Philosophical Positions: Rationalism Vs Empiricism


Various philosophers have come up with different ideas to explain the concept of acquiring knowledge. Rationalists believe that people acquire knowledge without going through life experiences. They hold that some people possess innate knowledge that surpasses their level of experience, and thus it has nothing to do with sensory experience. On the other hand, empiricists believe that one has to go through various life experiences before acquiring a certain form of knowledge. According to the empiricists, the extensiveness of the knowledge acquired does not matter, as long as one has a way to warrant the truth of the information.

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The only warrant is sense experience, as it does not depend on lucky guesses like those of the rationalists. As evident from the empiricists and rationalist arguments, philosophers from both sides are still developing ways to defend their thoughts. Hence, this paper gives a stringent analysis of the two philosophical positions. It will explore the superiority of empiricism, analyze the rationalists’ counter arguments to empiricism, and determine the most plausible philosophical position.

Explanation of rationalism and empiricism


Empiricists never believe on innate knowledge, but instead, they hold that people gain knowledge through experience. The experience could be from their five common senses or through some form of reasoning. According to the empiricists, people can only know the truth of anything through sensation and experience; therefore, people should trust their senses of sight, touch, smell, taste, and feeling. The sensory experiences offer first hand information that is free from doubts. The empiricists strongly believe that practical experience plays a great role in molding a person’s behavior and response towards an occurrence. Confiding in senses enables people to develop perceptions about a person, a place, or an incident.

According to the empiricists, children are born without any content or knowledge. The children’s empty minds begin to grasp impressions and ideas through interaction with the parents. As the children grow, they learn to remember experiences, and they copy the principles of the experiences. Therefore, the ideas and responses of a person are dependent on the impressions depicted by the sense organs. Children will copy the behaviors of their caretakers and learn their language.

According to the empiricists, prior sensations play a great role in creating imagination and responding to stimuli. The empiricists support their argument using the example of blind people, who cannot use rationalism to differentiate colors because they lack the sense of sight. It is practically impossible to use reasoning to distinguish a blue color from a red color. Therefore, a strong connection exists between the thoughts, sense experiences, and the reaction to an occurrence.

Empiricism holds that learning is a continuous process that enables people to encounter new things and gain some experience. There is absolutely no source of knowledge that is gained without experience. According to the empiricists, the concept of having innate ideas about a subject is unreliable (Locke 36). Reasoning alone cannot enable one to obtain the vast knowledge that is needed in the contemporary world. For this reason, students have to go through school to learn, experience, and explore the various aspects of life.

Empiricists believe in practice and mind-dependence in handling every aspect of life. While the rationalist would be overconfidence that they have some form of mathematical knowledge by default, the empiricists will always want to do everything practically. Empiricists support the fact that inductions from live experiences have significant contributions to attaining mathematical knowledge, rather than the rationalists’ instant knowledge. For students to learn how to handle some addition of figures, for example, they have to be familiar with the numbers. Prior knowledge and experience play a great role in enabling students to explore the subject and employ the skills obtained from experience to handle all computations. The empiricists argue that the rationalists think that they know so much, yet in reality, they have very little knowledge.

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Rationalism is all about using innate knowledge to interpret an occurrence. Rationalists encourage people to reason and come up with deductions instead of depending on the senses. Rationalists argue that people should never trust their senses as they could deceive when the situations are too difficult to handle. Senses can depend of the logical fallacies in the human brain to misinterpret things. According to the rationalists, intuition is the only way of acquiring knowledge. Intellectuals can grasp a proposition through a simple instinct. The rational philosophers hold that intellectuals will use their brain to come up with valid arguments that derive some truth.

Innate traits will always help intellectuals to acquire knowledge without necessarily having to depend on experience. Mathematics, for example, is a subject that most students fear. However, a rational thinker employs logic to come up with ways to approach the difficult sums. Rationalists have always argued that for students to have excellent performance in mathematics, physics, and other technical subjects, they have to employ rational thinking. Empiricist students may never score highly in mathematics, as it requires intuition and deductive thinking.

Rationalists strongly believe in the innate knowledge that some people possess regardless of their level of experience. People with the same level of exposure have different thinking capacities, and they handle matters differently. The commonest example of such experiences occurs in schools, where, students subjected to the same treatments cannot have similar scores on exams. Some cases have occurred where geniuses are born with the supernatural ability to interpret things without having the slightest experience. This is a clear indication that innate traits play a significant role in the acquisition of knowledge. The innate knowledge has the capability to offer people with a rational power to have things done in their own way. Moreover, morality is another innate aspect that enables people to differentiate right from wrong (Kerslake 499). Therefore, people do not need the sensory experience to differentiate right from wrong doings.

