The development and substantiation of the methods of scientific knowledge is the main goal of the philosophers of modern times. Two basic methods are formed and on this basis the opposite philosophical directions: empiricism and rationalism appear.
Empiricism is a philosophical direction that recognizes sensory experience as the main and only source and content of reliable knowledge. The founder of this theory is the English philosopher Francis Bacon, who firmly advocated an opinion that knowledge is the highest value in this world.
Empiricist considers that knowledge is the reflection of truly existing reality. The reflection occurs through the senses (vision, touch, sense of smell, hearing, taste). According to Bacon, everything that is perceived by the sense organs must be confirmed by experience, that is, an experiment, thus his theory is grounded on sensory experience.
For instance, Aristotle believed that of the three most important feelings (sense of smell, hearing and vision) the vision is the most valuable in providing vital needs, but hearing is more important for the development of intelligence. Aristotle described deaf people as “uninformed, heartless, and incapable of reasoning, nothing better than animals”, so in his opinion, the deaf one cannot be clever unlike the blind one. Blindness is a more serious illness, but it has less effect on mental development than deafness, as the blind from birth are smarter than the deaf. An authoritative opinion of the philosopher contributed to the fact that the blind, in contrast to the deaf enjoyed greater support and sympathy in society.
Another example of empiricism is the arguments of Zeno according to the Parmenides’ theory about abundance and movement of things. The essence is that the movement can not begin, because, in order to pass at least a small distance, it must first reach the half of it. But before that, it must first reach the quarter point. However, to reach the quarter point, it must first reach the half of the distance of the previous half. Thus, it will never move out of place, having to reach the quarter point of the following point and pass an infinite amount of smaller distances beforehand. Besides, it also demands an infinite amount of time, that excludes the capability of movement.
Rationalism is a holistic epistemological concept according to which the true principle of being, the knowledge and behavior of people are the principles of mind. Philosophical rationalism roots to antiquity: to the doctrine of Socrates about the identification of truth and morality, to the theory of Plato about ideas as the true substance of reality, etc.
For instance, an ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus explains the world as “ever-living fire”. The world is an ordered combination of various elements or substances produced by the primary material. The fire is the most dynamic, changeable of all the elements. It plays a significant role in the doctrine of Heraclitus, but it is not an exceptional and unique source for other things since all things or elements are equivalent. Fire is more important as a symbol than as a primary element. This is an explanation of the rationalist.
Rationalism or empiricism: experience or mind?
Such questions cannot be answered by unambiguous reply. There are many philosophers, rationalists and empiricists among them, who have put forward their hypotheses on this issue and devoted life to prove it.
The rationalists were opponents of the empiricists. The main argument of the rationalist in the dispute with the empiricist is that sensory experience itself, not transformed by the mind, cannot be the basis of knowledge. If the rationalist guides knowledge to the experimental study of individual things, then the empiricist for the source point of knowledge takes an individual act of thinking.
According to Bacon the empiricists, like ants, only collect and satisfy with the gathered, but rationalists, like spiders, produce cloth from themselves.
The rationalists consider that we have true knowledge in our mind from the very beginning in the form of axioms. So, we must organize experience in accordance with these axioms.
The empiricist reminds a type of modified skeptic, who rejects the existence of knowledge without sensory experience. Of course, there are some rationalists who share this opinion. Rene Descartes, the founder of rationalism, believed that that empirical experience has a changing, unstable nature. With the help of sensations, a person perceives the world according to circumstances, and therefore hope should be placed on the mind. But it is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to be able to apply it. In his opinion, the senses can be used in everyday life, but in scientific activity, they are doubtful. So, he also can be considered as a type of modified skeptic.
The rationalist and follower of Descartes Benedict Spinoza believed that sensual cognition gives superficial knowledge, we receive faithful knowledge about reality only through the use of the mind. The highest form of cognition, according to the philosopher, is intuition. The criterion of truth is the clarity.
A special place occupies the theory of Kant, who proceeds from the distinction between pure and empirical knowledge. All knowledge begins with experience. External objects only affect our senses, awakening a person’s cognitive abilities to reality. Our mind connects, compares, synthesizes or analyzes the received ideas, processes the sensual impression into knowledge. This knowledge Kant calls experience. He also tried to distinguish a priori knowledge, that is, the part of human knowledge that cannot be obtained from experience. In the 18th century, Kant tried to solve the fate of the so-called old dilemma – the controversy of rationalism and empiricism in an attempt to unite them, but it was not successful.
Consequently, philosophy is a science, that is guided only by theories and assumptions, and many questions cannot be answered with confidence. Therefore, it is hard to say which of these directions: empiricism or rationalism is closer to reality. The position of rationalists, as well as the position of empiricists, was one-sided, absoluted with one of the cognitive charachters of human, that ultimately contributed to the establishment of the philosophy of a metaphysical and mechanistic way of thinking.