Empiricism Rationalism And Pragmatism Essay Research Paper

Empiricism, Rationalism, And Pragmatism Essay, Research Paper

Empiricism, Rationalism, and Pragmatism, as theories of knowledge, attempt to prove the nature of reality and what can be considered true or real. All three of these philosophies, however, encounter problems when attempting to prove the nature of reality. How these different philosophies overcome obstacles in their attempt to prove the nature of reality is a factor in discriminating between the three. In the end, however, in all three, a leap of faith must be taken in order to completely accept all that these respective philosophies teach.

David Hume, considered the founder of Empiricism, began by classifying all perceptions into raw impressions which is said to be data and information received through the senses, and ideas which are composites or ?bundles? of impressions which lead to or trigger thoughts. These impressions trigger ideas that can be either simple or complex. Hume attempts to descriminate between the two by providing an example of a complex idea, in this case a golden mountain. Hume explains that in thinking of a golden mountain, two ideas of which we had been formerly aquainted with become linked. ?Golden? becomes joined with mountain, and one is capable of understanding that the thought of object is both ?golden? and ?mountain?. One is capable of comprehending this due to past experiences direct or otherwise, with both the idea of ?golden? and the idea of ?mountain?.

Because of this dependence upon past experiences, a priori reasoning can only be used to relate ideas, such as geometry, arithmetic, or algebra, in which the affirmation of propositions are intuitively certain. However, a priori can not be used to explain or show worldly phenomena. In order to gain an understanding of the world that one lives in, it is necessary to rely upon past experiences and experimental inference, which according to Hume, is based upon a linkage of two events: a cause and an effect. He states that ?By means of a revelation alone we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses.? (page 49, Rationalism, Empiricism, and Pragmatism) Experimental reasoning can be used to examine the distant past with which one has had no experience and predict remote future occurrences which one is unable to observe.

Experimental reasoning as well as past experiences and observations are the sources of knowledge for Empiricism. However, the experimental reasoning, which is based upon cause and effect reasoning, is not absolutely and concretely true. All can be subject to revision, just as all is subject to some doubt when predicting what would happen in an experiment. Hume states ?That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation that it will rise tomorrow? (page 43 Rationalism, Empiricism, and Pragmatism) for the past is not necessarily a direct causation of a future event. Because of this, science, an empirical tool used by mankind to explore the world around himself and to learn more about himself, is merely work in probability. It is safe, based upon a posteriori knowledge, that the sun will rise tomorrow, for it has for millennia upon millennia, and there has been no event to show that it might not rise tomorrow. Without this experimental reasoning however, Empiricism is reduced to past experiences, and yet with it, one is able to make statements such as ?The sun will rise tomorrow? with a great degree of certainty.

Where Empiricism bases its theory of knowledge upon a posteriori knowledge, Rationalism, founded by Rene Descartes, bases its principles upon the theory of a priori knowledge.

Descartes, when attempting to prove his own existence, stated, ?I think therefore I am.? He explains this by saying that he might be a mere figment of the imagination of an omnipotent god. Mere acceptance of fact, therefore can not prove his existence for this could have been implanted in his mind by the a fore mentioned god. However, in doubting propositions placed before him, he himself is thinking, not the god that he states might be in existence. Therefore, in his doubt, lies the certainty that he exists.

By proving he exists, he then goes on to explain what can be considered real. He disregards any information which he has received through the senses for the senses often have often deceived him, and he states that it would be foolhardy to place certainty on any faculty that had once deceived him in the past. Therefore, a posteriori, is thus excluded from what he determines to be real. He believed that intuition was the basis of all certain knowledge which could then be supported by deduction.

In this lies one of the great differences between rationalism and empiricism. In empiricism, an a priori statement is considered analytic; that is, a statement that is irrefutable. However, these statements hardly reveal much, for ?the predicate is contained in its subject? (page 46). What one learns in the predicate, was already known in the subject, and therefore, the idea presented is hardly a revelation of any kind. In stating ?barking dogs bark? as in Rationalism Empiricism, and Pragmatism, nothing is learned or gained from it. This is in stark contrast to Descartes and his theories as to the basis of true knowledge.

