Commentary on the Rationalism and Empricism Debate

The debate between the epistemological schools of Rationalism and Empiricism has raged since the two became distinct during the 15th to 18th century. Starting with Descartes’ Meditations running all the way to the present day, the issues pertaining to the source of our knowledge and the content of our concepts, as well as the character of our understanding have been the central aspect of the discussion. It will be my goal to shed some light on the two schools and to discuss the validity of the each. I will show that the two have both pitfalls as well as promises, but ultimately they suffer the same kind of problem and neither have the solid foundation for which they claim. I will appeal to many contemporary philosophers who have taken on this question and how their input has changed the debate.


The doctrine of rationalism claims that, as A.J. Ayer properly stated, “there exist a super-sensible world which is the object of a purely intellectual intuition and is alone wholly real.” (LTL, 134) Descartes, in contrast, suggests that ideas are innate features of humanity and need only be appealed to by utilizing reason to come to an understanding. As the name implies, rationalists suggest that our knowledge is derived from reason – that being rational inquiry into the content of our innate ideas. They appeal to the composition of these ideas in order to claim the knowledge of certain principles. In order to do this, the notion of “substance” is created.

Substance, so say rationalists, is the material property of things which, when taken together can be deduced from a logic itself to constitute the Idea. It does not depend on our observation however; it depends on our ability of logical reasoning. A simple definition of rationalism is “the epistemological approach for which the derivation of knowledge is to be found a priori through reason and logical deduction alone; independent of observable phenomenon.

Rationalism once reigned supreme in continental Europe. Rene Descartes represents the first main post-classical push for rationalist thought. Writing in the early 17th century, Descartes suggests that although much of what we take to know is what is gained from our physical senses, observation alone is not enough to claim actual knowledge of Ideas. This is because all of the sensory information we receive can be doubted. Descartes proposes that perhaps our experience is a dream, or a delusion put forth by a powerful demon –to say nothing of the a priori understanding of Demons! In light of this fact, Descartes claimed only the basic claims which must hold truth even despite this delusion are those which we can have actual knowledge of because they are the basic principles of existence. These principles, so says Descartes, are derived directly from a benevolent deity through our immaterial soul, and the so there is dualism between the mind and the body; or soul and body, etc.

Gottfried Leibniz is another famous rationalist. Writing just after Descartes, and highly influenced by his writings, Leibniz disagreed with Descartes in a fundamental way. He rejected the dualism of Descartes and suggested that reality consists of countless monads. These are the simplistic individual “substances” that give us what we utilize to constitute “reality”. This reality can only come to us in response to what he calls a “pre-established harmony of the monads.” This harmony is a truth we can deduce from the way reality behaves and how we relate to it. What establishes the validity of this claim is our innate knowledge of the pre-established harmony of the monads and that we can know about this harmony via our rational ability.


Empiricism is the antithesis of Rationalism. Simply put, empiricism is a theory in which the derivation of knowledge is fundamentally the opposite of rationalism. For empiricists the notion of a priori deductive knowledge is vague, unclear, impossible, or unintelligible. As the name implies, empiricists argue that the derivative of knowledge must be found in experience or a posteriori. Generally this is open to a wide variety of inquiries into how one derives their knowledge from experience. For John Locke it was sensation and reflection. Basically, we have a sensory experience and have simple ideas in response to these basic interactions and create complex ideas through our ability to reflect upon the entirety of a certain experience. For Berkeley, the way things appear to us says nothing about how they actually are, which means the content of our ideas are merely not of the thing itself but of our perception of things.

Berkeley claims that we cannot know anything about how the world really is, because our knowledge is derived from our perceptive experience not necessarily from things that actually exist. David Hume also contributed greatly to empiricism. For Hume, our ideas come from sensations (Hume called them impressions) but the ideas are fainter, less vibrant forms of the original impression. In any case, those who argue this point have a strong tie to scientific inquiry, as science is in the business of making inductive “proofs” based on the continuity of our experience (however Hume raised an important problem with induction).

