Rationalism vs Empiricism: A Brief Comparison

This article is a summary of the YouTube video ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism’ by The Cogito

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Written by: Recapz Bot

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The video explores rationalism and empiricism as philosophical views on knowledge, discusses Plato’s realm of forms, Aristotle’s categorization of causes, and the ongoing debate between Descartes and Hume on a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

Key Insights

  • The video discusses two views in philosophy: rationalism and empiricism.
  • Rationalism suggests that knowledge comes from reason, while empiricism argues that knowledge comes from our senses.
  • Knowledge is defined as justified true belief, where it needs to be supported by reason, true, and justifiable.
  • Plato believed in the existence of a non-physical realm called the realm of the forms, where abstract ideas and universals exist. These forms are the source of true knowledge.
  • Aristotle, Plato's student, believed that knowledge could be gained through experience and categorized things based on four causes: formal, material, efficient, and final causes.
  • The debate between rationalism and empiricism continued into the modern era, with figures like Descartes representing rationalism, emphasizing a priori knowledge gained through reason, and Hume representing empiricism, emphasizing a posteriori knowledge gained through experience.
  • Rationalism holds that certain key knowledge can be known a priori, while empiricism asserts that knowledge is derived from our senses and experience.

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So, we’re going to look at two views today. One is rationalism, the other is empiricism. They’re views within the philosophical tradition of epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, where we get knowledge from.
And the two views, rationalism thinks that we get knowledge from reason, hence rational, and empiricism thinks that we get knowledge from our senses, like the word empirical, for instance.

So, the key idea here, then, is this distinction between reason being the source of ultimate knowledge, or key knowledge, and all the senses being the only source of knowledge.

Now, I just want to pause for a second and talk about what knowledge actually is. Probably important. Seems like the sort of thing you’d never need to define, isn’t it? You’re in school trying to acquire knowledge.
Why do you need to know what it is?

Well, Plato had this definition. He thought that knowledge was something that was justified. So, we have kind of a reason to believe it. Of course, it may be justified and wrong, okay? So, Aristotle, for instance, thought that heavier objects fell faster than light objects. That was unfortunately incorrect.
So, we also need it to be true. And of course, it could be justified and true, and we could still not believe it, like the earth being flat. If you’ve ever seen a flat earther talk, you know that not everybody can believe justified true things.
So, it has to be a justified true belief. So, we’re really looking at knowledge as a justified true belief, and where this knowledge comes from. Is it from reason, or from the senses? These two views, rationalism and empiricism.

That was, I think, quite a good little reveal. You may disagree, of course. Rationalism, remember, holds that we get it from the rational, the reason, and empiricism, we get knowledge from the senses. This is really embodied here in this central part of Raphael’s The School of Athens.
On the left here, we have Plato pointing up towards what we call the realm of the forms, this rational realm where we get our abstract ideas from. And Aristotle here pointing out towards the ground, saying we gain our knowledge through empirical means, through sensing the world.

So, let’s just give ourselves a quick definition of the two. I’m going to go to my definition colour. So, actually, I’ll put it in my normal colour first.
Important knowledge for rationalism. Now, rationalists tend not to believe that all knowledge is rational, is gained from reason alone, but rather important knowledge or kind of foundational key knowledge.
Important knowledge is gained what we call a priori. A priori, I’m just making a nice little box for it there. A priori is, as you know, through reason alone. So, through reason.
Hence, for symbolising rationalism, I have this little thought bubble.

Whereas empiricism takes a rather different claim. Empiricism says that important knowledge, or indeed all knowledge, at least all knowledge that matters, right, all synthetic knowledge, is gained. Do you remember what synthetic means?
Synthetic is a sentence that actually means something more than just what Hume calls a relation of ideas.
All knowledge is gained a posteriori. A posteriori being through reason. Not through reason, wow, don’t listen to me. Aha, through experience. Okay, so those are our two very, very different views, and we’re going to spend a while just having a look at a couple of the key actors here.

One of them is Plato. Now, Plato believed that there was this kind of this realm of the forms, this non-physical, eternal realm of the forms.
And in this realm of the forms are all what we call universals, categories of things. Like you’re currently watching this on a computer, but it is an example of a computer. It’s an instance of a computer. Plato thought that computers, well he didn’t think about computers obviously, but computers and things also partake or take part in what we call a universal.
There is a type that is computer, and your friend who also has a computer is watching it on something else that represents a computer as well. Let me put it another way. There are ideas and there are things. These ideas apply to lots of things. Those ideas are what we call forms.
So, this realm of the forms is a set of kind of non-physical, abstract, eternal ideas.

Now, these non-physical, abstract, eternal ideas, they are the source of all of our true knowledge.
How did you know that the thing in front of you was a computer instead of an orange or something? It looks like other computers because they all partake of the form of computer. They all take part in that form, that computer form.

So, this great category of thing, our ideas that we have, they all have something that is more than just temporary.
Plato says, if you look at the world around you, the world is full of changing things, things that come and go, but our ideas, they always stay. They are eternal.

Well, if that is the case, if, for instance, I don’t know, two plus two equals four is always true, whether you’re an ancient Greek like Plato or you live in modern times like us.
If there is genuinely a concept of the good, let’s say, that never really changes, though our interpretation may, if there is such a thing as not just a chair like the chair you are sat on, but an actual perfect chair, the definition of a chair, well, those things don’t change. They can’t come from the world of changing things. They must come from this abstract idea here, which is why Plato is pointing upwards. He’s pointing towards the realm of the forms. We gain our knowledge a priori.

Aristotle, on the other hand, who was his student, thought that we can understand these abstract concepts like numbers and good and chair, not through reason, but simply through experience.
We can, he thinks, categorise things just through looking at them. So, through experience, which is called a posteriori.

And he thought you could actually break everything down into essentially four categories. These categories, by the way, are what he calls the four causes.
Now, a cause here is really like an item rather than anything else. It’s not the thing that causes something else, just to be confusing.

So, the first one, hey, let’s be more confusing. The first one is called a form. That’s the design of the object. So, we’ll call it formal, just to help us. The formal cause is the design, the shape of the thing, what it is for.
The next thing is the material cause. The material, in this case, I’m sticking with the concept of chair. The material is wood, the thing that it is made out of. That’s what the material thing is.

The next one is the efficient cause. That’s the only one that actually is a cause. In this case, the thing that brings it about.
So, we’ve got a hammer and a screwdriver. I spent quite a while drawing that hammer and screwdriver. You probably can’t tell.

And then, of course, we have the final cause, or the telos, which is actually the purpose.
And you guessed it, the purpose of sitting on a chair is to sit on it. These things, he thinks, can help us distinguish one sort of thing from another. And that is all gained a posteriori.

Now, this debate, which really began in ancient Athens, between Plato and Aristotle, continues throughout the modern era. And I just want to, for a minute, give you an idea of where it goes.

On the one side, on the rationalist side, we have someone like Descartes. Now, Descartes thinks that there are certain things that can be known a priori.
The foundational things that he thinks can’t be doubted. He thinks the empiricists have it wrong because their knowledge is temporary. It changes.
It might, at this moment, be right that, say, wax is hard in a cold room. And that’s what our senses tell us. But in a warm room, it’s melted. Very warm room, it’s melted. So, our senses tell us something different. Our senses, he thinks, lie to us.
So, the only true knowledge that we have is a priori. He says, I can doubt every part of my knowledge apart from the fact that I am doubting. I can doubt everything. I can think that I’m not thinking.
But I’m still thinking. So, he knows that

This article is a summary of the YouTube video ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism’ by The Cogito