he thinks. This of course cannot be disproved, because to do so, would require thinking. Descartes believed that in order to obtain knowledge, there must be some rational method for obtaining it, and that the use of senses, or any personal experience was not a reliable source. In his third meditation he says, "I know that even bodies are not…perceived by the senses, or by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone" (Descartes 69). He believed that this was the same for every human, that we all have innate ideas in our soul. This...

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Rationalism vs. Empiricism, Why Descartes is a Rationalist

Posted by beckyclay | November 22, 2006

There is a distinct difference between rationalism and empiricism. In fact, they are very plainly the direct opposite of each other. Rationalism is the belief in innate ideas, reason, and deduction. Empiricism is the belief in sense perception, induction, and that there are no innate ideas.

With rationalism, believing in innate ideas means to have ideas before we are born.-for example, through reincarnation. Plato best explains this through his theory of the forms, which is the place where everyone goes and attains knowledge before they are taken back to the “visible world”. Innate ideas can explain why some people are just naturally better at some things than other people are- even if they have had the same experiences.

Believing that reason is the main source of knowledge is another clear distinction of rationalism. Rationalists believe that the 5 senses only give you opinions, not reasons. For example, in Descartes’ wax argument, he explains how a candle has one shape to begin with- but once the candle is lit, it begins to melt, lose its fragrance, and take on a completely different shape than it had started with. This argument proves that our senses can be deceiving and that they should not be trusted.

Deduction is the third characteristic of rationalism, which is to prove something with certainty rather than reason. For example, Descartes attempted to prove the existence of God through deductive reasoning in his third meditation. It went something like this: “I have an idea of a perfect substance, but I am not a perfect substance, so there is no way I could not be the cause of this idea, so there must be some formal reality which is a perfect substance- like God. Because only perfection can create perfection, and though it can also create imperfection- nothing that is imperfect can create something that is perfect.

Unlike rationalists, empiricists believe that sense perception is the main source of knowledge. John Locke explained this by dividing ideas into 2 parts: 1) simple, and 2) complex. Simple ideas are based only on perception, like color, size, shape, etc. Complex ideas are formed when simple ideas are combined.

Another belief of empiricists is that ideas are only acquired through experience, and not through innate ideas. Empiricists reject the concept of innate knowledge because, for example, if children had this knowledge, why do they not show it? Like why does a baby need to learn to walk or talk, why does he or she not have this knowledge at birth? Lock believed that only with experiences could one form simple ideas, which could then be combined into complex ideas.

Induction is the final characteristic of empiricists. It is the belief that very few things, if any, can be proven conclusively. For example, we know of things by using our sense perception. We know that the color of the chalkboard is green and that the color of the dry erase board is white, but we cannot without a doubt conclude that those perceptions agree with the objects themselves. There is no way to conclusively prove that the chalk board stays green once we leave the room and stop perceiving it. There is no way to conclusively prove that the chalkboard even exists once we stop perceiving it. George Berkely would explain this by first proving that God exists, and then by saying that God is perceiving all objects and that is why they exist even when people stop perceiving them.

Through his meditations and wax theory, Descartes clearly illustrates that he is a rationalist.

In his wax theory, Descartes explains how one cannot rely on ones sense perceptions using the example of a candle. When the candle is in its original state, it has a unique shape. Once the candle is burned down and melted, it clearly has a completely different shape as well as many other different characteristics.

In his meditations, Descartes attempts to prove that both himself and God exist. When proving that he himself exists, he claims that because he is thinking, he exists. Because thinking requires thought, and in order to have thoughts you must exist. When proving God exists, Descartes concludes that you cannot think of God without thinking of existence, and because existence is a relationship and not a characteristic, God must exist.

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