The debate of rationalism and empiricism Essay

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The debate of rationalism and empiricism

Bertrand Russell clarified certain philosophical queries such that he divulged on the true nature of the philosophical discourses in the relation to empirical and rationalist valuation of knowledge. The categorical exposition of the philosophical analysis of his work “The Problems of Philosophy” in which this study is generally drawn, the assumption is that the debate between the rationalist and empiricist view of the world had evolved from previous theories on the true nature of the human mind. One may assume to reconsider the reality of human ethics such that most ethical standards are based on the religious conception of morality.

Hence, the propensity to react of human beings in relation to the environment and the subsequent development of the human faculty of thought affected by the models used for analysis and perception will be likewise studied so as to shed light in various philosophical fields of inquiry . Such evaluative recognition of the issues at hand will be studied from this point wherein the human mind will be first settled if indeed nature is a material existence which the mind only responds to or nature is a phenomenon created by the human mind according to what the mind intends to make of it.

Similarly, the faculty of thought would be derived from a common premise that the rationalist view of the material world really coincide with the relational interconnectivity of the faculties or senses. That is senses can not be trusted because of some eventualities that may forbid the mind to truly grasp the nature of an object. Meaning, our senses can not really reveal to us the innermost character, one that is inherent on the object of query, and manifest such truths through our sense perception.

The theory on how we acquire knowledge will likewise be discussed since it is the core to understanding being a manifestation of the activities of the human mind in relation to the nature it had been a part of. The point or our discourse will be commenced on the analysis and refreshing on the concepts Russell shared in his book “The Problems of Philosophy” in order for us to have an overview of how the mind of the philosopher of our concern works and if there is any connections that may lead us to the answer of the questions that may arise in the course of this dissertation.

However, it must be noted that in the course of this study, certain philosophical points raised by Russell will be subjected to a presentation of critiques or augmentations by other philosophers in the said field of discourse . The empirical and rationalist conception of nature henceforth are two antagonistic perspective, whereas humanity searches for the truths in his natural being, the debate had furthered to advance into philosophical projections in order to present valid insinuation of the philosophical evolution on the investigation on humanity and mind .

This paper, therefore, would try to present a synthesis of the debate so as to at least provide us with a better understanding of the questions at hand. Nevertheless, the emphasis will be given on some points that are greatly manifested in tangible practicalities and applications of these concepts. Whereas, the question we would point in this discourse is the veracity of the existence of the foundations of our belief system, one which could be metaphysical in some aspect yet still anchored on the material sources of human perception and the existence of human societies as a whole.

Thus the general elements of this discourse are the valuations of certain concept which we would later attempt to introduce in a more clarified perspective . Knowledge as Russell explains is another philosophical dilemma. In dealing with this subject matter he first expounded on knowledge as belief co-existing with the facts that were formed trough the conventionalities of human societies for several millennia, hence another question erupts that would drive us into inquiring these conventionally held facts were in the first place factual and what fact really implies – is it the truth or the convention.

However for the benefit of this discourse, we shall stick with the belief as a source or definition of human knowledge. This came into realization due to some considerations that what humanity has believed for the past thousands of years are a product of the reaction and counter reaction of the human faculties to the objective conditions that defined the environment where these beliefs were produced.

And to recognize that these beliefs were nonetheless dynamic, never static, for they had been subjected to the changes of the material world thus considerably commuted the necessary reactions and counter reactions in the human mind . This accumulated knowledge was therefore the result of different human perceptions of the world such that in many culturally distinguished societies, these beliefs vary in essence or in aggregate factors.

The problem of the perceptual basis of knowledge hence deprives us of the universality of the truth in all its encompassed elements. Arriving at that assertion, we have considered the scientific method as one which is a complete manifestation of the perceptual basis of knowledge. That is through repeated observations, analytic correlation of observable objects in the material environment and the experimentation of this gathered data to arrive or not to arrive on a hypothetical conclusion.

Several instances when these scientific insinuations had been used to reciprocate the existing belief system into what had been accepted by societies however dull these analytic conceptions or misconceptions of the material environment are, the presence of such valuable premises had resulted to further investigations of many scientific hypothesis which have had preliminary points of proof. The acquisition of knowledge through sense perception is in essence what constitutes the empiricist tradition .

