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Rationalism vs Empiricism

One of the problems for the traditional ‘Rationalists and Empiricists’ story of early modern philosophy is that it is surprisingly difficult to define ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism’ appropriately (see here for a previous discussion). One traditional way of drawing the distinction, derived from Locke, is over the existence of innate ideas. This distinction, however, does not capture what is of importance to many other early modern philosophers, and oddly excludes Malebranche and his followers from the rationalist camp. (Since Malebranche holds that no ideas are ever in the human mind—they are all in God—he holds that no ideas are innate to the human mind.) Another traditional way of drawing the distinction, derived from Kant, is over the existence of a priori knowledge.

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This is perhaps somewhat more promising, for Locke’s critique of innate ideas is presented as a component of a broader critique of innate knowledge. However, most of the philosophers usually classified as empiricists accept at least some a priori knowledge: for instance, in mathematics. Kant would say that the rationalists accept synthetic knowledge a priori, but the analytic/synthetic distinction is a Kantian innovation with no precise parallel in earlier modern philosophers.

An approach which is perhaps more promising, in terms of its ability to connect to explicit subjects of debate in the period is the definition of rationalism in terms of ratio, i.e., reason. The rationalist, on this telling, distinguishes between the faculty of sense/imagination and the faculty of pure reason/intellect. The empiricist collapses them. On this way of drawing the distinction, Cartesianism turns out to be a paradigmatic form of rationalism (good), and Malebrancheans get to be rationalists for the same reason other Cartesians do (also good). Further, Hobbes and Gassendi offer explicit arguments in favor of empiricism in this sense, and Berkeley and Hume appear to presuppose such an empiricism. Still, there are some odd consequences.

 

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