The concepts that people employ to respond to particular issues differ from one person to another. Although sensation triggers the response to different issues, the reaction is independent of experience, especially in the case of emergencies. It is noteworthy that reasoning is indispensable in every aspect of life. The knowledge gained through experience is inapplicable in most instances, and people have to use their deductive reasoning to get out of difficult situations. Essentially, rationalists believe that the mathematical knowledge, logical principles, and all forms of moral concepts are innate. This clearly explains the reason behind the superiority of people of a certain family lineage.

Arguments portraying the superiority of empiricism

Empiricists support the fact that rationalists depend on the information written down through experience to cite their work. Empiricists have to work very hard to come up with some tangible evidence through various researches to help the rationalists who have no basis of the concepts of knowledge. According to the empiricists, the unobservable and intangible innate knowledge is inefficient in many cases because some people who claim to be from intellect families never use their knowledge to do anything constructive.

Empiricists argue that the various concepts and the manner in which people respond to various instances depend on their prior knowledge. Rationalists have concentrated so much on mathematics and technical subjects, which are just but a few of the subjects learnt in school. Although mathematics is a subject that is dependent on rational thinking, it is noteworthy that a student who has encountered a difficult sum severally will find it easy to handle the sum in subsequent tests. From that point of view, experience simplifies the whole experience.

Rationalists emphasize on reasoning as the only way to discover the truth about something. However, it is evident that there is a need to research on an issue, discover some loophole, and try to fix it. Empiricism plays a great role in changing, upgrading, and disqualifying some theories. The rationalists disregarded the vacuum theory as they considered it as absurd. However, through research, scientists discovered that indeed the vacuum theory is feasible.

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The innate knowledge that rationalists use to obtain the truth about reality is questionable. Empiricists have a strong concern of the warrant required to justify a thought. The rationalists may hold that the level of acquiring concepts and ideas is independent of experience. However, that may not be true in some cases because some external factors other than experience and deductive reasoning would play a great role in determining the step to take.

Counter-argument to empiricism

The fact that experience contributes to the acquisition of knowledge is not ignorable. However, it is noteworthy that the ability of people to reason is what leads to the formulation of additional information to study. Through reasoning, innovators and inventors are able to come up with new ideas that are transformed into knowledge. Indeed, if everyone depended on experience to come up with something, there would be no development.

The greatest technologists in the world employed some reasoning to come up with ideas; they did not need to have the experience to create new machines or to improvise technology. Therefore, the argument that rationalists depend on empiricists’ theory to cite their work is not viable. The rationalists are the inventors, and in any case, they do not depend on secondary materials to develop ideas; they only depend on their rational thinking.

Whether discovery or experience is involved, a person must employ some sense of reasoning in every aspect regardless of the number of times the aspect is encountered. Empiricism undermines creativity by insisting on prior knowledge and experience. It encourages nonaggressive people to sit back and wait for the researchers to find out solutions to problems. People, who rely on the empiricists’ approach to things, never think critically. Whether it is mathematically, technically, or socially, people must employ some form of critical thinking. Emphasizing on knowing the truth behind every thought is a tedious process that would raise endless arguments. Therefore, in addition to using experience to explain phenomena, people should learn to employ deductive reasoning in every aspect of life.

Reply to the counter-argument

In every argument, proponents are likely to be strong enough to influence their opponents to reconsider their decisions. In this case, the rationalists are likely to challenge the empiricists in every aspect. However, that does not mean that the empiricists will stop doing what they perceive as right. In fact, the opposition side plays a significant role in keeping the other group on toes. The empiricists should keep on challenging the rationalists who brag to be great mathematicians, inventors, and innovators. They should proof that life is not all about inventing new things. Life is dynamic, and it needs people to research and improve on the already invented items. Otherwise, strict rational thinkers might end up being like the rolling stones that gather no mass.


From the discussions, it is evident that the empiricists and the rationalists have some reasonable arguments to support their philosophies. However, from a critical point of view, the two philosophies are interdependent, and thus, there is no philosophical position that outweighs the other (Kant 56). The rational thinkers will need some empiricism philosophy to derive a sense of their innovations and inventions, as common senses would play a great role in facilitating rational thinking. Similarly, the empiricists need some rational thinking to explore the world and derive some truth about it.

Therefore, people should adopt a strategy to employ the suitable philosophical position depending on the situation. A student, for example, can decide to be a rationalist in mathematics and be an empiricist in other subjects. If possible, people should be rational thinkers when handling challenging situations and they should employ the empiricism philosophical position whenever there is a need to trust their common senses.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, London: Henry G. Bohn publishers, 1855. Print.

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Kerslake, Christian. “Deleuze, Kant, and the Question of Metacritique.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 42.4 (2004): 481-508. Print.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836. Print.

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