That knowledge had been acquired by virtue of the experiences which the human faculties of sensing the environment are put into core value . There is the stress on the experience of humanity of particular phenomena which had stimulated humanity’s quest to provide himself with the answers in his inherently insatiable questions on the nature of his self. Man has to believe what his senses would relay to him . A stone is in the river. There is a stone, regardless of the internal realities of the stone as long as man could hold it and see it through his eyes, there is a fact that a stone does exist.

And if such a matter exists, the point of it locations therefore must also exist, hence the reality of the existence of the river. In so far as the characteristic of the stone and the river and everything attached to those matters, can only have an imprint in the human mind to be used for future perception of stones, rivers through a posteriori possession of knowledge and afterwards given that we have already acquired the knowledge on their characteristics, knowledge of objects similar or displays semblance such will then become evident.

Rationalists view the world otherwise. Pure reason had then been conceived as the source of knowledge, that is experience and sense perception of the objects in nature are not trustworthy. It rests upon the assumption that everything and its existence are doubtable such that the senses do not present the real nature of matter and even at some points the existence of such matters are denied and categorized as mental hence experience was preceded by the inherent knowledge of nature.

Such was the assertion taken in logical analysis and in the mathematical field. Having three claims on the nature of knowledge acquisitions, rationalists believe that knowledge, as opposed to the a posteriori empirical view of knowledge acquisition thereof does not really “acquire” knowledge but intuition of nature from the deduction of a general understanding , such as mathematics say for instance. Thus an independent acquisition of knowledge follows this assertion, promulgating that we need not to experience in order to realize the reality of a concept.

It was in fact inherent to human nature that at least there were some concepts that we already have prior knowledge even before we have actually encountered such hence the rational trait among our selves have led to that knowledge and only through some stimulants relayed by our senses . Could therefore empiricists be considered as realists and rationalists, idealists? Not necessarily as some would argue that these are somewhat different sides of the coin .

Russell in particular, as he is the point of which our discourse emanates, must first, based on his work, be identified which side he had some indulgence to, if not devotion. Consequently Bertrand Russell’s conception of matter, if it really does exist, must be rooted in his avowed explanations of what relational manifestations does appearance exert to reality or if there is any connection with the appearance of an object such that it would automatically denote the reality of the object. Appearance he said does not really tells us of the reality of an object but the traits of the object as projected to the mind by our senses.

Using the analogy given to the table in which colour, texture and shape were used to reaffirm that indeed the texture, colour and shape of the table that our senses have relayed to us are what only our senses can perceive from a certain point of view such that if we would look as the table from another angle, different lighting conditions or perhaps a different method by which we could determine its texture, say for example a microscope, another sense perception-generated characterization of the object will be relayed to us.

Would those new characterizations then assert that the former table having the former traits ceased to exist and was replaced by another table with new characteristics? Russell argued: Definitely not. However our knowledge of the table remains though uncertain of its reality. The characterizations which we had attributed to the table are what we would later attribute to determine whether objects of similar traits would also relay us with the same sensation which our senses have experienced from the object earlier.

From that assertion we have been led to understand that experience acquainted us to the sensation exuded by an object which we refer to as table . Senses does not really tell us about the nature of the but give us only the appearance of the table, by the way it looks, feels to us, or how we sense it. If that is such the case what then is real? Could we assume that because it was only the appearance the table does not exist anymore? What else is a table if it is not what its appearance tells us it is?

Expounding on that assertion, Russell delivers that “the real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known . ” Such an assertion that it was indeed only a representation of the real thing has complicated the discourse. To simplify it, presumably it is enough to settle that it was reality encountered and nothing more and nothing less, varying only on the vantage point and sophistication of definition which we wanted to ascertain.

Unless we would deviate from a reality and go on further to a Cartesian methodic doubt just to verify that indeed what we see is what we would, in “real” reality (pardon for the redundancy), get. A common example of this matter is the human perception of nature and eventualities in the environment, Rene Descartes would doubt if really there is a stone in a river. The first to verify hence initiate the debate on the reality of such is that whether there really exists a stone and river and so forth and so on.

