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In its most general terms, the dispute between rationalism andempiricism has been taken to concern the extent to which we aredependent upon experience in our effort to gain knowledge of theexternal world. It is common to think of experience itself as being oftwo kinds: sense experience, involving our five world-oriented senses,and reflective experience, including conscious awareness of our mentaloperations. The distinction between the two is drawn primarily byreference to their objects: sense experience allows us to acquireknowledge of external objects, whereas our awareness of our mentaloperations is responsible for the aquisition of knowledge of ourminds. In the dispute between rationalism and empiricism, thisdistinction is often neglected; rationalist critiques of empiricismusually contend that the latter claims that all our ideas originatewith sense experience.
The distinction between rationalism and empiricism is not withoutproblems. One of the main issues is that almost no author falls neatlyinto one camp or another: it has been argued that Descartes, forinstance, who is commonly regarded as a representative rationalist (atleast with regard to metaphysics), had clear empiricist leanings(primarily with regard to natural philosophy, where sense experienceplays a crucial role, according to Clarke 1982). Conversely, Locke,who is thought to be a paradigmatic empiricist, argued that reason ison equal footing with experience, when it comes to the knowledge ofcertain things, most famously of moral truths (Essay,4.3.18). In what follows, we clarify what this distinction hastraditionally been taken to apply to, as well as point out its (bynow) widely-recognized shortcomings.
The dispute between rationalism and empiricism takes place primarilywithin epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying thenature, sources, and limits of knowledge. Knowledge itself can be ofmany different things and is usually divided among three maincategories: knowledge of the external world, knowledge of the internalworld or self-knowledge, and knowledge of moral and/or aestheticalvalues. We may find that there are category-specific conditions thatmust be satisfied for knowledge to occur and that it is easier or moredifficult to shape certain questions and answers, depending on whetherwe focus on the external world or on the values. However, some of thedefining questions of general epistemology include the following.
The disagreement between rationalism and empiricism primarily concernsthe second question, regarding the sources of our concepts andknowledge. In some instances, the disagreement on this topic resultsin conflicting responses to the other questions as well. Thedisagrement may extend to incorporate the nature of warrant or wherethe limits of our thought and knowledge are. Our focus here will be onthe competing rationalist and empiricist responses to the secondquestion.
There are three main theses that are usually seen as relevant fordrawing the distinction between rationalism and empiricism, with afocus on the second question. While the first thesis has beentraditionally seen as distinguishing between rationalism andempiricism, scholars now mostly agree that most rationalists andempiricists abide by the so-called Intuition/Deductionthesis, concerning the ways in which we become warranted inbelieving propositions in a particular subject area.
The Intuition/Deduction thesis, the Innate Knowledge thesis, and theInnate Concept thesis are essential to rationalism. Since theIntuition/Deduction thesis is equally important to empiricism, thefocus in what follows will be on the other two theses. To be arationalist is to adopt at least one of them: either the InnateKnowledge thesis, regarding our presumed propositional innateknowledge, or the Innate Concept thesis, regarding our supposed innateknowledge of concepts.
Rationalists vary the strength of their view by adjusting theirunderstanding of warrant. Some take warranted beliefs to be beyondeven the slightest doubt and claim that intuition provide beliefs ofthis high epistemic status. Others interpret warrant moreconservatively, say as belief beyond a reasonable doubt, and claimthat intuition provide beliefs of that caliber. Still anotherdimension of rationalism depends on how its proponents understand theconnection between intuition, on the one hand, and truth, on theother. Some take intuition to be infallible, claiming that whatever weintuit must be true. Others allow for the possibility of falseintuited propositions.
Two other closely related theses are generally adopted byrationalists, although one can certainly be a rationalist withoutadopting either of them. The first is that sense experience cannotprovide what we gain from reason.
Most forms of rationalism involve notable commitments to otherphilosophical positions. One is a commitment to the denial ofscepticism for at least some area of knowledge. If we claim to knowsome truths by intuition or deduction or to have some innateknowledge, we obviously reject scepticism with regard to those truths.Rationalism in the form of the Intuition/Deduction thesis is alsocommitted to epistemic foundationalism, the view that we know sometruths without basing our belief in them on any others and that wethen use this foundational knowledge to know more truths.
Empiricists also endorse the Intuition/Deduction thesis, but in a morerestricted sense than the rationalists: this thesis applies only torelations of the contents of our minds, not also about empiricalfacts, learned from the external world. By contrast, empiricistsreject the Innate Knowledge and Innate Concept theses. Insofar as wehave knowledge in a subject, our knowledge is gained, notonly triggered, by our experiences, be they sensorial orreflective. Experience is, thus, our only source of ideas. Moreover,they reject the corresponding version of the Superiority of Reasonthesis. Since reason alone does not give us any knowledge, itcertainly does not give us superior knowledge. Empiricists need notreject the Indispensability of Reason thesis, but most of them do.
To be clear, the Empiricism thesis does not entail that we haveempirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be gained,if at all, by experience. Empiricists may assert, as some dofor some subjects, that the rationalists are correct to claim thatexperience cannot give us knowledge. The conclusion they draw fromthis rationalist lesson is that we do not know at all. This is,indeed, Hume's position with regard to causation, which, he argues, isnot actually known, but only presupposed to be holding true, in virtueof a particular habit of our minds.
Historically, the rationalist/empiricist dispute in epistemology hasextended into the area of metaphysics, where philosophers areconcerned with the basic nature of reality, including the existence ofGod and such aspects of our nature as freewill and the relationbetween the mind and body. Several rationalists (e.g., Descartes,Meditations) have presented metaphysical theories, which theyhave claimed to know by intuition and/or deduction alone. Empiricists(e.g., Hume, Treatise) have rejected the theories as eitherspeculation, beyond what we can learn from experience, or nonsensicalattempts to describe aspects of the world beyond the conceptsexperience can provide. The debate raises the issue of metaphysics asan area of knowledge. Kant puts the driving assumption clearly:
A more plausible argument for the Intuition/Deduction thesis againassumes that we know some particular, external world truths, and thenappeals to the nature of what we know, rather than to the nature ofknowledge itself, to argue that our knowledge must result fromintuition and deduction. Leibniz, in New Essays, tells us thefollowing:
The strength of this argument varies with its examples of purportedknowledge. Insofar as we focus on controversial claims in metaphysics,e.g., that God exists, that our mind is a distinct substance from ourbody, the initial premise that we know the claims is less thancompelling. Taken with regard to other areas, however, the argumentclearly has legs. We know a great deal of mathematics, and what weknow, we know to be necessarily true. None of our experiences warrantsa belief in such necessity, and we do not seem to base our knowledgeon any experiences. The warrant that provides us with knowledge arisesfrom an intellectual grasp of the propositions which is clearly partof our learning. Similarly, we seem to have such moral knowledge asthat, all other things being equal, it is wrong to break a promise andthat pleasure is intrinsically good. No empirical lesson about howthings are can warrant such knowledge of how they ought to be.
We get our concept of causation from our observation that some thingsreceive their existence from the application and operation of someother things. Yet, to be able to make this observation, we must haveour minds primed to do so. Rationalists argue that we cannot make thisobservation unless we already have the concept of causation.Empiricists, on the other hand, argue that our minds are constitutedin a certain way, so that we can gain our ideas of causation and ofpower in a non-circular manner.
Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives. 2b1af7f3a8