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RATIONALISM VS. EMPIRICISM OPPOSING VIEWS OF RENE DESCARTES AND DAVID HUME ON THE SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE

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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
RATIONALISM VS. EMPIRICISM
OPPOSING VIEWS OF RENE DESCARTES AND DAVID HUME
ON THE SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE
A Term Paper
For PHPC 101 – Introduction to Philosophy
Rev. Fr. Ariel D. Destora
9:00 am – 10:30 am TTh
Vince Manuel L. Millona
BA-Philosophy (1st Year)
[email protected]
October 01, 2019
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
INTRODUCTION
Several philosophers have contributed their notions on Epistemology, the branch
of Philosophy which deals with Knowledge. The Ancient Philosophers had their ideas on
the query on the validity, nature, sources, and limits of knowledge. Plato held that man
comes to know through remembering (anamnesis) the ideas contemplated by the soul in
the world of ideas, while Aristotle held that man comes to know through abstracting the
concrete particular thing with the help of man’s knowing faculties. It is clear that even in
the ancient times, philosophers have argued on how, where, or why man can know. The
terms Empiricism and Rationalism were not in the jargon of the ancient philosophers, and
it was the modern philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries who explicitly used and
formulated such terms (Mastin, Empiricism, 2005).
In the Modern Period, modern philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Gottfried
Wilhelm Leibniz, and Baruch Spinoza were the major rationalist figures of their time.
Rationalists believe that the source of knowledge is the intellect and deductive reasoning.
In this term paper, the focus for Rationalism will be on the view of Rene Descartes. On the
other hand, the modern philosophers who are the primary exponents of empiricism are John
Locke, George Berkley, and David Hume. Empiricists hold that the origin of all knowledge
is sense experience. In this term paper, the focus for Empiricism will be on the view of
David Hume.
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
Rene Descartes, a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher was regarded
as the Father of Modern Philosophy. It is because used a process of methodological
skepticism (or doubt) to eliminate doubt and create a solid foundation for genuine
knowledge, and not on the basis of authority and the senses (Watson, 2019). He is also
famous for his indubitable proposition, “Cogito ergo sum” (was originally in French: Je
pense, donc je suis) which means “I think therefore I am”. Descartes, as mentioned, was a
Rationalist. He dismissed the senses and perception as unreliable. Reason and deduction
were the only reliable method of attaining knowledge (Mastin, 2005). Among his works
are: Discourse on the Method (1637), Meditations (1641), Principles of Philosophy (1644),
and Passions of the Soul (1646) (Smith, Descartes' Life and Works, 2018).
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known
for his philosophical empiricism. Philosophy for Hume is the inductive and experimental
science of human nature. He took the scientific method of physicist Sir Isaac Newton as
his model on forming his epistemology (Jessop & Cranston, 2019). For Hume, the object
of the mind is perception, and there are two kinds of perception: Impressions and Ideas.
Impressions are perceptions that the mind experiences with the “most force and violence,”
and ideas are the “faint images” of impressions (Duignan, Epistemology, 2017). Among
his works are: Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles
of Morals (1748, 1751) and A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740).
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
DISCUSSION
I.
RATIONALISM
a) Definition
According to Blanshard (2016), Rationalism is the view that regards reason
as the chief source of knowledge. Moreover, rationalists adopt at least three of the
following claims: (I) The Intuition/Deduction Thesis, which holds that 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; (II) The
Innate Knowledge Thesis, which holds that we have knowledge of some truths in a
particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature; and (III) The Innate Concept
Thesis, which holds that we have some of the concepts we employ in a particular
subject area, S, as part of our rational nature (Markie, 2017).
b) Rene Descartes and Rationalism
The Rationalism of Rene Descartes can be characterized by the following
features: (A) One should believe only what is certain, for anything less than
certainty does not guarantee truth, and so does not constitute knowledge; and (B)
What the senses tell us falls short of certainty, and therefore we should not trust
them; the senses do not yield knowledge; true knowledge, therefore, comes from
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
the understanding alone. With these features and as mentioned in the previous
pages, man could only know based on reason alone. Furthermore, Descartes argues
the existence of a God, a non-deceiving one who also guarantees the innate ideas
in the mind (Wahl, 1991). Moreover, Descartes defines ideas as modes that
represent or exhibit objects to the mind. In his work Meditations, he divides ideas
into three kinds which are determined by considering the possible origins of the
ideational contents presented or exhibited to the mind. These kinds of ideas are
Innate, Adventitious, and Factitious. Innate Ideas are ideas whose contents have
their origin within man’s nature. Adventitious Ideas are ideas derived from things
outside the self. Factitious Ideas are ideas whose contents have their origin in the
contents of other ideas (i.e. imagination) (Smith, 2018).
c) Methodic Doubt
Descartes also devised his own method of investigation. The starting point
of this method is to reject all former opinions and create knowledge anew based on
solid foundations, as he held that the knowledge we acquire from life experiences
and education are unsystematic mixture of truths and falsehoods, and it is
sometimes impossible to distinguish the truth from what is not. Thus, he proposed,
that first we must remove all our old and chaotic schemes of knowledge, and then
follow four specific rules of inquiry that will enable us to build an intelligible
system in a methodic manner. The rules are as follows: (I) accept only indubitable,
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
clear, and distinct ideas; (II) in solving problems, Descartes said, “divide up each
of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed
requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible”; (III) anent
to problem-solving, begin with the simplest objects and work to the harder and
more complex ones; and (IV) review to be certain (Fieser, Continental Rationalism,
2017).
d) Innate Ideas and God
Rene Descartes’ definition of “idea” was somehow ambiguous. It can be
distinguished by two ways: (a) First, the term ‘idea’ refers to a brain state (according
to his early works) and (b) second, ‘idea’ is understood as a mental phenomenon which
has two states. The first state is the idea as act of thought while the second state is the
idea as object of thought. Innate ideas, then, can mean a disposition or a capacity to
have a particular idea. It was also argued that Descartes must have meant simply that
an innate idea is to have a disposition to understand the data. Furthermore, saying that
one has innate ideas is to say that one has an inborn (natural) capacity in having an idea
(Boyle, 2009).
