Debate Between Rationalism and Empiricism

The history of philosophy has seen many warring camps fighting battles over major issues. One of the major battles historically has been over the foundations of all our knowledge. What is most basic in any human set of beliefs? What is the foundation in any human set of beliefs? What is our origin for human knowledge? Theories applying to these questions divide into two rival schools of thought, rationalism and empiricism. The conflict between rationalism and empiricism takes place within epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge.

The war between rationalists and empiricists primarily emphasizes the uncertainty of how we obtain the concepts of knowledge and if they correspond with our existence. Rationalism argues that one must rely on reason as a purely deductive process to attain justified truths about reality. In contrast, empiricists argue that knowledge is derived from the role of experience and sense data to formulate ideas. The differences between rationalism and empiricism will be discussed, along with closely examining the advantages of each.

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Problems with both theories will be identified while arguing that reason and experience together generate factual knowledge. The major difference between rationalism and empiricism concerns their knowledge basis. Rationalists believe that we cannot be sure the world exists. How would we know if, for example, we’re really all wired into the matrix? Or an evil demon is deceiving us? Or, more plausibly, that what I see as blue is what you see as blue? Truth, for a rationalist, is based on what we can be sure about because of the rules of logic.

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Famously Descartes argued that the only thing we can be sure about is our own existence (the good ol’ Cogito: I think therefore I am). Rationalist claim that without prior categories and principles supplied by reason, we couldn’t organize and interpret our sense experience in any way. They believe we “know” enormous amounts of information from the word go; for example, we know that all triangles have three sides. This is because triangles have three sides by definition, and definitions are true irrelevant of things in the world, so we can be sure of them (theoretically) before we are born.

In Contrast, Empiricism is the view that what we can see and hear and touch and taste is what is really there, and that our perceptions are accurate reflections of it. Truth, for an empiricist, is based on evidence. Linked to this is the idea that we come into the world as mental blank slates with no preconceptions or understandings imbedded in our minds already. In its purest form, empiricism holds that sense experience alone gives birth to all our beliefs and all our knowledge. As shown, rationalism and empiricism are clearly distinct branches of epistemology.

Rationalism contributes to our understanding of the world. Rene Descartes, a prominent modern philosopher, demonstrated rationalism in his work. In his Second Meditations, Descartes arrived at two influential conclusions through pure intellectual perception. The first, “I think therefore I am”, implies his conviction of his existence (Descartes 1641/1962). He reached this initial truth by abandoning all of his beliefs that held the slightest possibility of being false.

Descartes then contended that he is a “thinking thing” (Descartes 1641/1962, p.33); he reasoned that so long as he is consciously thinking, doubting, understanding, willing, and imagining he cannot doubt his existence (Descartes 1641/1962). Descartes concludes that he has to be something if he is conscious about it, and that even if a demon is deceiving him, it follows that he cannot be nothing (Descartes 1641/1962). Illustrated in Descartes’ wax argument, he explains how a piece of wax is fresh, sweet, and odorous with a certain figure and color, and how, as it melts, its size increases, its smell evaporates and its color changes.

The wax’s physical attributes have changed, and the senses alone could have deceived us into assuming that it is a different object. However, our understanding that the final piece of wax is the same as the initial one is a product of reason and not of imagination (Descartes 1641/1962). In this example, Descartes emphasized the intuition of the mind and how it makes sense of our experiences. Descartes’ Meditations proclaims that the human rational capacity is able to obtain undisputed theories explaining the world around us.

One of the reasons rationalism vs. empiricism debate has been going on for centuries is because both approaches hinder knowledge acquisition in certain ways. Sense experience can be the cause of illusion and deception, and not all facts, such as mathematical and logical truths, are observable or detectable by the senses. Another weakness is related to the conclusions that we obtain empirically, especially in scientific research, which are often open to interpretation and are prone to subjective bias.

Regarding rationalism, pure reason may be flawed and susceptible to doubt when it taps into claims that are essentially beyond the realm of possible experience. For example, Descartes’ argument for the existence of God triggers much skepticism and falls short of being a concrete proof. Furthermore, some rationalists propose that we possess innate knowledge and concepts of the world, a claim that poses serious problems and does not support all that we claim to know.

The presence of these obstacles implies that it would be insufficient to favor one approach over the other. A number of scholars agree that rationalism and empiricism constantly overlap as we make new discoveries. It would be a challenge for a rationalist to reduce our concept of “pain”, “pleasure”, “hot” and “cold” to mathematics. Similarly, it would be difficult to reduce our concept of “2+2=4” or “the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides” to sense experience. Deciding on a middle-ground or plausible reconciliation is essential.

Careful observation allows modern science to advance, because people are prepared to let observations of how things are overcome prejudices about how they ought to behave. On the other hand, we cannot deny the significance of pure reason because mathematics has shown that judgments about necessity cannot be based on observation. The outstanding challenge would be to employ the appropriate approach in the appropriate situation as vigilantly as possible. Alternatively, careful application of the scientific method should assist in confirming acquired knowledge by the either approaches.

Persisting distinction between rationalism and empiricism should be abolished because it contributes to suspending our knowledge, rather than advancing our knowledge. In conclusion, this essay has argued that establishing factual knowledge is best achieved through a compromise between rationalism and empiricism. Indeed, it is evident that human intellect understands some necessary propositions in nature with absolute certainty, independent of experience and much of our life experiences require our senses to trigger ideas that can be later put to practice.

However, although both movements stand in opposition to one another in terms of premises, each has its advantages that contribute to our quest for knowledge. To avoid the critical problems rationalism and empiricism might raise, it is crucial to consider the discipline of inquiry and real-world application of knowledge when deciding on the appropriate approach. In most cases, we should be able to establish sound truths about the world by applying logic to experience and by empirically verifying our reasoning.

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Debate Between Rationalism and Empiricism. (2016, Nov 03). Retrieved from

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