Most people are familiar with the philosophy of Ethics. It is the study of morality. We often think about how we should treat others and how we ought to be treated by others. Many people, even if they don’t know the branch by name, are familiar with Metaphysics, the study of the nature of reality. Most humans think a great deal about what really exists and, if it does exist, what is it like.

The third major branch of philosophy is the least well known. It is called Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. What exactly is knowledge? How do we define it? This is a area where human beings have differed in opinions for centuries.

In my academic writings, I devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to the research of two epistemological theories that prove confusing to many. A thorough explanation in a blog post would just murky up the waters a little more. What would be interesting, however, is the variety of opinions that might result from touching upon the basic issues in conflict: Rationalism vs. Empiricism.

The Rationalists believe that human beings come equipped with an innate ability to reason things out, and that is how we acquire knowledge. The Empiricists believe that human beings come equipped with five senses in order to perceive knowledge as we age. In other words, do we reason that fire is hot, or do we touch it and learn it is hot.

Famous philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz disagree with others like Berkeley, Hume, and Locke. Where do you stand? Do we learn primarily through our ability to reason things out, or do we learn through feeling our way through life by using our senses?


  1. I believe that certain things such as "fire will burn you! Don't touch fire! Hot!" we learn from our parents. I also believe that to a certain extent, our parents have a great deal to do with our learning to reason things out, either directly or indirectly.

    On the other hand, some people may be born with the ability to develop more reasoning power than other people.

    I have hit "backspace" so many times while trying to give you my answer, that I am just giving up! This is just too much for me to reason out today!!

  2. What an interesting post, JJ. And you summarize so simply and well these philosophical concepts. But I guess the answer to your question about rationalism vs empiricism is very complex. Empiricism certainly exists for several issues, but innate behaviours (enev instinct in animals) is difficult to classify and would deserve a lot of debate that is not easy to establish in a blog.
    Thanks for raising this very interesting discussion. I will be visiting often this post because I am very curious to read what will be written here.

  3. Judie: I would guess that very few responders will take a firm position. Most graduate students flip-flop and ultimately sit on the fence. It does, however, make us think about what is driving us when we act. Are we rational, or do we follow our senses? I actually have reached a conclusion, but I will withhold my opinion until others have replied.

    FanaticoUm: Thank you for the kind words. When I post questions like this, I learn so much from those who respond.

  4. I believe my learning has come mostly through trial and error, knowing and discovering much of it by my sense, yes, and the mistakes that came along the way. But what about my almost 2 year old grandson who says soemthing is hot, knowing that it's hot, but still must touch it and scream HOT! Maybe he suffers from my impulse to touch things....all the time...so MY final answer is Yes! I learn through my senses! Of Course!

  5. Karen S: There lies the dilemma. However, most modern philosophers agree with you.

  6. I stand firmly on the side of the Empiricists. I believe that we never truely understand something until we experience it for ourselves or observe it in some way. We must see, hear, taste, smell, or touch things. Yes, my parents always told me whether or not something was hot, but that doesn't mean I didn't try it at least once. Then I KNEW what it was like to be burned and from that experience could rationalize what anything hot would feel like.

  7. I believe in both the theories.;)All believes are learned as well as senses are responsible for believes.;)

  8. AA: Most modern thought would agree with you.

    Sharda: As I mentioned earlier, most people ultimately sit on the fence on this issue because we use both our senses and our rationality regularly. But can we reason things out without our senses?

  9. The small me is a collection of sensory inputs and the ability to sling them together into a consistent narrative-- a blend of both. The larger Me, of which we are all a part and recognize this to a greater or smaller degree, learns (man, I can't believe I'm getting ready to type this) through suffering.

    But more importantly, through rebirth. We are confined by our brains and nervous systems-- sensory acquisition units and repositories-- and we make it through the birth canal only one way, together. This is what is meant by the next evolutionary leap not for man but for Mankind.

    (That book cover for 'Murder on My Mind' was really disturbing me the entire time I was trying to type this. I wish our collective focus was not so destructive. It grieves me deeply.)

    Excellent post, JJ. An important question which was very satisfactory to hash out a bit. Have a wonderful week.

  10. Suze: I can always count on you to give me something else to think about all week. Enjoy!

  11. Not sure I can delve deeply enough into this to add much to your wonderful discussion here.
    I will say that I grew up 'knowing' things that I could not link back to any 'learning' that happened by any particular teaching or experience. I just knew. I experienced many people who thought this odd.
    My sister is clearly someone who learns by experience and her senses. She learns everything 'the hard way' it seems.
    So there must be some truth to both, but like others here I feel there must be a deeper meaning to the learning that happens without some basic sensory experience to go along with it. Just a hunch on my part though, really...

  12. Is it a cop out to say that what we learn flows from the means we use to learn it? I was thinking of the quantum mechanics catch 22 -- if you are measuring location, you find particles. If you are measuring velocity, you find waves. The question determines the answer. So what I learn through my rational faculties (such as they are), will be different from what I learn through my senses. And all that will be different from what I learn through my intuition.

    Hmm, not sure that was a philosophically sound response, but there you go.

  13. 'Yellow Rose' Jasmine: Sounds pretty deep to me.

    Galen: It sounds good. I'll ask the same question I asked AubrieAnne. Can we reason thngs out without our senses?

  14. I am on the fence.
    I need input from senses...but sometimes have to rationalize. I use both avenues to learn.

    As for your question to AubrieAnne: Yes, you can reason SOME things out without your senses. You can try...like reasoning out numbers. As for how to fall in love, etc., you must use your feelings to help you reason out. LOL

  15. A-M: What's love got to do, got to do with it?


Post a Comment

Other Works by JJ Botta

My books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and numerous Bookstores. Amazon.com AND Barnes and Noble