Empiricism and Rationalism

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 3 November 2016

Empiricism and Rationalism

The basic definition of empiricism is that the philosophy that all knowledge originates in sensory experience. The definition of Rationalism is the epistemological theory that reason is either the sole or primary source of knowledge; in practice, most rationalists maintain merely that at least some truths are not known solely on the basis of sensory experience. Plato which suggested within the “Cave Theory” which showed a group of Prisoners is placed so they can see, on the wall of the cave, only reflections of objects carried back and forth in front of a fire behind them.

Because the reflections are all they see, the prisoners assume the reflections to be reality. Heraclites, a Greek nobleman from Ephesus, proposed “all is fire” he thought the essential feature of realty; namely that it is ceaselessly changing. There is no reality, he maintained, save the reality of change: permanence is an illusion. Thus, fire, whose nature it is to ceaselessly change, is the root substance of the universe, which describes the thought of an empiricist view, that things are physical, dynamic, and uses the senses. This is an example of a Rationalist.

Zeno who devised a series of ingenious arguments to support Parmenides’ theory that reality is one. Zeno’s basic approach was to demonstrate that motion is impossible, by saying For example a rabbit, to move from its own hole to another hole it must first reach the midway point between the two holes. But to reach that point it must first reach the quarter point. Unfortunately, to reach the quarter point, it must first reach the point that is one eighth the distance. But first, it must reach the point of one sixteenth the distance.

And so on and so on. Basically a rabbit, or any other thing, must past through an infinite amount of points to go anywhere. Some sliver of time is required to reach each of these points, a thing would require an infinite amount of time to move anywhere, and that effectively rules out the possibility of motion. Aristotle, on whom Plato had a tremendous influence, was interested in every subject that came along, and he had something reasonably intelligent to say about all of them, from poetry to physics from biology to friendship.

He proposed that hearing is more important than sight in acquiring knowledge, and he believed that the blind are more intelligent than the deaf. Probably at least in part because of Aristotle’s authority, it was not generally believed that the deaf were educable. In fact, during the middle Ages, priests barred the deaf from churches on the ground that they could not have faith. Schools for the deaf are only a relatively recent phenomenon. There is a doctrine that says there is nothing in the intellect tat was not first n the senses.

This doctrine is called empiricism. Another doctrine, known as rationalism, holds that intellect contains important truths that are not place there by sensory experience. “Something never comes from nothing,” for example, might count as one of these truths, because experiences can tell you only that something has never come from something, not that it could never happen. Sometimes rationalist believe in a theory of innate ides, according to which these truths are “innate” to the mind ? that is, they are part of the original dispositions of the intellect.

The empiricist is, in effect, a type of modified skeptic- he or she denies that there is any knowledge that does not stem from sensory experience. Most rationalists, by contrast, do not deny that some knowledge about the world can be obtained through experience. Although other rationalist, such as Parmenides, deny that experience can deliver up any sort of true knowledge. This type of rationalist is also a type of modified skeptic. Philosophers from other periods, however, are sometimes classified as rationalists or empiricists depending on whether they emphasized the importance of reason or experience in knowledge of the world.

Immanuel Kant synthesized rationalism and empiricism because he believed that all knowledge begins with experience but is not limited to what has been found in experience. In modern epistemology, a branch that explores the sources nature, limits and criteria of knowledge, has been predominantly empiricist. This is because the Continental rationalists and later rationalists were primarily metaphysicians. That is to say there were generally less concerned with discussing the possibility of knowledge and related issues than with actually coming to propose some philosophically important theory about reality.

A funny thing about philosophical questions is that they cannot be answered, in any straightforward way, but must be in the form of a fact or collection or facts. You cannot just go out and say something can think or what makes an action okay. Facts are often relevant to a philosophical question, and cannot be answered. This doesn’t mean philosophical questions don’t have answers, just if a question were truly unanswerable most philosophers would regard that it’s a good reason to not be interested in it. Despite these considerations, you may still think that in philosophy one opinion is as good as the next.

Although, if you do you have to understand one opinion is not as good the next as expressing an opinion every bit as good as yours. The view of an Empiricist is more of a Physical, Dynamic one, rather than a Rationalists view which is more along the lines of being Non-Physical. Although the differences between the two vary, they are both an extensive part of life, there is reason behind both theories, and today we are subjected to both theories in which we can have our own opinion and understanding.


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  • University/College: University of California

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  • Date: 3 November 2016

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