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Rationalism and Empiricism Controversy


The controversy between rationalism and empiricism relates to the extent to which human beings depend on sense experience in the process of gaining knowledge. Rationalism is based on the assumption that knowledge is gained without reliance on sense experience (Cushman 86). On the contrary, empiricists argue that sense experience is necessary when acquiring knowledge and other concepts. Rationalists also assert that knowledge has more power than information obtained from sense experience (Fahr 357). Besides, reason ensures that human beings gain knowledge about the world. Empiricists rely solely on experience as the source of information.

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Source of knowledge of the rationalists

Rationalists believe that knowledge is innate. According to the ‘innate knowledge thesis’, rationalists assume that all human beings have a priori knowledge. However, empiricists do not provide a clear explanation of the source of that knowledge. The primary assumption is that experiences in the society triggers innate knowledge, but does not enable human beings to gain knowledge. In particular, the knowledge readily exists.

Plato proposed the assumption that knowledge is innate. He argues that knowledge is acquired through inquiry into the matter. Research is, therefore, a critical source of knowledge. Any research process begins with some knowledge that guides the researcher. A researcher cannot research without some level of knowledge that guides the process (Vanzo 517). Lack of knowledge means that human beings cannot recognize knowledge one it is revealed through research. The innate knowledge hypothesis is disputed by empiricists such as John Locke, who argue that human beings are born with a blank slate that needs experience as a source of knowledge.

Irrelevance of experience

According to Fluxman (377), the irrelevance of experience is explained when Plato presents a conversation between a slave and Socrates. In the conversation, Socrates ensures that the slave gains mathematical knowledge by eliminating ignorance. In the process, questions and mathematical explanations are experienced. These mathematical questions and illustrations are a recollection of knowledge already learned. In this case, without the innate knowledge of mathematics, the slave cannot gain any knowledge through experience. The irrelevance of knowledge is based on the fact that knowledge is abstract. Abstract knowledge lies beyond the senses and experience. What is relevant is the innate knowledge that enables the slave to learn mathematical concepts.

Innate knowledge is relevant because a slave can learn mathematical concepts while animals cannot. The inability to teach animals certain concepts such as mathematics demonstrates that innate knowledge is relevant. Experiences such as mathematical explanations cannot assist animals to learn. Plato asks the question “How does the slave learn the theorem?” the innate knowledge thesis outlines that slaves can gain knowledge through innate capabilities that lack in the case of animals (Vanzo 520).

The nature of Reason according to Descartes

Descartes through ‘discourse on method’ argues that reasons reside in all men. In particular, the reason is equally distributed among all men. Each person thinks; something which reflects the abundance of reason. Even persons in the society who cannot be satisfied do have the ability to reason. The reason is, therefore, the ability to differentiate right from error or wrong. The ability to differentiate right from wrong is described as a good sense or reason. The differences in opinion among men do not mean that some human beings have a larger share of reason. Descartes also argues that the possession of reason is not enough. Each person should have the ability to apply reason (Glouberman 890).

Aristotle’s interest incertitude

The good life is self-sufficient. Each person should live their life by making decisions that they deem to be necessary for the future. No person should be restricted in their ability to use reason so that they can survive. In particular, the soul has to agree with virtue. Each person should live a moral life that does not affect or inflict pain on other members of society (Gottlieb 1205).

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Descartes on rationalist theory

Descartes states that the nature of knowledge can be understood by beginning with ‘doubt.’ Descartes states that there is some reason which leads to doubt. Descartes also argues that knowledge is based on reason. Any stronger reason has no impact on knowledge. For knowledge to exist, doubt should be absent. Any existence of doubt means that knowledge may not exist in reality (Hengehold 211).

According to Glouberman(875), Descartes’s interest in the body is based on the differences between the body and the mind. According to Descartes, the body, and the mind are distinct. In rationalism, the mind is necessary for reasoning so that doubt can be eliminated on developed. The body does not think. In particular, a person can exist without the mind or the body. Descartes is interested in the mind while Aristotle is interested in the body and soul. The soul is the most important part of the body which leads to a high-level organization. Aristotle is also concerned about the reason as the most important aspect of the body that leads to rationality. The soul is, therefore, the total of body functions.

Ethical norms by Descartes and Aristotle

Descartes argues that each person should use reason to make informed decisions or choices in life. The choices made in life should not lead to suffering or pain to other members of society. Each person should use reason so that they can differentiate between good and evil. The guide for morality is a reason based on the arguments of Descartes (Glouberman 873). According to Purshouse (205), ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ is based on the need for all human activities to consider good. Ethical status is achieved when all people engage in activities that focus on happiness. Aristotle’s ethics is, therefore, concerned about the achievement of happiness. In particular, certain virtues guarantee happiness. A virtuous person is naturally inclined to behave in the right ways and for the right reasons.


Rationalists argue that knowledge is an independent experience. Experiences cannot lead to knowledge. The example of a slave learning mathematics, while an animal cannot learn mathematics is a clear indication that knowledge is innate. Equally, the experience is necessary for understanding knowledge. The reason as part of knowledge is a preserve for all men. The reason should be used to determine human activities that are right or wrong. Rationalists agree that virtue ethics is based on reason, that is, the knowledge of what is right versus evil.

Works Cited

Cushman, Thomas O. “Empiricism versus Rationalism in Soviet Studies: A Rejoinder.” Journal of Communist Studies 6.1 (1990): 86–98. Web.

Fahr, Hans Jörg. “The Growth of Rationalism: In Our Concepts of Physical Nature.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 13.4 (1988): 357–371. Web.

Fluxman, Tony. “Marx, Rationalism and the Critique of the Market.” South African Journal of Philosophy 28.4 (2013): 377–413. Web.

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Glouberman, Mark. “Descartes, Scientia and Pure Enquiry.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 19.5 (2011): 873–886. Web.

Gottlieb, Paula. “Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A Critical Guide.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20.6 (2012): 1205–1207. Web.

Hengehold, Laura. “Descartes Otherwise.” Comparative and Continental Philosophy 6.2 (2014): 211–217. Web.

Purshouse, Luke. “Neoptolemus’s Soul and the Taxonomy of Ethical Characters in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics ∗.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 14.2 (2006): 205–223. Web.

Vanzo, Alberto. “From Empirics to Empiricists.” Intellectual History Review 24.4 (2014): 517–538. Web.

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