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Empiricism and Rationalism: René Descartes’ and John Locke’ Views Essay

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Updated: Apr 22nd, 2020

Philosophy is the oldest science that was born in the ancient Greece and study the fundamental problems related to the meaning of life, human existence, etc. One of the branches of philosophy is epistemology that deals with the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, what is knowledge and what are the sources of it? There are many theories of epistemology. The major ones are empiricism, rationalism and constructivism.

In this essay, I am going to compare and contrast two opposing theories of epistemology that explored the question “From where does knowledge come from?” and which influenced on the Enlightenment’s concept of the mind.

Thus, according to the rationalism theory of knowledge, the reason is the main source of knowledge. As opposed to the rational theory, the empiricism theory estimates that the main source of knowledge is the experience which can be based on the “perceptional observation of the world”. Two major philosophers of the Enlightenment provided these theories and based their activities on them. Descartes was the supporter of rationalism and Locke described empiricism.

The empiricism theory of knowledge is based on the suggestion that knowledge generates from one’s personal experience. This supposition is still predominant among the theories of epistemology and is contradictory to rationalism. According to the empiricism theory of knowledge, all the knowledge acquired is based on individual experience.

The experience comes from evidences and “sensory perception of the world” which leads to the formation of certain ideas. In other words, the senses and perceptions serve engines for our beliefs. Perception is a starting point for the knowledge.

John Locke was the first philosopher who clearly explained the essence of empiricism theory of knowledge, “Locke set forth what would become the Enlightenement’s dominant conception of the mind: a blank slate on which the sensation provided by sensory experience produce ideas” (Kramnick 185). He suggested the “blank slate” theory that explained how the knowledge is acquired.

Thus, every child is like a blank sheet of paper, only through using its senses of perception like hearing, smelling, seeing, the child gains the understanding of the better world. This theory was adopted in pedagogic and is still used in it:

“The mind as a “blank slate” received sensation from the external world. That individual mind imperially ordered chaotic sensory experience, constructing, therefore, its own meaning for the world” (Kramnick 16).

Thus, this statement provides the idea that there are no good or bad children. The individuality forms under the influence of events and situations that appear to a personality during its life. The notion of idea was the core of the Locke’s empiricism, “the fundamental unit in Locke’s theory of knowledge is the idea. He understands the ideas in the first instance as the images received by the sense” (Nelson 330).

The one has certain perception of a new thing, under the influence of this perception, the idea about this thing is formed, furthermore, the ideas are analyzed and developed into the knowledge. Locke’s theory denied the suggestion that every person is born with the “innate knowledge”. In case it was true, than everybody were similar and there would be no place for the moral education.

However, not all the philosophers supported this point of view. There were scientists that provided different idea.

The theory of knowledge of rationalism provides the ideas that the source of knowledge is not an idea of the past experience, but the idea of reason:

“The rationalists believed in fundamental speculative and ethical truths or principles which are not derived from experience but discerned immediately by reason, and which reflect the eternal divine truth” (Copleston 30).

This statement means that in the core of rational knowledge are several fundamental concepts. First of all, each of us is born with the first principles. These principles form the “inner knowledge” (the knowledge that we have when we are just born). This knowledge is created by some reason and the knowledge that we acquire during our lives are generated from these “innate knowledge”.

In order to explain what the “innate knowledge is, the rationalists provided as example the understanding of the categories of time and space, cause and consequences. For, example, if X is bigger than Y and Y is bigger than Z, than Z is smaller than X. This ability to come to a conclusion is the “innate knowledge” that was not developed from the experience, but “was born with us”. According to rationalists, every individual thinks in terms of reason and its consequence, and this reasoning directs and forms our life experience.

One of the greatest thinkers who developed the theory of rationalism during the period of Enlightenment was Descartes:

“There is a profoundly radical individualism at the heart of Enlightenment thought. Its rationalisms led Enlightenment philosophy to enthrone the individual as the center and creator of meaning, truth, and even reality” (Kramnick 15).

Descartes was the philosopher that used the theory of doubts as a basis for the rationalism. He provides the idea that all our experiences and beliefs can be called into doubt, “Descartes had doubted everything, but he could not doubt himself. He as the I, the irreducible thinking being, existed at the core of reality” (Kramnick 15).

A famous quote by Descartes “I think; therefore I am” (Kramnick 181). Illustrates the ideas that there is no knowledge outside your mind, in other words, everything that exists can be put into doubts. This statement gives a reason to be skeptical about everything in the world. In addition, it becomes a premise for the acquisition of new knowledge. Thus, only if one explored the issue “thought it over” by himself/herself, one can estimate that it is the acquired knowledge.

Today, the philosophers do not think that the rationalism and Descartes in particular, achieved success in the theory of knowledge, “John Locke rushed in where Descartes feared to treat. Descartes never fell into the error of thinking that a representative theory of knowledge could stand in its own right” (Harris 126).

The ideas of Locke are still used in the pedagogic practices and generally accepted among modern philosophers. In its own turn, the theory of knowledge provided by Descartes is quite individualistic and can be applied only to some scientific domains, such as mathematics, for example.

So, in the branch of philosophy called epistemology, there are several theories of knowledge aimed at answering the question “From where does knowledge come from?” Empiricism and rationalism are the two which contradict each other providing opposite ideas.

The empiricism emphasizes that the source of knowledge is one’s personal experience. As opposed to empiricism, rationalism provides the idea that each individual is born with the “innate knowledge”. These, days, the ideas of empiricism by Locke are recognized as more reliable ones.

Works Cited

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: the Rationalists. Descartes to Leibnitz. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003.

Harris, Errol E. Nature, Mind and Modern Science. London: Routledge, 2004.

Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Nelson, Alan Jean. A Companion to Rationalism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.

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