But the very essence of that question has made him arrive at the point wherein finally, a given concept had not been doubtable and that is he cannot that he doubts. Therefore he said that if the only possible reality which his senses cannot make a fool of him is that in his words “I doubt” is that doubt is a supplementary reality then “I” must also be a reality regardless of what his senses would perceive. Eventually, the passage “Cogito ergo sum” –I think therefore I am! Such was the conceptual inception of the notion of the human mind .

Now, based on these judgments, that if indeed the appearance of an object had been a representation of its existence, would that also mean in the same manner that we have proven that the reality is nothing more or less than what is its representation via sense perception, matter does exist? Yes. That reality as we see is a manifestation that matter exists as it has already been mentioned by Descartes “I” does exist then it would be pointless to assume that such existence would be monopolized by a unitary notion of “Self”.

If “I” does exist then what is not “I” which would be presupposed to exist in relation to all factors connecting “I” and not “I”? This could be answered by Russell’s exposition on the nature of matter . He divided space of inference as private and public hence if that is the case would our perception of an object become false because the real object is perceived through the public space of inference? Idealism presented an answer to this dilemma. It says that if our senses deceive us then reality must be in the mind, meaning: matter and reality are mental.

Such assumption evolves on the basis that matter cannot exist independently of the human mind. Acceptable argument though it may seem but as reason dominates the existence of matter such that it rejects the dependence of mentality to the material existence of things, then it would be somewhat absurd to verify that indeed everything else, including our selves are mental. Russell had put it accurately that: “We think of an idea as essentially something in somebody’s mind, and thus when we are told that a tree consists entirely of ideas; it is natural to suppose that, if so, the tree must be entirely in minds.

But the notion of being ‘in’ the mind is ambiguous. We speak of bearing a person in mind, not meaning that the person is in our minds, but that a thought of him is in our minds. When a man says that some business he had to arrange went clean out of his mind, he does not mean to imply that the business itself was ever in his mind, but only that a thought of the business was formerly in his mind, but afterwards ceased to be in his mind . ”

Thus suspending the idealist’s claim as mere “tautology” is nothing but the amplest of all assertive measures that Russell could divulge for if it was the case then it undermines mind’s ability to “learn. ” Russell was said to be a “realist”, one who believes in the sublime superiority of the material basis of existence as opposed to the “idealist” conception of nature. Thus as a preliminary account on the realist conception of philosophy would give us a somewhat conducive venue to further expound our critical manifestations on this subject matter.

A counter idealist perception is that it explains the natural objects, time and space or anything that our senses tell us as the realities and should not be denied. Matter preceded consciousness and on that basis, what our mind recorded such as the knowledge that we have accumulated through time had their direct imprint on our consciousness. The idealist conception on the other hand argues that it is our mind which created in itself that there are these objects in the environment, and the environment itself, which we, humans, share.

And such assertion would to the idealist query on the terminologies that we have used and would therefore pose questions if truly there are humans, or whatever we really are, which the “mind” interacts with and the share the same conceptions of the objects found and encountered. If idealists would then retort saying that if hence knowledge acquired through acquaintance can become the only basis for asserting the reality of an object then objects believed to be true by descriptive valuation based on other’s acquaintances be untrue? Russell defined the distinction between knowledge through acquaintance and knowledge through description.

Therefore, knowledge both acquired trough acquaintance and knowledge through descriptions based on other’s acquaintances point us to the bottom of all these premises that indeed knowledge had been acquired through experience only that knowledge by description gives us the ability to know beyond our experience . Having those assumptions presented, the pervading notion of the relational venues of the objects and mind are held on a new poignant matter of discourse. That is if there are the idealist conception of objects and the idealist creation of objects, what is then the truth in this subject matter?

Truth henceforth can be categorized into universal reality and relative reality. Induction method validating the reality or existence of concepts or as such acquisition of knowledge can be utilized in order to prove things that we not to experience in order to prove the veracity of their reality. As Russell discussed its essence in our accumulation of knowledge as minds receptive to the information relayed by nature he used the rising and setting of the sun wilfully suggesting that we need not to experience them everyday to prove that they are part of everyday reality based on the principles of induction .

