1.4 Rationalism vs. Empiricism: Similarities & Differences

Jan 12, 2020 | ch1 Introduction, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

Rationalism and empiricism are philosophical schools of thought that are fundamentally the opposite of each other. Their beliefs on the nature of reality come from a skeptical analysis of the opposing philosophy’s beliefs.

Rationalism vs. Empiricism

Rationalism and empiricism are schools of thought that search for meaning in our existence. Each of these philosophies quest for the truth in our life by promoting skepticism, or a doubt that the other ideas are true. Fundamentally, these two philosophies are essentially opposites.

Philosophers who value rationalism or empiricism maintain a continual discussion over the meaning of our existence by establishing claims that attempt to disprove the beliefs of the other philosophy based on their skepticism of opposing viewpoints. A key similarity between these philosophies is that many philosophers from both schools of thought believe in God; however, God’s responsibility in how humans uncover the truth about their existence is fundamentally different.

 

What is Rationalism?

Rationalism functions on three key principles that work to find the truth:

  1. Deduction – Deduction is the application of concrete principles to draw a conclusion. Mathematical principles are an example of deduction. For example, finding the square footage of a room is always done the same way, by multiplying the width and length.
  2. Innate ideas – Innate ideas is the concept that we’re born with fundamental truths or experiences left over from another life that we’re born with. These ideas can also come from God. Innate ideas can explain why some people possess significantly more talent in some things than others who have exactly the same exposure to them.
  3. Reason – Reason uses logic to determine a conclusion. Logic can use multiple methods to determine the truth, and the emphasis is on finding the truth, not on the method.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism, on the other hand, works with key principles to use skepticism in its school of thought that rejects the principles of rationalism.

  1. Sense experience – Empiricists believe that our ideas come solely from sense experience. These ideas are either simple or complex and make use of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sound and sight). Simple ideas are those that use only one of the five senses to establish perception. For example, sugar is sweet. Complex ideas use more than one of the five senses to gain a more detailed perception. Sugar is sweet and white and granular, for example.
  2. Innate ideas – Empiricists reject the notion of innate ideas. A popular term associated with this came from John Locke, who believed that the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa.
  3. Induction – Induction is the most crucial principle to empiricism, similar to how crucial reason is to rationalists. Induction is the belief that very little can be proven conclusively, especially without experience. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is an example of an empiricist’s perspective on induction. Since there is no one in the forest to experience the sound of a tree falling, then it can’t be determined as truth that it makes a sound.

What is Induction?

Induction is a significant difference between rationalism and empiricism. Induction promotes the belief that the only thing we can be sure of is the experiences that we have. This is called solipsism. Everything that we experience is a projection of the mind, meaning that we can only truly know that we exist and everything else is just the projection of the mind. Interestingly, a rationalist belief that is similar to solipsism is Rene Descartes’ statement ‘I think; therefore, I am.’

Keep in mind, where rationalism holds that experience isn’t necessary to acquire truth – that it can be discovered through reason – empiricists believe that the nature of reality, or truth, can only become knowledge if it is experienced. This knowledge is attained through the primary or secondary qualities of an object.

Primary Qualities – these are qualities that belong to an object and refer to its physical properties, such as shape or size or color. A banana has a curved shape specific to a banana and is yellow.

Secondary Qualities – these qualities refer to the degree that is perceived by the individual, such as its taste or degree of color. The secondary qualities of a banana are defined by the individual, such as its taste. Some people don’t think that bananas are delicious. The degree of yellow for the banana can be perceived on different levels as well, depending on the individual.

Lesson Summary

Rationalism and empiricism share some similarities, specifically the use of skepticism, which is a doubt that the other ideas are true, to invoke a pattern of thought that will lead to knowledge or the truth of the nature of reality. This skepticism, however, is what makes rationalism and empiricism fundamentally opposite.

Rationalism has three key principles: Deduction , which is the application of concrete principles to draw a conclusion; innate ideas , which is the concept that we’re born with fundamental truths or experiences left over from another life that we’re born with; and reason, which uses logic to determine a conclusion.

Empiricism has its own principles, which include a rejection of innate ideas, the use of sense experience, which involves ideas that are either simple or complex and make use of the five senses, and induction, which is the belief that very little can be proven conclusively, especially without experience. From this, empiricists promote the notion of solipsism, which is the belief that everything we experience is a projection of the mind and can only be true to the individual. In other words, only the self can be known to be real. Remember Descartes’ quote about this?

Empiricists believe that experience and thus knowledge can only be obtained through absorbing an object’s primary qualities, which are qualities that belong to an object and refer to its physical properties, and secondary qualities, which involve the degree that is perceived by the individual, such as its taste or degree of color.

1.5 Psychological Approaches: Functionalism, Structuralism, Gestalt, Psychoanalysis & Behaviourism
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