Britain was, and in many ways still is, the home to modern empiricism. John Locke was the first and arguably most influential of the empiricists suggesting that that the human mind is a tabula rasa, a “blank tablet.” This is where the sense impressions of our experience get written as our life goes on. It is the impressions we derive from our sensory abilities that constitute our knowledge. We derive all meaning and understanding through our experience of the world. There are two sources of our ideas: sensation and reflection. In both cases, Locke makes a distinction between simple and complex ideas. Complex ideas are those which combine simple ones and are divided into substances, modes and relations. The self is an example of a complex idea. The self is nothing more than a complex idea we have relating the history of our impressions and the ideas they become. However, Locke also asserts that this continuity suggests the existence of substances. Descartes claimed that knowledge of substances was innate where as substances of Locke are found in our ability to understand complex ideas. According to Locke, our knowledge of things is a perception of ideas that are in accordance or discordance with each other and that may provide a way to understand the rightness or wrongness of how we talk of them.

Berkley contends that given Locke’s claim, we could not say anything about how reality really is, only how it is perceived by us. If our ideas are gotten to by sensations, all we can know about is the sensations, not the cause of those sensations. Under his empiricism, the thing a person perceives is the only thing a person could know or experiences. If individuals need to speak at all of the “real” or “material” object, the latter in particular being a confused term that Berkeley sought to dispose of, it is this perceived object to which all such names should exclusively refer. It began the discussion in epistemology about the influence of languages on our thoughts about our perceptions. In concludes that the best argument for how we can agree or have a common experience of what we perceive to be physical objects can be found in the deduced cause of our perceptions and its continuity, which is God.

It has been said that the Hume represents empiricist thought taken to its logical conclusion. For Hume there is nothing we can claim any knowledge of except what we gain from experience. This experiential knowledge is gained through our sense organs. This data comes in the form of sensations. Hume calls these sensations impressions, these impressions are the immediate experience of sensation. These are encoded as ideas which are merely copies of the original experience which have a more lasting, yet less intense kind of experience. These impressions which become ideas are all that constitute our knowledge. It is the relation of these ideas to which we can claim more complex understandings. However, unlike Locke, Hume suggests no innate ideas or any claims to a nonmaterial or even material substance. We can not claim through some deductive, logical process any ideas. All we can do is to put together the impressions that remain as ideas together and find out what we can get out of it. Most of the ideas we have are gotten through by induction, taking the experiences of the past and suggesting that since it has happened consistently, understood through causal relations, in the past, then it will in the future. Hume does also ensure that we remember that this is not the kind of proof which Descartes and Locke could claim. Only an inductive principle whose basis is only thus far shown to be the case, there is no assurance that it will remain that way.

Alfred Jules Ayer, a twentieth century positivist philosopher commented on the debate between rationalism and empiricism in his book, Language, Truth and Logic. He suggests, in favor of the empiricists, that the notion of innate ideas is not justifiable and that the content of our verifiable experience is what gives us the ideas which we employ. However, Ayer also suggests that we can make deductive (what he calls analytical) hypotheses. These are like the a priori truths of rationalism but come from the linguistic availability of analytical thinking and some sort of confirmation. Metaphysics for Ayer was something to be done away with, as merely confused empirical word games. Instead he wished to see philosophy as the study of the meaning of our logical constructions. Ayer tries to summarize what he finds interesting in the dilemma. He suggests that we ought to allow the psychological theories (which suggests that our thinking selves are part of how we understand things through intuition) of rationalism. Yet, we are told that we ought to reject the a priori thesis of synthetic truths because our truths are either logical truths or empirical experience which all depends on our experience in the world.

Quine’s paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” attempts to dismiss Ayers claims of the meaning of words being reduced into constructions of sense contents. It was Quine’s goal to show that the ability to assure meaning reducing statements to sense-construction linguistic elements was that what would count as a reference incredibly obscure. He explored radical reductionism which is the theory that all statements can be reduced to words, sense datum or a compound of the two, which he found to be still quite ambiguous because the problem of what counts as the right compound still exists. He suggests that Carnap’s attempt in the project of solving this problem proved fruitless, even given Carnap’s ingenuity. He alludes to a solution to the problem later in his paper which is what I shall do.
It is my goal, using the approach of Wittgenstein, to show how the very talk of finding out anything about how the world really is and how we can know it is little more than trying to find the derivative of our language. This project is hopelessly devoid of substantial content as their meaning is unable to be clarified any kind of absolute way. To do this I will attempt to linguistically break down the important aspects of both theories in order to show how they could only have content if there was no variability of meaning. These will include the notion of ‘ideas’ as well as the notion of the derivation of knowledge. On the issue of ideas it seems hopeless to suggest what the content of our ideas are without first setting out a criteria for what counts as an idea. Think of a few questions; When can we claim to have an idea other than something else? What do ideas consist of? First, we seem to claim to have an idea when we can recall and use the words which constitute the content of what we are trying to communicate. It is not clear what the origin of this recollection is, specifically whether our recollection is a good representation of what it is we mean to recall. As it stands, what counts as an idea could be both variously understood and indeterminate in their accuracy and we have yet to find some way to clear up the problem.