In the Meditations of Rene Descartes (particularly in Meditation VI), he seeks to
resolve the problem that led him to doubt in the first place. In doing this, he established
first that there could be no ‘evil demon’ who is deceiving him, that he is not dreaming
and that he is truly existing in the physical world. To answer these, he claimed that
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
there is a God who is not a deceiver. He used the idea of God to prove that God exists
in his ontological arguments. Moreover, he claimed as well that this God is a perfect
being, who then cannot deceive man as this deception would mean to God’s
imperfection (Hatfield, 2014).
II.
EMPIRICISM
a) Definition
According to Duignan, et al. (2016), Empiricism is the view that knowledge
and/or concepts originate in experience, and that all rationally acceptable beliefs or
propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. The term
empiricism was derived from the Greek word empeiria which means experience
(Duignan, et al. 2016). Additionally, Empiricism denies the view that the mind is
equipped with concepts that owe nothing to experience. Empiricists also claim that
at birth, the mind is a clean slate (i.e. tabula rasa) and that ideas are provided
through experiences (Harvey, 2012).
b) David Hume and Empiricism
According to David Hume, the content of the mind is perception. There are
also two types of perception: Impression and Idea. Impression is the direct, vivid,
and forceful product of immediate experience. Idea, on the other hand, is the feeble
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
copy of impression (Kemerling, 2011). Furthermore, Hume divided impression
and ideas to: Impressions (a) of sensation and (b) of reflection; and Ideas (a) from
memory and (b) from imagination. The impression of sensation is something
external while that of reflection is internal. The idea from memory is based from
the experience as they transpired. On the other hand, the idea from imagination is
from different broken or combined ideas. Moreover, the imagination is guided by
the three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect
(Fieser, n.d.).
c) Perceptions: Ideas and Impressions
In Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he tried to explain
everything that takes place in the mind by appealing to perceptions and their
interactions. He distinguished two kinds of perception: impressions and ideas.
Hume likens having impressions with “feeling” or first-hand experience. Ergo,
impressions include all of the sensations, passions, and emotions that one
experiences when engaging in sensory perception. On the other hand, ideas were
equated by Hume with thinking: thinking about an object that involves forming an
idea which represents the object. The difference between the two is on their degree
of forcefulness, liveliness, and vivacity, where Impressions are more forceful,
lively, and vivid compared to Ideas which are less forceful, lively, and vivid.
Furthermore, Hume determined categories of perception: (I) Simple Ideas, which
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
are exact copies of Simple Impression that one previously had; (II) Simple
Impressions, the building blocks of all thought and experience (Noonan, 1999);
(III) Complex Ideas, which are caused by Complex Impressions; and (IV) Complex
Impressions (Cottrel, n.d.).
d) The Copy Principle
Hume also proposed a fundamental principle: The Copy Principle. In his
Treatise, it was stated that all simple ideas (in their first appearance) are derived
from simple impressions which are correspondent to them. All ideas are feeble or
weak copies of the more lively impressions (Garret, 1997). Many commentators
have argued that this principle is an a priori principle, while others have argued that
this principle is not [a priori]. Landy (2012) pointed out that Hume concluded that
impressions, which are underived, are the cause (in the proper Humean sense of
cause) of ideas. Furthermore, he also explained:
Hume’s argument is intended to show that we do not have an idea the
representational content of which is a single subject of experience persisting
through time. His methodology is to show, first, that we cannot have an
impression with the appropriate pictorial content, next, that we cannot,
therefore, have an idea with the appropriate pictorial content, and finally,
that we cannot, therefore, have an idea with that representational content.
Therefore, the copy principle is a thesis that concerns the pictorial content of
perception but not their representational content (Landy, 2012).
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
CONCLUSION
Different eras have passed and the problem of knowledge still has no solution.
Philosophers of each periods have long debated and argued on where we really acquire
knowledge. The philosophers that were discussed in this paper were among those who were
tackled in our PHPC 101 class and picked the attention of the writer. The rationalists like
Descartes and others claim that man can acquire knowledge through reason alone. On the
contrary, the empiricists like Hume and others claim that knowledge can be acquired
through experiences. From the discussion in the previous pages, the proposition of
Descartes rely on his Methodic Doubt. The innate ideas, as proposed by this rationalist, are
guaranteed by God. Furthermore, he claims that this God is a perfect being, i.e. who cannot
deceive and cannot be deceived. On the other hand, David Hume propounded that the
content of the mind are perceptions (which are divided into ideas and impressions which
are distinct from one another as the former is just a copy of the latter) and rebuked the
innateness of ideas (for he is an empiricist).
The distinct positions of Descartes and Hume on Epistemology provide postmodern philosophers and even us, students who are studying Philosophy, a more
constructive outlook that could eventually be used in finally solving this problem at hand
in the near future.
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
Works Cited
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Cottrel, J. (n.d.). David Hume: Imagination. Retrieved from Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy: https://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-ima/#H1
Duignan, B. (2017, October 22). Epistemology. Retrieved September 03, 2019, from
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JMJ Marist Brothers
Notre Dame of Marbel University
COLLEGE DEPARTMENT
City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
Markie, P. (2017, September 21). Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Retrieved September 03,
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