Empiricism as Foundational

Empiricism as Foundational August 16, 2017

I have talked before about the empiricism vs rationalism debate that has taken place historically and presently in philosophical circles. Today, I am going to explore this a little further.

As I said before…

Rationalism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that rationalists adopt at least one of three statements:

The Intuition/Deduction Thesis: Some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions.

The Innate Knowledge Thesis: We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

The Innate Concept Thesis: We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

We either know things to be true intuitively, or as part of being rational agents, or the empirical may trigger concepts already embedded within our nature. Of course, one weakness here is in establishing what intuition actually is.

Whilst other ideas and theses are closely connected to rationalism, or are often associated with it, I will keep it simple by only involving the above three.

One question that is often touted about such rationalism is the epistemic warrant: if someone uses intuition about a certain proposition, then it can be seen as lacking reason, and is thus potentially less justifiable, lacking in being warranted. How does an intuitive claim become a warranted claim?

Empiricism

For the empiricist, the following must be true in some way:

The Empiricism Thesis: We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.

The source of knowledge for us is claimed to be a posteriori (from the latter) in its entirety, at source. Things may become intuitive, and even lacking reason, but they are as a result of us using our senses over time to formulate our propositional knowledge, and our systems that we use to navigate through the world. As the SEP continues:

Empiricism about a particular subject rejects the corresponding version of the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis. Insofar as we have knowledge in the subject, our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent upon sense experience. Empiricists also deny the implication of the corresponding Innate Concept thesis that we have innate ideas in the subject area. Sense experience is our only source of ideas. They reject the corresponding version of the Superiority of Reason thesis. Since reason alone does not give us any knowledge, it certainly does not give us superior knowledge. Empiricists generally reject the Indispensability of Reason thesis, though they need not. The Empiricism thesis does not entail that we have empirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be gained, if at all, by experience. Empiricists may assert, as some do for some subjects, that the rationalists are correct to claim that experience cannot give us knowledge. The conclusion they draw from this rationalist lesson is that we do not know at all.

Pragmatic Implications

The thing is, we can sit here and wax lyrical about how wonderful rationality is, and how great it is to use logic, but unless these things have a pragmatic use then they are kind of meaningless. The question that we really need to ask is, “How do I measure how good or useful logic is?” or “How do I evaluate a rational argument?”

The answer, it appears, always defers to some kind of empirical appeal.

Take this as an example.

It’s me and you, reader, and we’re living together. I write something really nasty about you on a post-it note. We might say that this has some moral value. However, now imagine that I put that post-it in my pocket where it disappears. You never find out about it, and I instantly forget I wrote it, and no one else in the world is any the wiser. What this means is that that terribly nasty note has no impact, no empirical legacy, on the world. There are no consequences whatsoever to writing that. As a moral action, the writing of that note now becomes a-moral – it has no moral value. It seems to me that something can only have moral value if it has some kind of effect on reality. The only way we can know the effect something has on reality is to experience it in some way, to empirically sense it.

The same can be said of logic. Why is it good that a proposition adheres to logical rules such that it is rational? Well, the “goodness” of logic s surely measured in how we can use it. If it has no application to reality then it is rather meaningless. Rationality is only revered because of what it can achieve. If rationality had no effect on reality, then it could not be seen as “good” (in a sense that “good” means to work well or have use).

If things only have exist in abstraction without any ramification on the world in any way, then they become impotent or meaningless. At the very minimum, beliefs and propositions and rational arguments have n effect on the psychology of the thinker.

It appears to me that empiricism lies at the heart of the consideration and evaluation of all things.


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