Descartes vs Hume

Rationalism and Empiricism are most likely the two most famous and intriguing schools of philosophy. The two schools deal specifically with epistemology, or, the origin of knowledge. Although not completely opposite, they are often considered so, and are seen as the Jordan vs. Bird of the philosophy world. The origins of rationalism and empiricism can be traced back to the 17th century, when many important advancements were made in scientific fields such as astronomy and mechanics. These advancements were most likely the basis for a sudden philosophical argument: What do we truly know?

People wondered whether science was really giving us knowledge of reality. The quest for the answer to this question led to the development of these two schools of philosophy. Two of the most famous philosophers of epistemology are Rene Descartes and David Hume, the former being a rationalist, and the latter an empiricist. In this paper I will attempt to give an understanding of both rationalism and empiricism, show the ideas and contributions each of the men made to their respective schools, and hopefully give my personal reasoning why one is more true than the other.

Rationalism was developed by several important philosophers all around the 17th century. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz are all given credit for developing rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that reason and logic are the basis of knowledge. It says that knowledge is innate, and that it cannot come from sources such as the senses. Rationalists believe that we are all born with a means of obtaining truth and knowledge. Empiricism also came about in the 17th Century, mostly through the ideas of the philosophers Locke and Bacon.

Although Hume wrote several decades after these two, he probably wrote the strongest arguments for empiricism, covering some questions not answered by Locke and Bacon. Empiricism says that all real knowledge is based on experience. It claims that people are born with no innate knowledge, and that everything that happens in the mind is a result of our perceptions. Descartes begins his theory of knowledge by assuming that nothing exists. He trusts nothing, not what he has seen or heard, not anything that he has thought. After careful deliberation, he comes to the foundation of his proof: I think, therefore, I am.

What he means by this is that he knows that he exists because he thinks. This of course cannot be disproved, because to do so, would require thinking. Descartes believed that in order to obtain knowledge, there must be some rational method for obtaining it, and that the use of senses, or any personal experience was not a reliable source. In his third meditation he says, I know that even bodies are notperceived by the senses, or by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone (Descartes 69). He believed that this was the same for every human, that we all have innate ideas in our soul.

This definitely follows the definition of a rationalist. In order to discover these ideas in our soul, we must go about a method of reasoning, which he referred to as methodological doubt. This method resembles the axiomatic geometric system, which probably so because of his expertise and interest in mathematics. Axioms are self-evident principals that are so clear that they are accepted as true, and part of everyones knowledge. He believed that knowledge of external things was a result of only the mind, and not the senses.

Descartes also said that the universe was mathematically logical, and that anything can be arrived at by reasoning. In fact, he goes on in his writings and uses this method to prove God, the human senses, and the world, all through his reason. Descartes believed that no question was too difficult to discover by his means. Hume later contradicted the theory of Descartes by ignoring his method of thinking, and claiming that people learn through perceptions. These perceptions can by from one of two categories: impressions or ideas.

He said that impressions are what gave us the ability to have ideas. Hume also believed that since everyone has different impressions, no one is alike. This is also contrary to what Descartes claimed. Hume said that there are three different ways perceptions can be classified: resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect. Resemblance is like when a picture makes you think of the original scene. Contiguity is when a dog is mentioned, it makes you think of other dogs, and cause and effect is when you think of a wound, and you associate it with the pain and bleeding that follows.

Hume also believed that causation was the method that humans used to reason, to go beyond just impressions and memories. Since causation is developed through experience, it is evident that Hume fits the mold of the empiricist. Hume said that this reason developed from experience could be separated into two areas. One is relations of ideas, or things such as mathematics and logic, which can be considered certain because it just relates ideas to one another. Hume says, Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought (Hume 71).

The other one is matters of fact, or reasoning gained from perceptions. It is based on the idea of cause and effect; if we see something happen after something enough times, we call it the effect and the former the cause. However, Hume is quick to point out that the conclusions we draw from our perceptions are not necessarily true. He says, The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible (Hume 71). He makes the example that we cannot be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though it has every other day of our life.

Because of this claim, he believed that obtaining real knowledge was impossible. Both Descartes and Hume made excellent arguments for their beliefs, and both schools of philosophy became quite popular, and have been ever since. Of course determining which one is truer is not an easy task, and as with any philosophical question, there is no right or wrong answer. I think before I can make my decision, I have to look at what the world of science today says about the two different theories, over 300 years after they were developed.

The science of evolutionary psychology tells ups that no sharp line can be drawn between information that originates from environment, and information that is acquired through genes. However, in studying of the genetic model, it has been shown that genes cannot express themselves in bodily structures (i. e. the brain), unless they are in a very specific, suitable environment. Although no figures are strictly quantifiable, 99% of the information for building an organism may be thought of as located in the environment, and only 1% in the genes themselves (Steen).

This is demonstrated by instances in which environmental information that comes through the senses activates certain genes, such as: cats are unable to perceive vertical lines if they are not exposed to them before a certain age, and children who have not heard a language before the age of ten will no longer retain the capacity to acquire one. When it comes to modern scientific views, it seems that Hume has the edge over Descartes. This seems a bit ironic considering that Descartes believed that knowledge is gained from a logical and scientific method.

The very method that Descartes used to prove his ideas on human understanding has been used to disprove his ideas about innate truth. After reading passages from both writers, as well as interpretations on them, I have to say that I am not convinced that rationalism or empiricism is right. I believe that both had very convincing proofs of their ideas, that is, I could not find any holes in their reasonings. Empiricism is definitely favored by the genetic theory. However, I think that rationalism and Descartes follow more closely my religious beliefs.

Descartes relates his ideas partially through a theological point of view. He proves that there is a God, and that God fits into his ideas on epistemology. So on this side I have to give rationalism the edge. I would have liked to been able to choose one of the schools to believe in, but at least it seems that I am in the majority when I say that I am somewhere in between. In fact, Francis Steen, from the University of California, says, the distinction between empiricism and rationalism has become largely meaningless, like two aspects of the same coin that have fused into a sphere.


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