Hence from these assertions, the laws of science were derived and general principles were drawn. Russell conceded however in some aspects of rational thoughts such as in the case mathematics which he echoed as innate and a priori knowledge but he reverted that these were to be verified through experience and if such a priori knowledge would be debunked through practice then it is illogically independent of experience hence surreal. Precisely articulated that indeed theoretical knowledge need to be proven through and only through practice and with such application in practical activities of humanity that theories be proven worthy to exist.

He then suggests that both thoughts, though they may have differed expressions on a similar issue, would have ill contentious results and explanations . A priori knowledge could still be possible however as Russell asserts through connections formed in the mind in order to connect real objects such the “in” in the phrase “I am in my room . ” These connections are essential in obtaining the correlations of objects, matter and mind such that these co-exist all at the same space and time with certain points of relevance to human existence

Henceforth, further discourses revolved on the universality of knowledge and how our mind have tried to grasp such universal knowledge such that universal knowledge must be the truth, that being accepted by most of the working minds . Knowledge, as we may now assert, is the combination of all the relativistic truth values into a universal truth through which intuitive perception had derived its essence in assuming responsibility in reaching such elevated understanding, which (another point of clarification is presented herein) can only be universally true at a certain point of time but not the entirety of the existence of time.

Consequently this universal truth will be reformed through time by the accumulation of newly raised relativistic truths therefore formulating another universal truth if their entirety so permits in another point in time. The point of these annotations is that we would be lead into concluding or even an attempt to arrive at an acceptable presentation of the universality of values of morality which had been a significant object of discourse in not a few philosophical treatises.

Hence the dilemma of the valuation of what is good in relation to what is right. Wherefore, this correlation of right and good have posited us with the direct link, imaginable that is, with the concept of God as the arbiter of what is good and what is right. Metaphysical injunctions however would rule this out in the process of wholly presenting our arguments in a material and tangible basis of our assertions and such presence of an alienated concept of super beings, of metaphysically originated foundation in most cultures of universal truth.

That at the fore of this discussion at least we can still protrude into the core of this matter by using reasonable reference to the concept of God and to determine, at least presumably, the nature of right and good. Morality had been derived from the actuations of humanity since its existence and had continuous drive in setting the fibres of societies. The acceptability of actions had been predominantly debased as sanctioned by the existing orders set in relational hierarchies. This will bring us to the arguments regarding the existence of God.

The concept of god had been in accordance with the advancement of the human mind. In the ancient times when men were mere cavemen, void of any scientific knowledge of their environment, natural phenomena were perceived to be makings of Supreme Being, one which cannot be seen as they were for the first time experienced by man. Lightning, rain, floods, day and night, the stars and moon, the sun, clouds, trees and rivers were seen as they were all somewhat mysterious to the predated human.

Early humans have seen how they came into existence and it was through birth and so are the animals in the fields and the jungles; but how about the lightning, rain, floods, day and night, the stars and moon, the sun, clouds, trees and rivers – had anyone gave birth to them too? Thus the initial search for answers, the initial queries on the origin of the material world stated. The realms of reality which man’s senses had not been able to reach were left to the realm of metaphysics, remained confined to the inquiring primitive mind. Hence, the origin of the concept of God is man’s Ignorance.

For the succeeding millennia until man has finally discovered agriculture and the domestication of wild food, some of the previous mysteries were resolved. Plants have been known to start its life from a seed, sustain its life from water, sunlight and soil and not because of deities that roam the fields and the jungles. It was also a start of the scientific evolution of human knowledge of the environment. There were few answers for questions that man encounters through his life and the easiest way to explain and convince him was that it was all the making of a God.

Hitherto, faith was born. But that faith would be immaterial in this discourse such that faith will only enter the core of the discourse if this discourse had only caused further divisions rather than reconciled positions. But in the present time, the God –centred explanation of phenomena had been quite reduced because of the fact that the mysteries that once posed questions to the primitive mind had now been discovered as simple reactions of elements within the universe, that were in truth unseen by the naked eye, therefore the infallibility of it was crushed.

