Rationalism vs. Empiricism

1 January 2017

The thesis I defend in this essay is that knowledge can be of both positions. According to Rationalists (such as Descartes), all knowledge must come from the mind. Rationalism is concerned with absolute truths that are universal (such as logic and mathematics), which is one of the strengths of this position. It’s weakness lies in the fact that it is difficult to apply rationalism to particulars (which are everywhere in our daily life! ) because it is of such an abstract nature.

According to Empiricists, such as John Locke, all knowledge comes from direct sense experience. Locke’s concept of knowledge comes from his belief that the mind is a “blank slate or tabula rosa” at birth, and our experiences are written upon the slate. Therefore, there are no innate experiences. The strength of the empiricist position is that it is best at explaining particulars, which we encounter on a daily basis. The weakness of this position is that one cannot have direct experiences of general concepts, since we only experience particulars.

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Noticing that rationalism and empiricism have opposing strengths and weaknesses, Kant attempted to bring the best of both positions together. In doing so he came up with a whole new position, which I will soon explain. Kant claimed that there are 3 types of knowledge. The first type of knowledge he called “a priori”, which means prior to experience. This knowledge corresponds to rationalist thinking, in that it holds knowledge to be independent of experience. A priori knowledge is also necessary and universal, meaning it is true everywhere.

Examples of a priori knowledge are concepts such as space, time, and substance. Analytic statements (in which the predicate is included in the definition of the subject) fall under this category as well, since they are always true. However, Kant says they are “trivially true” because analytic statements tell us what we already know. For example, the statement “squares have four sides” is analytic because it is true, but the fact that the square has four sides is obvious because it is included in the definition of a square, so it is trivial.

Kant called the second type of knowledge “a posteriori”, which means after experience. A posteriori knowledge corresponds to empiricist philosophy, since this knowledge is contingent upon direct experience, which cannot be certain. A posteriori knowledge is associated with synthetic statements (where the predicate adds something to the subject), which give new information, but is not necessary. An example of an a posteriori statement is “the sweater is green. ” Green is not an innate characteristic of sweaters, so a sweater of a different color is still a sweater.

In other words, the characteristic Green is not necessary in order for the sweater to be considered a sweater. Kant thought that if one can come up with a statement that is both necessary and synthetic, it would not be trivial, yet it would still provide new information. So in combining the strengths of a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge (while leaving out the weaknesses), Kant came up with “synthetic apriori statements”. Kant used a mathematical example to elaborate on synthetic apriori statements.

The statement 7 + 5 = 12 is a simple mathematical problem that might mislead people into believing that it is an analytical statement, since it deals with math (which is a rational, universal concept). One might assume that s/he knows the answer intuitively because s/he thought of the answer, 12, right away. But the number 12 does not exist within the 7 or the 5 alone. One must apply the concept of addition in order to reach the sum of twelve. Therefore, it is not analytical. It is much easier to see when adding much larger numbers, such as 8557 and 23372067.

If this were analytical, I would be able to intuitively know the answer as easily as I came up with the answer 12 in the last problem. However, since the answer is not contained within the numbers being summed, this concept is synthetic and also gives new information. In conclusion, Kant recognized the strengths and weaknesses associated with each type of knowledge, and came up with a new type of knowledge that could rise above the weaknesses. In other words, knowledge doesn’t have to choose sides, it can be of both positions.

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