In Pragmatism, the pragmatist argues that both the Rationalist?s and the Empiricist?s stance upon the theory of a priori knowledge is the same. The rationalist states that the only was to true knowledge by means of intuition. He believes that if anything is to be known it must be able to be known without argument. If this is so, the rationalist claims that the truth will be evident to any clear thinking and rational adult. However, simply because the empiricist does not use the word ?intuition? or the idea of a priori knowledge, is not enough, for the pragmatist, to warrant a great distinction between rationalism and empiricism, for both the empiricist and the rationalist claim that something can be stated to be true or knowledge if it is unable to be refuted. Simply because the rationalist arrives at truth through a priori reasoning and the empiricist arrives at truth through a posteriori is merely a matter of the diction used. The pragmatist refutes both the empiricist?s stance on truth because if something is irrefutable, it does not automatically mean that that which is irrefutable is true. For example, nonsensical statements such as ?blue + 6 =fish? can be sid to be irrefutable, however, one could hardly consider it to be true.

Truth, for the pragmatist, is mainly arrived at by consensus as to what is an intelligible statement and as to what is not. This is shown in the explanation of the pragmatist?s point that for every object ?q? there is another object that ?q? is equal to, that is ?q?=?q?. The pragmatist states that it is up to the speaker to mean what they state. In applying this statement, the pragmatist is then able to exclude statements that are deemed unacceptable from consideration as to the truth or falsity of the statement. Therefore, statements such as ?blue + 6 = fish? are excluded before they even enter a logical assessment as to the truth of it. The decision as to what is subject to the laws of logic to determine if it is true and what is not subject to the laws of logic is simply practical in nature, and in the Pragmatist?s point of view then, truth is not dependant upon the intuition of the Rationalist nor the experiences of the Empiricist, rather, truth is based merely based upon the laws of logic and what is determined acceptable.

With all this then, what do I consider the nature of reality? To tell the truth, I have not, in the past, really ever thought about it. I suppose, however, that of these three philosophies, the one that I hold most true to myself, most likely is Rationalism. I believe that merely existing can be transformed into life by activity of the mind and by thought and analysis of one?s surroundings. I believe that one may exist even if one has no originality in their thoughts. However, in my experience, I have gained a heightened awareness and understanding from questioning what I have been taught, as Descartes. It is almost as if life were lived on a series of planes, and that in using one?s mind raises the level that one previously lived at. Perhaps one of my prime examples of this is an illustration of my faith and how it has grown. My mother taught me from very early on, the faith that she had accepted. However, her acceptance of that faith, was not a reason for my acceptance. In standing back and analysing why I believe in my faith, I realise I can not prove it, to complete certainty, logically, and I will be the first to admit that. However, my intuition to the truth or falsity of it is the basis as to my logic proof of my beliefs and together, my intuition and proof, lead me to take that leap of faith in order to believe. However, I will acknowledge, that just because I may not believe in something, that does not mean that it is not true. Most likely there are many things that I do not believe in and yet are true. However, I base my belief on my intuition, just as Descartes, who stated that the only basis of knowledge can be intuition. Though my intuition may be strong in its persuasion as to the reality of situation ?x?, however, I can not, perhaps due to my exposure to both pragmatism and empiricism, merely accept ?x? upon that mere intuition. In order for myself to accept ?x?, I must also have some concrete proof through my past experiences or through other logical means.


Aune, Bruce. Rationalism, Empiricism, and Pragmatism: An Introduction. University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Random House, New York, 1970.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953.

Dr. King, Peter. http://users.ox.ac.uk/~worc0337/phil_index.html. Oxford, 1997.

Alta, Edward N. http://plato.stanford.edu. Stanford, 1997.


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