“How can we gain knowledge?”

The disagreement between rationalists and empiricists primarily concerns this question.

Introduction

The dispute between rationalism and empiricism takes place within epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge. The defining questions of epistemology include the following:

  1. What is the nature of propositional knowledge, knowledge that a particular proposition about the world is true?

To know a proposition, we must believe it and it must be true, but something more is required, something that distinguishes knowledge from a lucky guess. Let’s call this additional element ‘warrant’. A good deal of philosophical work has been invested in trying to determine the nature of warrant.

2. How can we gain knowledge?

We can form true beliefs just by making lucky guesses. How to gain warranted beliefs is less clear. Moreover, to know the world, we must think about it, and it is unclear how we gain the concepts we use in thought or what assurance, if any, we have that the ways in which we divide up the world using our concepts correspond to divisions that actually exist.

3. What are the limits of our knowledge?

Some aspects of the world may be within the limits of our thought but beyond the limits of our knowledge; faced with competing descriptions of them, we cannot know which description is true. Some aspects of the world may even be beyond the limits of our thought, so that we cannot form intelligible descriptions of them, let alone know that a particular description is true.


The disagreement between rationalists and empiricists primarily concerns the second question, regarding the sources of our concepts and knowledge. In some instances, their disagreement on this topic leads them to give conflicting responses to the other questions as well. They may disagree over the nature of warrant or about the limits of our thought and knowledge.

~ Rationalism vs. Empiricism / The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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