This paper looks at epistemology, the study of knowledge. It specifically addresses the origin of knowledge, that is, if it is from rationalisation or from empirical sensing. Knowledge is defined as the understanding that one gains of an experience and internalises it. The difference between rationalism and empiricism is demonstrated by use of examples. Rationalism is explained as being the acquisition of knowledge by a reasoning process that excludes external senses. Empiricism is described as being the use of senses as knowledge. Three different schools of rationalism have been identified; that is deduction or intuition, innate knowledge and innate conceptualism. Finally the paper takes a position in favour of rationalism.
This essay is about the origin of knowledge. It describes rationalism as opposed to empiricism. The essay highlights and contrasts distinctive features of both positions. It will also reinforce my position in defence of rationalism.
According to Newman, knowledge is understanding or awareness that one gains and keeps in the mind. It may be seen as an impression or an idea. Understanding comes from rationality, justification, probability and claim. If a person makes a claim, a second person counters the claim, and then the first person will justify their claim using either empirical or rational reasoning. Knowledge is truth and truth is essentially a belief. If the belief is qualified then it is a warranted belief, otherwise it remains a notional truth. A warranted belief is true knowledge, formed after building a mental picture using valid reasons (2014).
In epistemology, the topic on how knowledge is acquired is divided between rationalism and empiricism. Rationalists like Rene Descarte maintain that sensory experience is not knowledge, but rather knowledge is the ability to figure out or rationalize the structure of the sensation. Empiricists like John Locke maintain that knowledge is acquired the moment it is perceived (Markie, 2015).
The Theory of Rationalism
This theory supposes that knowledge and truth are acquired a priori, that is, by reasoning rather than by sensing and that deductive knowledge far outstrips sensory information. (Newman, 2014). Rationalism is therefore justification of one’s view from a stored body of knowledge, for example, you know a car when you see one. Reality has a rational structure, and therefore the mind only needs to master and control that structure. There is no need for proof, since the rational mind has figured out the knowledge in a logical manner and is certain of the knowledge.
The mind uses senses to build a mental picture that it can draw from when deducting. A complex problem is deducted from simple problems assembled together. For example, one recognises a cat from a description of the combined features such as colour, size, eyes, fur, purr, and walking style.
Thinking is reflection, which unravels sensory experience (Newman, 2014). Reflection is based on ideas. Some ideas are not real, for example, an idea can form an unrealistic dream. A person of unsound mind perceives rationale differently from a sound-minded person. It is difficult to recreate an experience exactly as it occurred. Sometimes an idea cannot be recreated (Newman,2013), for example a deaf person is unable to recreate a sound. Unlike ideas which can be unreal, impressions are firm mental beliefs. Ideas are copies of impressions (Markie, 2015). Sensory impressions are subjective feelings of emotion or thinking.
A rational person is intuitive. Intuition is one’s inner truth and certainty or belief. Mental pictures can be built from intuition, but empiricists argue that such rationalisation is biased knowledge. For example; if a person of a certain persuasion commits an act, then one associates people of similar persuasion with committing of such acts.
The deductive rationalist bases their knowledge by comparing their past knowledge and reasoning with the present phenomenon, for example, if in the past the sun always rose from the east, then it will definitely rise from the east in future.
The innate rationalist grows with knowledge of a phenomenon and recognises it when they see it. The intuitive rationalist reasons using inborn knowledge, and can therefore recognise from description. For example most phobias are intuitive.
According to Newman (2013), the innately knowledgeable rationalist is basically an intelligent person who draws from their internal knowledge when explaining a new experience, as with the subject of mathematics.
The innate concept rationalist is one who can build a mental or abstract picture without perceiving the phenomenon in reality, for example conceptualise a dragon. This rationalist is a creative thinker, who conjures new art forms and pioneers new ideas.
Empiricism or perception on its part supposes that all knowledge comes from sensory experience. It is therefore mainly external, unlike rationalism which is internal. According to empiricists, there is no need for reasoning because what you see is what is true (Markie, 2015). Truth is tested by sensory experience and scientifically.
People reason differently because their rationalization is based on unwarranted beliefs. For example, in an accident, witnesses respond differently; some people run amok, others respond calmly, others just watch, and so on. If the crowds were to apply empirical reasoning they should act in unison, by all helping.
Empiricists disagree that one has innate ability to conceptualize because claim to knowledge is unfounded, for example, an infant has no innate knowledge that fire burns when touched. Senses are necessary for them to build-up knowledge through experience. Lack of experience leads to vague ideas about occurrences (Markie, 2015).
In empiricism, ideas and facts are clearly delineated. Ideas can be accurate or inaccurate mental pictures. They are unwarranted beliefs. Facts are warranted beliefs that have been tested by sensing. Rational knowledge is in fact drawn from warranted beliefs (Newman, 2014).
My position is that knowledge comes from rationalisation. Merely perceiving an experience is not knowledge, for example witnessing a vehicle rolling over is not knowledge. It is the knowing why it rolled that constitutes knowledge.
I agree with rationalists on a number of issues. For example in studying geology, much knowledge comes from reasoning, since the interior of the earth has never been seen or photographed. Geologists are able to determine the presence of minerals and occurrence of earthquakes by simply reasoning.
A newborn, with virtually no prior experience or sense is able to determine the location of mother’s breast and how to suckle. It is intuition.
If we were to rely on empirical evidence for knowledge, then we would be limited in many ways. For example persons with sensory challenges, like sight, would never have knowledge about experiences they should discern through the missing sensory organ, like visualizing.
The scope of rationing allows creative thinking. If knowledge were based on empirical tests, then inventions and innovations would not happen. It is the creative and abstract, but rational, reasoning that results in new creations.
Careers like criminal investigation, law, auditing, and stockbrokerage depend on rationalisation rather than empirical tests.
It is true that knowledge is acquired through reasoning. Experiences in themselves are meaningless, but when rationale is applied to them, then knowledge is gained.
Markie, Peter, “Rationalism vs. Empiricism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/rationalism-empiricism/>.
Newman, Lex, “Descartes’ Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/descartes-epistemology/>.
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