Given the contrast between rationalism and empiricism, answer the following questions: Which comes first in processing reality—the body or the mind? Which is more important to understand the...

Given the contrast between rationalism and empiricism, answer the following questions:

  1. Which comes first in processing reality—the body or the mind? Which is more important to understand the truth of reality? Do we need to choose at all between them, or should all our approach to life be holistic? Which approach do you tend to use? Give an example.
  2. Use the four-step methodology of understanding, analysis, evaluation and application. You may also want to try to do the step called synthesis, by coming up with your own new paradigm for these concepts (and your own illustration
Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The debate between rationalists and the empiricists strike at the epistemological basis of being in the world.  Both philosophies seek to strike at how we know what we know.  The processing of reality in both is one particular difference.  For example, in understanding which comes first in processing the mind, the Rationalists will suggest that the mind is critical in understanding the nature of being in the world.  There are specific innate understandings that reside within the mind which function in appropriating the world and making sense of it.  The ability for reason to connect events and make understanding of one's place in the world is of vital importance to Rationalism.  Rationalists see the mind as critical in understanding the nature of reality, the essence of truth, because through "intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “see” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, warranted belief in it."  In the need to establish a "warranted" notion of reality, the Rationalists believe that the mind is critical in establishing a frame of reference with which to understand how we know what we know.  The Empiricists offer a different means of understanding.  In the Empiricist paradigm, knowledge or the means through which the world is grasped happens as a result of sense experience.  The body and its faculties are critical in this process, hence this precedes all else.  We come to understand the world through sensory absorption and experience.  Logic and rationality are formed through the senses' understanding of the world and the individual's place within it.  Sense experience is the means through which knowledge is accrued and appropriated.  When Locke defines consciousness as "something we know not what," he argues the Empiricist point that knowledge is only gained through sense experience.  It is through the sense that we make sense of that which "we know not what."  It is subject to revision, remodification, and redefinition based on sensory experience.  Truth is that which can be verified, possess the ability to be reproduced in different contexts, and resides in that which can be observed.

From this frame of reference, some analysis can be offered.  One aspect is how the role of reason is an innate one for the Rationalists.  Knowledge and understanding of the world are universal aspects for the Rationalist.  They are not contingent based on sensory experience or individual/ contextual frames of reference.  They are understood as true because they are true.  There can be no contextual approach to Math, for example.  It is true and universal not because of sensory understanding.  It is governed by logic and understanding and this ties into how the Rationalist understands the world.  In the same analytic mode, the Empiricist understanding recognizes that individual sense experience can be equally persuasive in understanding truth and the nature of reality.  Rationalists make the argument that something is absolute and can be understood by everyone in the same manner.  For the Empiricists, the individual sense experience can absorb and generate another means of developing meaningful truth in accordance to the individual.  The Platonic form for the Rationalist is absolute and those who have capacity to understand recognize it for what it is.  The notion a form for an Empiricist would exist on the individual level to make sense of what it is in terms of meaning for them. The Empiricist would suggest that truth has to be meaningful for the individual if it is to be seen as relevant and purposeful, at all.  Why would one have a truth that cannot be understood as one? For the Empiricist, all truth is valued when it is seen as "knowledge [which] is tentative and probabilistic, subject to continued revision and falsification." This type of debate lies at the heart of both philosophical tenets, often poised as against one another.

In evaluating both philosophies, one recognizes that there is a certain territoriality that is marked out.  In embracing one, its proponents suggest that another cannot be embraced.  For example, the Platonic forms of Rationalism cannot be appropriated through sense experience, while Locke's assertion of "something we know not what" is not necessarily seen as convergent with the Rationalist approach.  However, there could be a synthetic approach in both modes of thought, avoiding the arbitrary notion of choice.  One example of this is that human beings can be Rationalists in one arena and Empirical in another.  Math can be a Rationalist domain, while one can be an Empiricist in the Scientific realm.  Another way in which both philosophical paradigms can be merged is by changing the discourse.  Perhaps, the question is not how we know what we know, but rather how we can apply what we know to the minimizing of human suffering.  Whether one appropriates through the mind or through the body, through universality or through contextual proof, through innate or through that which is verifiable and provable, human suffering is inescapable.  Moving philosophy into this realm of social action can be a way in which a synthetic convergence might be achieved.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One last note:  I deliberately did not answer which one is preferred.  I think that after outlining the options, perhaps the individual might be best to make their own call, so I refrained from offering my own insight on that one.  Enjoy.