Rationalism Vs. Empiricism: Plato’s Allegory, Hume’s Fork, and Kant’s Synthesis


What is Rationalism and Empiricism?

The ideas behind empiricism and rationalism are related; they both pertain to how humans gain the knowledge each individual possesses. Rationalism explains knowledge as individual from sense experience; that is the progression of knowledge separates from the senses, and through the mental process of reason knowledge is gained. Empiricism is the opposite. Humans, by nature, are beings that gain knowledge through sense perception. The progression of knowledge to an empiricist starts at birth and accumulates with the ideas one gains from touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. Though these two ideas are very similar, the core of each (the progression of knowledge), creates completely differerent views and answers to modern day questions. Should there be a compromise between the two. This is an idea expressed by Immanuel Kant with the synthesis of the two. How did Kant combine these ideas and who were the great minds that brought him to that point?

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Rationalism vs. Empiricism

Rationalism is the process of reason. One of the most influential men that crossed into the realm of rational thought is Plato. Plato’s ideals shaped reason and through his Cave Allegory he explains how the physical world is shaped by our perception of it. Our perception has the ability to lie to us which could be seen as the shadows the men see upon the wall in the cave. At the end of the allegory one man was brought to the outside world and was completely blown away by what he saw, and what the man saw was the idea of the perfect form; humans can not explain it, and our perception of those perfect forms are just what we are able to remember. The ability to remember perfect forms happen when you are born and ushers in a source of knowledge. Plato was convinced that the mind’s perception was a lie and that the only way to break through the lies was the power of reason devoid of the senses. Leibniz, credited with the creation of calculus, once said “when something is true, there is always a reason why it is true rather then not.” His whole focus was set around the idea of necessary truths. These truths, like math or human beings, had a “complete notion” that is “everything that is, was and will be true of the individual.” (Papineau 38-39) These truths happen regardless. A human who murders another would have always murdered the other. There would never be a world where he did not kill the other because it would go against the “complete notion” formula. Leibniz found that contingencies were impossible so he disregarded the senses because they were full of contingencies. This is similar to Plato’s view where he disputes the senses because they cause false realities.

Source: Wiki Media

Aristotle Source: Wiki Media

“The soul is the organization of the material so that there is a human being who functions in the ways that define the kind, human being. Since human beings are rational animals, this functioning involves reason.” (Blackwell ) These words were stated in some form by Aristotle, though he proposed a world through reason, he separated from his teacher’s model of perfect forms and false realities. His ideas encompassed that of early empiricism; reason came from a process he called induction, where a child learned as it grew through its sense perception. Another philosopher who followed this was David Hume.

To Hume all the contents of the mind were divided into impressions left by sense experience.These impressions are combined to create knowledge which can be divided into two parts: knowledge of relations of ideas and knowledge of matters of fact. He refuted that any other type of knowledge did not exist because it did not have solid reasonable evidence off of quantity or by experimental means.This idea restricts knowledge to two types and was coined Hume’s Fork which spurred Immanuel Kant to synthesize the two ideas. (Papineau 25, clip note)


David Hume Source: Wiki Media

Is it better to be to right? Is it better to achieve practical results? Is it better to understand? All these questions make up the fundamentals of rationality and empiricism. Is life truly how Plato explained it? Is life full of lies and false perceptions where one must use reason to see beyond it? Or is life like that of Hume and Aristotle where only perception can give you the true insight into reason? Kant took these questions and composed a series of works that strove to quell the disparity between the two stations of thought. Kant formulated a world where humans are confined to their perceptions; these perceptions are how we understand our world; and these perceptions are necessary for humans to understand their ability to reason. Without reason there would be no way to explain what we perceive and without perception, there would be no use to use reason for we would not have any questions. Every question we have today was presented through our perceptual experience.

An Explanation of Both Philosophies:


Immanuel Kant Source: Wikimedia

Immanuel Kant
Source: Wikimedia

Philosophy has grown. With the introduction to smarter forms of science and the addition of Kant’s synthesis, we see a growth within humanity that has bloomed into a smarter age. Though each philosopher above showed a division within their thought process that led to well formulated answers to reality, the combination of both empiricism and rationalism has turned the tides. This could be seen as a peaceful flow, as the Taoists would say; one would not be without the other and both are needed to be complete; too much of one leads to imbalance.

These great philosophers taught the world how to think, and, through a series of adaptations, humankind now reasons
by the utilization of both empirical and
rational data.

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