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Empiricism and Rationalism

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The theory of knowledge became the center of modern philosophy. Other philosophical problems, associated with religion and morals, were pushed to the periphery of interest. One cannot know God, nature and human society without finding out first what are the principles and laws of the knowing mind. The philosophy is to find a method that can be applicable to all sciences – there is a lot of knowledge, but the method by which one can test the truth of it has not been developed. In the search for this “super method”, philosophers divided into supporters of empiricism and rationalism.

Empiricism (from the Greek “empeiria” – experience) was put forward by the English scientist Francis Bacon. Philosophers distinguish between the idealistic empiricism (Hume, Berkeley), which recognizes a subjective experience (sensations and ideas) as the only reality, and materialistic empiricism (Bacon, Hobbes, Locke), which considers the objectively existing world as the source of sensory experience.

The content of whole human knowledge ultimately comes down to experience. The maxim “nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses” became the motto of the empiricists. In the soul and mind of man, there is no innate knowledge, views or ideas. The soul and mind of man are originally pure while senses and perceptions write their letters on this writing board. Because feelings can deceive, they are checked by an experiment, which corrects the data from the senses. Knowledge must come from specific experienced values to generalizations and creation of theories. This is the inductive method of movement, along with the experiment it is the true method of philosophy and all the sciences.

In “The New Organon” Bacon wrote about the need to know nature – the source of all for human beings, and that science should serve the needs of people. The process of learning is carried out in two stages: informing the senses of judgment and reason. Without senses, one cannot learn the nature. Reason is quickly detached from the senses and contributes a lot to the process of learning. Bacon called this contribution “idols”. As an instrument of reason, Bacon offered a “new induction”, a set of rules, the implementation of which forces human mind to engage only the observed data and single out a cause and effect in natural phenomena. Bacon was the founder of scientism, the ideology, which asserts science as the highest value.

Rationalism (from the Latin “ratio”) is the direction in the theory of knowledge, which, contrary to empiricism, recognizes thoughts and concepts as the main source of knowledge. Historically, the first form of rationalism was the ancient philosophy of nature. Rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and others) believed that the experience based on the senses of man cannot be the basis of the general scientific method. Perceptions and sensations are illusory. One can sense something that does not exist, and cannot sense some of the sounds, colors and so on. Experimental data, as well as the results of experiments, is always questionable. Though, mind itself contains intuitive clear and distinct ideas. The main thing is that man thinks. This is the basic intuitive transcendental idea: “I think, therefore I exist” (Descartes).

Then, under the rules of deduction (from general to specific), one can derive the possibility of existence of God, nature and other people, and get a real knowledge about the world. Of course, information about the world is derived from sensations, so the experience is an important component of the knowledge of the world, but the foundation of the true method lies in the human mind. Thinking is based on intuition and deduction. The true method of all science and philosophy is similar to the mathematical methods. The latter are given beyond the first-hand experience and begin with general, but extremely clear and precise definitions. Mathematics uses the conventional method, following from the general ideas to specific conclusions; there is no experiment in it.

Kant’s Approach

The position taken by Kant in the historical dispute of rationalists and empiricists explains the starting point of his philosophy. Kant managed to combine the two opposing traditions, preserving in this synthesis the truths of each of them and rejecting what was false in them, in his view. In the opinion of Kant, both empiricism and rationalism have drawbacks, that need to be eliminated, and positive qualities. Empiricism comes from a plurality of specific perceptions to general concepts. This is certainly to its credit. Nevertheless, the question remains: how from perception of the specific one can get to deductive reasoning, that is, to the knowledge of the general?

The empiricists drew reasonable concepts from the experience, and then began to discuss the things that go far beyond the limits of experience. This, according to Kant, is inadmissible. Rationalists explored and discussed the issues, the objects of which can never be given in experience. Such objects refer to ideas (“noumena”) of mind: God, immortal soul, afterlife, etc. Kant wanted to safely navigate the human mind between the dreaminess of Locke’s empiricism, Hume’s skepticism and claims of rationalists.

Kant recognized the validity of judgments of the empiricists, who claimed the experimental nature of knowledge, but rejected the idea of mind as a “tabula rasa” on which only nature writes its letters. The idea of the rationalists of the existence of innate ideas was not accepted by him either, although he saw some fruitful meaning in it. Through self-observation, it is easy to see that, in the human soul, there are no pure ideas (e.g. causality), free from any experienced content from certain specific causes and effects. Instead of innate ideas, Kant introduced the concept of a priori forms of intuition and reason.

These forms belong to the subject, not to the object. They characterize the structure, respectively, of sensory perception and rational thinking, and in any case are not inherent in “things per se”. However, these forms cannot be labeled as inherent as this would mean a solution to the question about their real origin, which, according to Kant, is beyond human capabilities based on the technique of self-observation or proof through reason. There is no doubt that the general form of knowledge and content of human mental life are given to people in the unity of their existence. The data of experience are named as the posterior elements of human consciousness, that is, they always turn out to be “enclosed” in the a priori forms. The act of cognition appears thus as the action of the subject, as the manifestation of subject’s activity.

Investigating the conditions of the possibility of human knowledge, Kant believed that he had no right to come out of the unconditional faith in the infinite possibilities of the human reason. For the rationalists and empiricists the solution to the question of the origin of reason essentially predetermined the foundations of their belief in the knowledge of the nature of things. Introduction by Kant of the notion of a priori forms of sensibility and reasoning changed the situation substantially. Now, the “access” to things per se is not possible because of these forms. In the former sense of the word “knowledge” it becomes unenforceable: consequently the things per se are unknowable. We can only know the world of phenomena, but not what is in it. At the same time, the phenomena are not only the experimental data, but forms of cognition, in which they are fixed. The necessary and universal in the phenomena is the expression of a priori forms of knowledge, and diverse and changeable in them refers to the data of experience. Thus, the world which appears to us as a whole, imbued with the law and order, the sources of which are a priori forms of knowledge.

The general logic, of Kant’s argument, lies in a logical proof of the precedence in our mind of space and time as a whole in relation to specific times and spaces, which indicates of their no conceptual nature, and that they are common forms of our intuition. By means of the abstracting power of our mind we are able to remove anything from our ideas, even the concept of body in general, but we are not able to imagine something devoid of spatial and temporal characteristics, something timeless and space less.

I think Kant succeeded in merging empiricism and rationalism. Though he was criticized for some of his ideas, they still seem viable as compared to both empiricism and rationalism. 

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