The Problem

The construction of what we like to call ideas suffers the same ambiguous problem. The content of our ideas can seem to be one of only a few things. Descartes actually suggests that an idea just reduce back to another idea. These ideas are perhaps constructed semantically different or are much simpler but alas, where it is derived from could still be variously understood and indeterminate in regards to meaning and reference (like what sort of idea it relates back to). This issue did not worry Descartes. It was his thesis that in fact any simple idea we hold is in fact just a more abstract idea. These abstract ideas are innate in us, windows unto the mind of God. Therefore, all of our ideas, even simple ones like impressions and sensations, are only small parts of a more abstract, complex sort. However, we have access to this knowledge through our deductive rationality via God’s existence. It is the omnipotence of God which we have access through reason which opens to us the understanding of absolute truths. These include God’s existence (via the ontological proof), mathematics which is true of itself, and our own existence as a thinking substance. However, the problem remains. First and foremost, that which we can be certain of, first and foremost Gods existence, depends on other truths that justify the formers validity. However, if we are to suggest an unambiguous totality of certain truths, then we must be able to step outside them and be able to show it is the case. In this case, we cannot and what is being claimed to be a certain truth is nothing more than a shrewd word game which suggests something that it is not entitled to be posited; namely, the ability (for Descartes, God) to have knowledge of a system (here of ideas) from an outside, all knowing, all encompassing source which by its nature will provide you the right answer as to why it is so.

Our ideas could also be logical constructions of sense contents (which is the argument of Ayers), but this would suggest that the construction is accurate and/or is the most appropriate way of constituting them (which could be through correspondence with the world or appeal to commonality of human psychology). The problem here is intelligibility. The utility of ideas can only be found in their ability to be communicated, and to be valuable they would have to accurately construct the sense contents which are quite simplistic. Wittgenstein suggested that because we cannot be sure of what is being referenced, especially in this case where what is to be communicated as an idea which is nothing more than one kind of construction of sense contents rather than another, we can see that what would count as accurately referencing the same construction is at best unclear. There seems to be no way to determine what counts as accurate and what is not.

Paragraph 261 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophic Investigations presents this problem for users of language. In it he suggests that we need a justification for how the word is used in order to claim a correct understanding of that word. Without this justification we can in no way claim to understand what symbols, usually words, are meant to mean. Using the example of a sensation, symbolized with “S”, Wittgenstein suggests that when one utters or writes S which stands for a sensation it is not at all clear how this symbol is supposed to be understood. What we are looking for is a criterion of correctness. This first comes about in language. It comes about in words. The question is; what counts as a correct understanding, or meaning of a word? How do we know that the word person A is using actually reflects both for them and for me what the word –lets say W – actually is intended to mean?

Although human beings are relatively similar in their physical, genetic makeup, this similarity is not enough to give us clear cut evidence of mutual understanding. Perhaps we follow some rule that is not innate. But as Wittgenstein points out, any claim of understanding can be made to follow a rule. So the rule only provides us a one of many kinds of options to explain our claims of understanding. If we could come to one particular rule that would account for all the ways we claim understanding then we would have something, but we can use a wide variety of rules, or make any understanding fit into a rule in order to explain our claims. It is this continued variations, we cannot claim that a rule can account for our ability to claim understanding.

We are left with only one option. It is the fallback option that we can appeal to in order to get something. Wittgenstein gets here relying on pragmatism. Because we have yet to come to any solution on this issue we have another problem. Even with the problem of correct and incorrect understanding, we do seem to get along and do something with language. From this we have at least one thing to suggest. It is useful, we are able to, as Wittgenstein states, go forward. We can use language to communicate ideas, give and get instructions, and to use it to increase the overall complexities that we are privy to given our experience. In fact once we use language it is hard to divorce thought from it, or to envision a society with our kind of organization functioning without linguistic constructions.