If we would go back to the early portions of this discourse the rationalist and empiricist models of thought were presented hence this paper sought to find Russell’s assessment of the debate that commenced because of the antagonism of the two opposing concepts. Scrutinizing the studies that have led us to believe that these are two opposing thoughts, Russell asserted otherwise. Empiricism has been used in the scientific method of explaining the events, phenomena, and everything that would mystify man.

As basis for scientific pondering, empiricism have gave birth to the innovations in the scientific community and widely applied for the benefit of human societies. Rationalism in fact did not hinder the progress of the societies but has aided in further analysis of the phenomena, events everything that had mystified man. Rationalism did not settle on what human senses relayed on the nature of lightning – a crack in the sky and a peek to the netherworld. Hence the progressive insinuation of the human faculties to probe deeper in the reality, farther from what our senses can tell.

If these two were separated because of the irreconcilable philosophical foundations of these two models of thought then the advancement in the human societies may have been hampered so as to initiate a backward and static knowledge and all that is attached with it. Russell’s conception of the debate between the empirical and rationalist side had only arrived in a synthesis of the opposites that it yielded an acceptable concept which was applied in areas beneficial to man.

However this debate evolved, many points were clarified. Regarding the question on the existence of God, both Rationalism and Empiricism had deduced the probability of the existence of God, if not totally debunked. Such debased status of a Universal Arbiter on human morality had henceforth commenced the exploration in the philosophical domain on the nature of right and good in relation to the moral standards that had been debated on for so long.

Until now, the debate on the uniformity of morality, if there is any, and the acceptability of that explanation to all societies such that it would qualify as a universal truth had not been finished and is becoming more and more sophisticated. This erratic evaluation of the philosophical precepts of morality had continued to deserve attention from the philosophers that had passed the domain of the search for a common understanding in this subject matter.

In essence, this discourse had given some commentaries in the aspects of the debate between rationalism and empiricism and with such attempt, though it may be inferior to Russell’s, a few prepositions may have been conveyed. It had been resolved that empiricism and rationalism are just specifications on the methods of protruding into the queries of the reality of the world. These two, previously, opposing concepts were henceforth reconciled to serve a greater purpose that is to at least attempt to explain the mysteries of the world.

There remain questions which we hope would generate further evolutions in the discourses of philosophy. Such was the stress given to verify the existence of God which, according to the beliefs of societies, had been the decisive element in setting the standards of morality, if however this God was debunked, what areas of philosophical concern would lead us to another foundation of right and good? How would these differences in the standards of morality be reconciled in the absence of an entity which was commonly attributed to the idealist point of reasoning?

Hence the philosophical realm of the human mind had been the precursor of the advancement of the activities of the practical aspect of the human mind, and with such collaboration in the development of human as not only a “being” but a “becoming”, the philosophical and practical aspects of human thought and faculties of senses which has been used to derive the elements that had contributed to stimulate the human mind to think would continue to perform their essential place in the attempt to deliver a commonly accepted explanation nature.


Rationalism, Empiricism and Pragmatism: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1970). CARRUTHERS, P. , Human Knowledge and Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). DILWORTH, CRAIG, the Metaphysics of Science-1 (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 173: Springer Netherlands, 2006). ‘Epistemology’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2005). KANT, IMMANUEL, Critique of Pure Reason (1871). KENNY, A. , Rationalism, Empiricism and Idealism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

PIGDEN, CHARLES, ‘Russell’s Influence on Moore – the Open Question Argument’ Supplement to Russell’s Moral Philosophy (2007); <http://plato.stanford. edu/entries/russell-moral/russell-moore. html>. QUINE, W. V. O. , ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), 76-77. ‘Rationalism vs. Empiricism’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2004). ‘Descartes’ RUSSELL, BERTRAND, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. , 1945). RUSSELL, BERTRAND, the Problems of Philosophy (Home University Library, 1912). WOOLHOUSE, R. S. , the Empiricists (History of Western Philosophy, 5; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

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