A personal take on the debate between rationalism and empiricism. The study of knowledge, or epistemology, contains theoretical methods by which information is learned. Of these methods, two are most widely accepted. These two methods, rationalism and empiricism, are also the most widely debated methods of knowledge acquisition. Rationalism claims that knowledge is gained by a priori processes and intuition. Rationalism claims that knowledge is innate; however the level of innate knowledge contained by humans varies amongst rationalists.
At the other end of the spectrum, empiricism claims that knowledge is gained largely by experience, observation, and sensory perception. These views pose a striking contrast and controversy within the theory of knowledge. Which view is correct, or is there even a correct view? As rationalism and empiricism are studied and compared, it becomes evident that empiricism is the “more correct” theory of the acquisition of knowledge. However, in order to believe so, there must be a differentiation between knowledge and behavior. According to the empirical scientific process, bodily behavior and function is rationalist.
That is, it occurs without humans first learning how to breathe and pump blood with their heart. Knowledge however, refers to The British philosopher John Locke is credited with formulating the complete modern doctrine of empiricism. Locke proposed that, upon entrance into the world, the mind is a white paper upon which experiences leave their marks. According to Locke in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” the predominant sources of ideas and knowledge are sensation and reflection. It seems that after receiving knowledge empirically, the human mind resorts to reflecting on the information.
This reflection could ultimately lead to the internalization of knowledge, therefore making it seem innate upon recall of the information. Scottish philosopher David Hume’s thoughts and theories regarding empiricism are the basis of what is understood as empiricism today. Hume’s studies on empiricism took empiricist ideas to a whole new level. Hume divided all of knowledge into two categories: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Relations of ideas encompass logical propositions such as mathematics and geometry, while matters of fact are pieces of knowledge dependent on observation.
Hume goes even further in saying that ideas, commonly understood as arising from human intuition (rationalism), are empiricist. According to Hume, ideas are merely remembrances of impressions or sensations gained by experience and observation. Hume’s ideas here are not unreasonable. While ideas can be “new” or “innovative” they generally do build upon the knowledge already possessed by experience. For example, the iPod was a new idea; however the idea itself was a remembrance of previous portable music devices such as the Walkman or Discman.
In effect, Hume seems to be saying that new ideas are simply improvements made to existing ideas gained through impressions and sensations. While rationalism and empiricism are generally recognized as opposing views, it is important to remember that they are not mutually exclusive when understood in a general sense. However, when a philosopher is looking for the fundamental source of all knowledge, then one view must be discarded in favor of another. By separating human knowledge from human body function, it is reasonable to conclude that all human knowledge and ideas are gained empirically and through experience.