Quine agrees. He suggests that it is the results of our uses of language to wield concepts that can allow us some insight into whether someone understands us. The same is true of scientific inquiry. We suggest something, and then must wait for tests in order to see the results. If the action accurately and adequately responds to the intention of the claim, then we have something to go on. Certainly this closes the door on purely analytic thinking, but it allows for the ambiguity of meaning to begin to be teased out. It also gives us an option for further inquiry into the possibility of proving our understanding and use of concepts via language.

It seems uncontroversial to claim that we use language; clearly we use it every day. In every human relationship the one thing shared, and must be according to Wittgenstein, is language. However, this problem is also a solution. If we are able to go forward, then we must have some form of correct understanding. This is simply pragmatically correct, not metaphysically or morally, but normatively. It is the right kind of understanding because we are able to use it to get something done. Therefore our ability to go on when communicating can be the standard of correctness. Does this satisfy what one would normally count for “correct?” Perhaps not, but certainly it is, given the small amount of complexities discussed already, at least it serves as something to ground our claims of correct understanding.

So the question, “What counts as right understanding?” is the kind that allows one to move forward. It is still possible to find various ways of understanding, and to make understandings compliant with some rule. We may use various rules to make our claim, or perhaps why we did one thing and not another in our various ways of understanding, but the only way to evaluate the claim of correct understanding is to act. It will be the action that results from one’s claim that they understood what was being communicated correctly or not. If the action does not reflect the intention of the original communicator and instead goes in another direction we can say, with some justification that the person did not understand.

There is a problem here. Perhaps it was not the understanding that was at fault, but the original utterance that does not actually reflect the intention of the speaker. An example of this would be a friend telling another friend to grab a piece of paper by asking, “Could you grab me that (while pointing) over there.” If the friend then grabs a stapler, he has in action, as far as that intentional statement was uttered, understood the stapler to be the referent of the word “that.” It was the original speaker’s unclear intentional statement which clouded the matter. The only solution to this ambiguity is to suggest a multi-layered kind of measure of correctness. The lower level of correctness is one in which the person understood the statement, but the statement itself was too vague to give a clear account as to what counts as attaining the desired result. This is represented by the example above. Much of what we see as misunderstanding is of this kind.

Perhaps this is the underlying beauty of innate absolute ideas. If we can derive our notions and ideas from more abstract, innate ones, then it cannot be unclear. However, in order to derive knowledge from innate ideas or intuition we would need to have initial knowledge as to the criteria of what counts as an idea. If one is to claim they have an idea, one must know what an “idea” refers to. Yet according to this notion we already have innate ideas in our mind and have personal access to them. The availability of derivation from innate ideas seems to be untenable. If we already have ideas built into us, and that knowledge of these ideas presupposes logical ability, wouldn’t we just have innate knowledge, at least of logic, as well? I am unclear as to the reason how we could derive what we already have that does not alter them conceptually. Even if they are something different, such as simple ideas, all that means it is a limited version of some innate idea. Why the need for immediate experience if knowledge, via abstract and absolute ideas, is innate in us. Even Descartes suggested that for the most part, many of what we take to be true is gotten to through experience and induction. So common experience tells us that empirical inquiry can be a source of our knowledge, yet because of uncertainty in experience we have to rely on absolutes whose derivative is self-contradictory?

For the empiricists I would also inquire as to what counts as an idea if it is either reflections, or impressions. If we are to induce knowledge from experience there must be a criterion of what counts and does not count as appropriate to the task at hand. However as far as I could tell, using Hume’s problem of induction as a base, the only thing that could counts is induction. The assumption of the future continuity in experience is unjustified and unwarranted. If this is the case, then the criterion of correctness in construction seems to lose its weight and be unable to be understood, as Quine suggested.

Hume’s problem of induction states that the process of inducing truths from the consistency in the past gives one no real confidence, other than belief that it will, that it will be that way in the next moment. All one has to go on is that things have happened a certain way in the past and that entails me to believe that it will do the same. There is no certainty in induction. A.J. Ayer thinks of the truths of induction have been made into the kind of hypothesis that science uses. A scientist suggests a hypothesis, which is essentially an inductive claim that needs to be verified in the testing of what is being tested. He seems to elude that these theories or hypothesis can come from intuition, which sounds like the intuition claims of innate ideas, however, they cannot be intuitively validated. That it is suggesting that although we have intuitions, they are at best, inductive intuitions that come from an engagement in the world.

