Empiricism

What’s that all about?

Empiricists endorse the following claim for some subject area.

The Empiricism Thesis:

Empiricism about a particular subject rejects the corresponding version of the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis.
Insofar as we have knowledge in the subject, our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent upon sense experience.
Sense experience is our only source of ideas.

Empiricists also deny the implication of the corresponding Innate Concept thesis that we have innate ideas in the subject area.

Since reason alone does not give us any knowledge, it certainly does not give us superior knowledge.

Empiricists generally reject the Indispensability of Reason thesis, though they need not.

The Empiricism thesis does not entail that we have empirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be gained, if at all, by experience.
Empiricists may assert, as some do for some subjects, that the rationalists are correct to claim that experience cannot give us knowledge.
The conclusion they draw from this rationalist lesson is that we do not know at all.
Rationalism and empiricism, so relativized, need not conflict. We can be rationalists in mathematics or a particular area of mathematics and empiricists in all or some of the physical sciences.
Rationalism and empiricism only conflict when formulated to cover the same subject.
Rationalism and empiricism only conflict when formulated to cover the same subject.

Then the debate, Rationalism vs. Empiricism, is joined. The fact that philosophers can be both rationalists and empiricists has implications for the classification schemes often employed in the history of philosophy, especially the one traditionally used to describe the Early Modern Period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leading up to Kant.

It is standard practice to group the major philosophers of this period as either rationalists or empiricists and to suggest that those under one heading share a common agenda in opposition to those under the other.

It is standard practice to group major philosophers and suggest that those under one heading share a common agenda in opposition to those under the other.

Thus, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz are the Continental Rationalists in opposition to Locke, Berkeley and Hume, the British Empiricists.

We should adopt such general classification schemes with caution.

The views of the individual philosophers are more subtle and complex than the simple-minded classification suggests. (See Loeb (1981) and Kenny (1986) for important discussions of this point.)
Locke rejects rationalism in the form of any version of the Innate Knowledge or Innate Concept theses, but he nonetheless adopts the Intuition/Deduction thesis with regard to our knowledge of God’s existence.
Descartes and Locke have remarkably similar views on the nature of our ideas, even though Descartes takes many to be innate, while Locke ties them all to experience.

The rationalist/empiricist classification also encourages us to expect the philosophers on each side of the divide to have common research programs in areas beyond epistemology.

Thus, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz are mistakenly seen as applying a reason-centered epistemology to a common metaphysical agenda, with each trying to improve on the efforts of the one before, while Locke, Berkeley and Hume are mistakenly seen as gradually rejecting those metaphysical claims, with each consciously trying to improve on the efforts of his predecessors.

It is also important to note that the rationalist/empiricist distinction is not exhaustive of the possible sources of knowledge.

One might claim, for example, that we can gain knowledge in a particular area by a form of Divine revelation or insight that is a product of neither reason nor sense experience.
In short, when used carelessly, the labels ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist,’ as well as the slogan that is the title of this essay, ‘Rationalism vs. Empiricism,’ can retard rather than advance our understanding.

Nonetheless, an important debate properly described as ‘Rationalism vs. Empiricism’ is joined whenever the claims for each view are formulated to cover the same subject.

What is perhaps the most interesting form of the debate occurs when we take the relevant subject to be truths about the external world, the world beyond our own minds.

A full-fledged rationalist with regard to our knowledge of the external world holds that some external world truths can and must be known a priori, that some of the ideas required for that knowledge are and must be innate, and that this knowledge is superior to any that experience could ever provide. The full-fledged empiricist about our knowledge of the external world replies that, when it comes to the nature of the world beyond our own minds, experience is our sole source of information. Reason might inform us of the relations among our ideas, but those ideas themselves can only be gained, and any truths about the external reality they represent can only be known, on the basis of sense experience. This debate concerning our knowledge of the external world will generally be our main focus in what follows.

Historically, the rationalist/empiricist dispute in epistemology has extended into the area of Metaphysics, where philosophers are concerned with the basic nature of reality, including the existence of God and such aspects of our nature as free will and the relation between the mind and body.

Major rationalists (e.g., Descartes 1641) have presented metaphysical theories, which they have claimed to know by reason alone.

Major empiricists (e.g., Hume 1739–40) have rejected the theories as either speculation, beyond what we can learn from experience, or nonsensical attempts to describe aspects of the world beyond the concepts experience can provide. The debate raises the issue of metaphysics as an area of knowledge.

Kant puts the driving assumption clearly:

The very concept of metaphysics ensures that the sources of metaphysics can’t be empirical. If something could be known through the senses, that would automatically show that it doesn’t belong to metaphysics; that’s an upshot of the meaning of the word ‘metaphysics.’
Its basic principles can never be taken from experience, nor can its basic concepts; for it is not to be physical but metaphysical knowledge, so it must be beyond experience. (1783, Preamble, I, p. 7)

The possibility then of metaphysics so understood, as an area of human knowledge, hinges on how we resolve the rationalist/empiricist debate.

The debate also extends into ethics.
The debate also extends into ethics:
Some moral objectivists (e.g., Ross 1930) take us to know some fundamental objective moral truths by intuition, while some moral skeptics, who reject such knowledge, (e.g., Mackie 1977) find the appeal to a faculty of moral intuition utterly implausible.
More recently, the rationalist/empiricist debate has extended to discussions (e.g., Bealer 1999 and Alexander & Weinberg 2007) of the very nature of philosophical inquiry: to what extent are philosophical questions to be answered by appeals to reason or experience?

~ Rationalism vs. Empiricism / The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy