Essay Sample: A Comparison Between Rationalism and Empiricism

Published: 2023-01-29
Essay Sample: A Comparison Between Rationalism and Empiricism
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Philosophy
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1493 words
13 min read

There are two schools concerning the source of knowledge that different philosophers usually support, which are rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is a philosophical theory based on a claim that reason is the primary source of knowledge. On the other hand, empiricism is a theory that claims that people acquire knowledge through experience that we gain from the environment. Different characteristics of these schools of thought can be used to make a distinction between them.

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The idea of having innate knowledge is one of the characteristics that distinguish Rationalism and Empiricism. This is a belief that human beings are born with specific expertise in them. Philosophers who support this notion have tried to support the idea of innate knowledge trough aspects such as reincarnation. According to (Tahko 30), this is a belief that when people die, they will later be born again more than in life. It implies that, when people reincarnate, they are reborn with the same knowledge which they had in there other life. Plato supports this perspective in his theory of forms which describe a place where people are usually taken to gain specific knowledge after when they will be taken to the visible world. Innate knowledge has also been used to explain the reason why some people will be better at doing certain things even after they get the same training. For example, a person who was a good horse rider will not require any experience in his next life after reincarnation.

As opposed to rationalists who believe in innate ideas as a source of knowledge, empiricists believe that knowledge is acquired through experience. Empiricists reject the notion of innate knowledge entirely, arguing that if this could be the case, children should be showing it after birth. In other words, they should be in a position to utilize this knowledge even without having to learn it from the environment. For example, a toddle should use his innate knowledge and do certain thing such as talking a specific knowledge which he has intrinsic knowledge of. However, this is not usually the case as children learn everything from the environment, which include simple things such as talking and eating, among others (Hossain 225). As such, it is only through experience that an individual forms simple ideas, and these simple ideas can be integrated to come up with a complex idea.

A believe that reason is the primary source of knowledge is the characteristic which draws a clear distinction between Rationalism and Empiricism. Philosophers who support rationalism as the theory argues that, our five senses don't give us reason instead they only give us an opinion. This means that they cannot enable us to gain knowledge. However, critical reasoning is where we can obtain knowledge. An excellent example of how reason can help us achieve knowledge is found in the famous Descartes' wax argument. He argued that a candle would have one shape before it is lit. However, when it is lit, it starts melting, which makes it lose its fragrance hence taking a shape which is entirely different from the one it started with. He, therefore, concluded that our senses could be deceiving and thus, we should refrain from trusting them (Tahko 35). The argument is based on the fact that our sense can only help us to see the candle as having one shape, but critical reasoning can help us to gain knowledge that the candle will lose its shape when lit.

Unlike rationalist, empiricists reject the aspect of reason as the main source of knowledge. They believe that the main source of knowledge is sense perception. Philosopher John Locke, who is a supporter of empiricism theory, attempted to elaborate this idea by dividing ideas into two categories, which are complex and simple ideas. He asserted that simple ideas are those ideas which are based on perception or how we view things as explained in terms of shape, size, and color, among others. The second category of the idea is complex ideas which come as a result of a combination of several simple ideas. It implies that we usually combine simple ideas that we obtain by use of our senses to form complex ideas, and hence, senses are the primary source of knowledge as opposed to experience (Hossain 225).

The third characteristic of rationalism is a deduction, which argument behind is that the best way of proving something is not reason; instead, we should use certainty. A good example of deductive reasoning approach was provided by Descartes when he was attempting to prove the existence of God. His deduction started with the idea that there is a supernatural being that exists. He went ahead to claim that since he is not a perfect being, there is no way he could have caused this idea himself. So there is a reality of the existence of a perfect person like God (Tahko 44). He supported his point claim by saying that only a perfect being can create perfection, and even if it is possible for it to create imperfection, an imperfect thing cannot create something perfect.

Though nationalists believe in deduction as a source of knowledge, empiricists believe in induction as a source of knowledge. This is an assumption that there are very few things if any that can be proven exclusively. For an instant, we know things by use of perception or sense. By use of these perceptions, we can be able to conclude that a chalkboard is black and chalk is white. However, after leaving the class, we stop perceiving the blackboard as we cannot see it by use of our senses. This implies that it will not be possible for us to determine whether when we move out of the classroom, the blackboard will remain black or even exist after we stop seeing it. However, by use of induction knowledge, we can understand that things will still exist even when we are not seeing them. This assumption is the one that George Berkeley used to prove the existence of God (Hossain 225). Similar to the way things continues existing even when we stop perceiving them, God also exists though we cannot observe him.

Both schools of thought try to explain the source of knowledge using different perspectives. The two approaches are opposite to each other. However, empiricism philosophy seems more convincing than rationalism. For example, the idea of experience as the source of knowledge is more practical compared to innate knowledge. If people are born with innate knowledge, then they are supposed to express that knowledge without any training. Though nationalist give the claim of some people doing certain things more correctly than others even after the same experience, this argument is not enough to claim the presence of innate knowledge (Vaidya 86). This is because there are other factors which can contribute to such occurrences such as individual intelligence and ability to learn things fast.

The other thing that makes empiricism perspective more convincing is the fact that it is through experience that we discover ideas and the impact they can have on us or usefulness. Use of sense is one of the characteristics of empiricism theory. This is based on a belief that through using our senses, we can construct simple ideas, and these simple ideas can be combined to make a complex idea. This explanation is very much practical in our daily lives (Vaidya 88). For example, people in the world combine small ideas to come up with discoveries out of their experience of how certain things react in a specific condition.

The other thing that makes empiricism theory more convincing than rationalism is that even animals learn from experience. This is despite that animals are less intelligent compared to a man. For example, if an animal falls on a cliff and feels pain, it will learn through experience to avoid going near it. The same thing happens to a toddler where is a toddler touches fire and get burnt, it will have an idea that fire is dangerous, and it will avoid touching it in the future. Besides, children always learn from caregivers, and trough experience learns to behave just like them. This has been supported by certain studies which show that if a child is isolated from other human beings after birth, there is no way he/she can be able to develop a language which disqualifies the idea of innate knowledge as claimed by the rationalists (Vaidya 90).

Both rationalism and empiricism try to explain how human being obtains knowledge. Rationalist claim that we acquire knowledge through reason. On the other hand, empiricism support experience as the primary source of knowledge. Regarding the two schools of thought, empiricism perspective is more convincing as it is more practical compared to rationalisms.

Works Cited

Hossain, FM Anayet. "A critical analysis of empiricism." Open Journal of Philosophy 4.03 (2014): 225.

Tahko, Tuomas E. "Empirically-informed modal rationalism." Modal epistemology after rationalism. Springer, Cham, 2017. 29-45.

Vaidya, Anand Jayprakash. "Modal knowledge: Beyond rationalism and empiricism." Modal epistemology after rationalism. Springer, Cham, 2017. 85-114.

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