The Thin Tweed Line
Navigation Bar Home Faculty Administration Students Trustees Government Tuition

Empiricism and rationalism have been two philosophical concepts argued about for centuries. Scholars such as John Locke, David Hume and George Berkeley all argue in favor of empiricism. Lord Herbert, Kant and Darwin are all in favor of the rationalist point of view. Empiricism argues that all knowledge is derived from sense experience (Empiricism). Rationalism is the opposite, arguing that reason alone is a source of knowledge and is independent of experience (Rationalism). Rationalism makes more sense than empiricism, because empiricism has no concept of inherent knowledge, and humans are born with some knowledge before they experience it.

Empiricism is “the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience” (Empiricism). “Empiricism has developed a kind of mind body dualism” (Chomsky). Empiricism is the product of sensuous experience; it is the concept that all human knowledge is derived only from experience. People have sense-precepts and internal representations exclusive of super organic intellectual factors (Siegfried). For most empiricists, experience includes inner experience-reflection of the mind and its operations, as well as perception. Knowledge of the physical work can be nothing more than a generalization from certain instances and can never reach more than a high degree of probability. Most empiricists believe in a posteriori truths-like mathematics and logic (Columbia).

John Locke’s truth is that the mind is a white paper, void of all characters without ideas. This agrees with Aristotle’s theory that there is nothing in the mind except what was first in the senses. Empiricists like Aristotle and Locke believe that the mind is a Tabula Rasa (totally blank). When people experience things, the mind is written on-the slate becomes filled and knowledge increases. Locke thought that experiences provided simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas include the redness of a nose, whereas a complex idea would be that of a table. Complex ideas include three parts-motion, shape and size, and primary qualities (color, taste, and temperature). Locke said that knowledge could be of certain types depending on how ideas are compared. For example, how hot is contrasted with cold, or black is contrasted to white. This buildup of knowledge is how people attain simple and complex ideas. Locke believes in three main types of knowledge: Intuitive (things that are obvious and easily accepted), Demonstrative (putting simple ideas together to make complex ones), and Sensitive (relies on evidence of the senses). These three parts of knowledge are all empirical according to Locke and his fellow philosophers. Intuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive are ways of gaining knowledge empirically, and apply to all subjects, including math and logic (Southwell).

Empiricism is at the heart of the scientific method, theories are based on observations of the world rather than intuition. Empirical research is based on inductive reasoning rather than purely deductive logic. This is why scientists such as Bacon and Galileo agree with empiricism rather than rationalism (Columbia). Sir Francis Bacon was a believer in Empiricism. He believed that sense experience is the best source of knowledge. In his book The Advancement of Learning he states,

For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but it if work upon itself, as the spider worketh in its web, then it is endless, and bring forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance of profit (Arsarnow).

Bacon prefers empirical knowledge, roughhewn and limited as it is to fine argument that has simply chewed ideas about experience rather than experience itself into a smoothly digestible mass. The drive for empirical insight and truths was shared by many other scholars, because they wanted to go against the Church. An example of that would be when Galileo contradicted the Church with his empirical study of the planets (Arsarnow). Much of science is founded upon empirical principles and it would not have advanced if empiricism did not exist. Empiricism allows people to see their mistakes and change them, or improve on the near-perfect theories. Rationalism believes that knowledge is inherent and people are allowed to come to experience, but they have a ready-made reality and tool for learning (Yount).

The rationalist hypothesis is as follows: the structure of the brain is determined a priori by the genetic code, the brain is programmed to analyze experience and to contrast knowledge out of that experience (Chomsky). Rationalists believe that our knowledge is inherent and innate. Rationalists argue that humans have inherent knowledge that is acted upon through experience, and through the experience, they realize they had the prior knowledge. Math and logic do not come because of the five senses, like empiricists believe; it comes from our innate ability to connect ideas. Morality-justice, human rights, moral duties, good and evil-are all innate ideas that humans are born with. Chomsky, a rationalist, believes that language in inherent. Three year olds use language in which they are not taught, they understand grammar rules before being a student in a grammar class. This knowledge is inherent, and fine-tuned by experience (Yount).