Is my end goal merely to show that the notions used in both rationalist and empiricists are hopelessly unclear and able to be variously understood? Partially. I want to show that the vague, unclear notions of ideas and their derivative as well as knowledge itself are not effective in actually saying anything. What is being claimed by both here is unable to be justifiably claimed. They do not come from the mundane way in which we use what we could call ideas, nor does it make claims that can be understood and accepted. It is idle chatter, it is discussions of issues that seem to be ultimately too unclear to even really begin, although they seem interesting. Most of the disagreement in this debate is lingual. There is no definite way to pin down what counts as the meaning of most of the words used. As I have shown, the real culprit here is the word ‘idea’. Claims made about such variously understandable words which cannot, even for the sake of making an argument, be agreed on and therefore get us nowhere but a circle. The issue is not one of substance, but of what ultimately counts as intelligible language and genuine linguistic content. The rationalist/empiricists debate is devoid of both.

However, agreeing with Wittgenstein, I think we can get somewhere. There are a few ways in which this can be done. First, we have some sort of ultra-physical explanation of brain-states which find some sort of accordance with what people say so we could in fact have a map of what happens in our brains when we claim, to ourselves, to have an idea. This would give us an empiricist’s dream solution to the problem; we would have verifiable evidence available to answer the question of what it means to have an idea, or what ideas are. Ideas would then be a reference to the happenings of our brain in physical terms alone. As it stands thus far, this is not the case, the workings of the brain as a relation to what we take to know or the ideas we claim to have has yet to develop enough to get us here. I will leave this only as a potential opportunity.

The one thing we have left is pragmatism. We can understand that our use of language to communicate our concepts is almost always obscure and ambiguous. Even so, we do things. We use language and it has helped us to get things done. This in no way solves the problem, but we can accept the problem and attempt to do what we can with them. We do this without thinking about what the words actually mean, therefore perhaps dodging the meaningful question, and yet use them in ways that get done what we want done. This is the end result thus far of our use of language and it has had important developments in philosophy and science and culture. These developments surely are normatively worthwhile and we do, for the most part get along quite well using language. We certainly cannot deny the variably of the confusion when it comes to reference, yet we can use the language given its lack of clarity to get something done.

I have suggested a consequentialist sort of way to identify, as best we have available to us at present, when we correctly understand the things that one says. We do not know what they may actually mean or refer to until we do something with it, and then given its result we can conclude whether what we did was the same as the intent of the original statement. This, as many have suggested, is why philosophical issues are irresolvable. Philosophical arguments are the result of the ambiguity of the wielding of concepts mitigated through language. It is the misunderstandings, and intended lack of clarity in what is being proposed, which allow us to argue about what it is we mean and what the results of those concepts would mean for us. At least in the consequentialist point of view, it is not a problem with the actual meaning of the word as used, but the ability for action to get in line with the intentional aspect of the wielding of words. Words are used in two ways, to convey ideas and to get one to act, the former is unclear and fraught with disagreement when it comes to the reference or meaning of what is being said. In contrast the latter can be evaluated given the result of one’s response, which at least gives us something at which we can say that someone understood what someone had said using words to convey intention.


In discussing the issues at play in the rationalist and empiricist argument we have brought up many of the issues surrounding claims of knowledge and how we can derive our knowledge. The linguistic element of this argument cannot be ignored and in exploring the problems with language we have some sort of analogy between the ambiguity in using language to convey ideas and the ambiguity in understanding the derivative of our knowledge. As it has been argued with using language, the derivative of our knowledge is at best seen in our ability to apply our intentions, which come from experience, to engagement in the world. If this engagement works in the here and now and makes sense to us, then we are able to say at least how the world works for us and the knowledge we derived from that engagement. We act in the world, and this action gives us an insight into how the world works for us and towards us, we can know that it at least working for us and we can say something about it, and that thing that we say can have meaning to someone if they can take it and do what we intend. Just like if we posit something to be the case and it turns out to be the case. Certainly I am siding more with empiricists than the rationalist, but I believe both are hopeless in their attempts to prove any claims about the derivative of our knowledge or the certainty of our linguistic references.

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