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The dispute between empiricism and rationalism begins within epistemology, the study of knowledge. Epistemology attempts to answer the questions: what is knowledge?, what can we know?, and what is the difference between opinion an knowledge? The study of knowledge began in Greece with the Pre-Socratic thinkers, as far back as the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Zeno, a Pre-Socratic, is the first thinker to bring about the two schools of philosophy, rationalism and empiricism, which would grow to become a popular focus among other philosophers. Rationalism is defined as the epistemological view that true knowledge is derived from reason and from within the mind. This school of thought is based off of the a priori: truths that can be known independently of observations, and innate ideas: ideas believed to be present from birth. Empiricism, on the other hand, is the view that true knowledge is derived from sense experience. Empiricists believed that a priori and innate ideas were none existent, and rather all significant knowledge came from the a posteriori, the belief that truth is established only through observation. Zeno chose to focus on information derived from mathematics or rationalism, because he believed this information to be certain. He thought that information derived from the senses, or empiricism, could be deceiving. From there, the way by which we obtain knowledge continued to be argued over. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers began to take sides as to what they believed was the source of knowledge. They formed two groups: the Continental rationalists and the British empiricists.
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In the Continental rationalist group were philosophers Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. The philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza are similar because they are systematic, logical, and rational. Both Descartes and Spinoza sought a system of thought that possessed the certainty of mathematics and was free of Scholastic tradition, because they believed scholasticism could not be trusted. They thought that judgments must be made from a mathematical basis and believed in a mechanistic worldview, the real world is not the world as known by the senses but rather by mathematical physics. They were also both pantheists, which meant that they equated God with nature. Spinoza worked off of Descartes ideas from his Cartesian Method, that nothing is true unless it is clear and distinct. This idea of only believing what is certain was an idea brought up years ago by the Pre-Socratic thinker, Zeno and developed further by the Continental rationalists. The biggest difference, however in Spinoza’s philosophy was his opinion on substances. Descartes defined substance as that which can exist by itself, without the aid of any other substance. He divided the world into two kinds of substances, thinking substance (the mind) and extended substance (the body). He then divided thinking substance into the infinite thinking substance (God) and finite thinking substances. Although Descartes believed that there was only one infinite substance (God), he believed that there were many finite thinking substances, so he was a pluralist. Spinoza rejected Descartes’s divisions of substances and his plurality of finite substances. He did not agree with Descartes’s division of infinite and finite thinking substance. For Spinoza, there was only infinite substance, and no thinking substance and extended substance. Spinoza claimed that there was only one substance, infinite substance, which he equated with God. Spinoza also argued that the definition of substance makes it impossible for the mind and the body to be distinct substances. He said that mind and body are modes of that single substance. So, Spinoza took Descartes idea of substances and built upon it, but Spinoza was a monist rather than a dualist like Descartes.
The other major philosophical group during the seventeenth and eighteenth century was the classical British empiricists. The empiricists believed that all knowledge is derived from observation. Hume and other British empiricists rejected the intuition/deduction thesis and the idea of innate knowledge proposed by Descartes. Hume believed that true knowledge came from a posteriori, sense experience, rather than from a priori. A major difference between Hume and Descartes is their take on the issue of God’s existence. When the two applied their very different theories to the topic of Gods existence, they arrived at different conclusions. In Descartes efforts to doubt everything, he realized that only one thing was certain, “I think, therefore I exist”. Descartes concluded that God exists when he realized that if he himself is subject to doubt, he is imperfect, and cannot be the cause of his existence. Because he had an idea of perfectness, this idea must come from a perfect being, or God. However, Hume was not able to prove God’s existence. Hume built upon Leibniz’s analytic synthetic distinction in creating his “Humean Method”. He separated ideas into three categories: analytic propositions, synthetic propositions, and nonsense. He created a set of questions that one could ask to come to the conclusion as to what category an idea fell under. In contrast to Descartes conclusions about God’s existence, the Humean method suggests that God should be placed under the “nonsense” category because it is not possible to trace God back to sense data. Descartes, the rationalist and Hume, the empiricist had differing opinions. However, the two philosophers are similar because they both raise very skeptical issues. Descartes idea of the possibility of an evil demon putting thoughts in our heads and Hume’s conclusion that the idea of God is “nonsense” caused people to begin questioning traditional teachings and what they had always thought to be true. New ideas like the ones presented by Descartes and Hume later caused problems because as people became more aware of these ideas, more rebellion from authority and religion began to occur.
Part Two: Immanuel Kant
In the Preface to the second edition of the “Critique of Pure Reason”, Immanuel Kant compares his philosophy to the Copernican Revolution. It is said that as Copernicus believed that all heavenly bodies moved round the sun, Kant believed he was the center, and that everything moved around his philosophy. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant was so revolutionary because he brought together rationalism and empiricism. Because of Kant, the debate between rationalists and empiricists ended, and epistemology could move forward.
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Kant was inspired to build his philosophy after he encountered a copy of Hume’s “Inquiry”. He realized that he disagreed with many of the issues Hume brought up, and decided to refute them. In his book, “The Critique of Pure Reason”, he combined the ideas of Hume and the ideas of rationalists. Kant agreed with the empiricist claim that sense experience is the source of all beliefs, but disagreed with the conclusion that those beliefs may not necessarily be true. He also disagreed with the rationalist idea that truths about what does or does not exist could be decided through reason alone. He eliminated the debate by claiming that thinking and experiencing cannot let us know how things really are. Instead, Kant asked if it was possible that we have metaphysical knowledge. He claimed that the mind analyzes the data it perceives in terms of space and time. So, space and time are not features of external reality, as the empiricists and rationalists before him believed.
Kant said that in order for human beings to interpret the world the human mind imposed certain structures on the incoming sense data. Kant defined these structures in terms of twelve categories: substance, cause/effect, reciprocity, necessity, possibility, existence, totality, unity, plurality, limitation, reality and negation. These categories were characteristics of the appearance of any object in general. However, these categories are related only to human language. When making a statement about an object, that person is making a judgment. A general object, that is, every object, has attributes that are contained in Kant’s list of Categories. In a judgment, or verbal statement, the Categories are the predicates that can be asserted of every object and all objects.
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