Southwell described this inherent knowledge being fine-tuned the best. He says, “When I throw a ball into the air and watch it fall, I am confirming something that I know to be true about things in the world-that is, that they obey the laws of gravity” (Southwell). Empiricists would believe that gravity is discovered by each person by bouncing a ball once, then again, and again until they realized that gravity was at work. A rationalist would say that the knowledge of gravity was inherent, and through the experience the knowledge was stitched together. Rationalists believe that humans are born with a sense of some knowledge; simple mathematical truths, truths about God, and the concept of time are all examples of inherent knowledge (Southwell). Empiricists believe that these concepts are learned though experience.

Empiricists and rationalists differ on the concept of knowledge. Empiricists believe in a posteriori knowledge, and rationalists believe in a priori. Human knowledge depends on synthetic statements-statements that may be true or false. “The sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees.” “Parallel lines never meet,” “A whole is the sum of its parts” are all examples of synthetic statements. Rationalism believes that those statements are necessary statements, universally accepted. These are not dependent on experience for their truth value. Empiricists deny that these statements are synthetic and necessary. They believe that it is strictly derived from experience. Logical empiricism would note that these statements are not synthetic, but analytic. They are true by definition alone, but do not give us genuine world knowledge. In this way, empiricism limits knowledge. Francis Steen, a professor of communications at the University of California-Los Angeles explains,

A full-fledged rationalist with regard to our knowledge of the external world holds that some external world truths can and must be known a priori, that some of the ideas required for that knowledge are and must be innate, and that this knowledge is superior to any that experience could ever provide. The full-fledged empiricist about our knowledge of the external world replies that, when it comes to the nature of the world beyond our own minds, experience is our sole source of information. Reason might inform us of the relations among our ideas, but those ideas themselves can only be gained. And any truths about the external reality they represent can only be known, on the basis of sense experience (Steen).

Francis Steen has broken it down. Rationalists and empiricists will not budge on their truth, however rationalism makes the most sense, it is more logical.

“Empiricism is often contrasted with rationalism” (Sober). Rationalism provides humans with inherent knowledge that is stitched together through experience and learning. Empiricism has human continually learning through sense experience. Both may seem right and logical, until the debate is looked at further. Rationalists say that humans have inherent knowledge and can accept synthetic truths, as knowledge. Southwell said that a ball is bounced and comes back down to the earth because of gravity-a human knows gravity is there without having to experience it first. An empiricist would say this is wrong, they know about gravity because they experience it every day-but how do humans relate the idea of their feet staying on the ground because of gravity if they did not have the innate knowledge of gravity (Southwell)? Rationalism makes the most sense. Empiricists may be right when it comes to scientific experimentation, and the progression of scholarly study, but when it comes to everyday knowledge of the average human being, the rationalists are correct.


Empiricism versus Rationalism


Page Author: LeAnn J. Williams

Saturday, 17 March, 2012 2:25



Arsarnow. "Sir Francis Bacon: Empiricism." Faculty.Up.Edu. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Chomsky, Noam. "Empiricism and Rationalism." Language and Responsibility Pantheon (1977). Print.

Columbia University Press. "Empiricism." The Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

"Empiricism.", 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Quartz Hill. "Logic: Rationalism vs. Empiricism." QHST Home. Quartz Hill School of Theology. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

"Rationalism." Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Siegfried, Francis. "Empiricism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 12 Mar. 2012.

Sober. "Empiricism." 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Southwell, Gareth. "Scepticism - Introduction." Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Steen, Francis. "Empiricism vs Rationalism." CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies. University of California-Las Angeles, 1996. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Yount, David. "Empiricism versus Rationalism." Mesa Community College. 2003. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <>.



Editorial Policy

Correspondence to the student authors of this website may be sent to this e-mail address. Make sure your subject includes the name of the author and the article you are referring to along with it's URL. Article copyright is held by their author.

Submissions of original new materials may be made electronically by PDF as long as significant authorship is by undergraduates enrolled in a non-profit educational institution. All materials are peer reviewed by a group of undergraduates.

Editorial articles, lecture presentations, and basic FAQs are marked as such on this website. These articles generally have open copyright and may be used in academic, non-profit settings as long as the author is given full attribution.

The Thin Tweed Line, ©2012 by Steve N. Jackson