Rationalism is the view that reason itself provides the foundation of knowledge. In other words, according to the rationalist, the mind is wired or implanted with certain a priori capacities/ideas, and it is in virtue of these a priori capacities/ideas that we can explain the source and foundation of knowledge. As to which ideas/capacities are the important ones when it comes to giving a robust account of knowledge, this is a matter of considerable dispute. However, regardless of any potential lack of historical convergence on which aspects of our thinking are innate, it is important to note that the rationalistic tradition has a long, resilient history that extends to the modern day. Indeed contemporary studies on childhood development are often cited in support of rationalism. While opposite in its conclusion to rationalism, empiricism has a likewise long and storied history with deep anchor points in the history of Western thought and contemporary intellectual life. It also has its fair share of passionate adherents and critics. According to empiricism, the foundations of knowledge can only be captured through an appeal to particular experiences over reason itself.

Thus, whereas the metaphor of a mind that is wired or implanted with certain capacities/ideas was used to illustrate rationalism, empiricism is perhaps best thought of in terms of a blank slate or an empty vessel. In this way, empiricism denies that there are innate or a priori ideas, and is therefore in direct opposition to rationalism. A third main theory of knowledge, and what is often considered a hybrid of rationalism and empiricism, is constructivism. According to it, knowledge must be explained by both an appeal to reason itself (a priori) and by reference to experience (a posteriori). In this way, the constructivist holds that knowledge requires a fusion between the innate capacities of the mind and our experiences. A metaphor that is sometimes used to express the complex and deep union between reason and experience is that of a cookie cutter and dough. Under this characterization, the innate aspects of mind (e.g., space and time) can be equated with the cookie cutter, the dough represents sense-data, and the cookie signifies our ideas and ultimately our knowledge. In terms of deciding which theory of knowledge is the stronger one, this is no small challenge. Each view has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

However, it is worth noting that while there might be a strong initial temptation to go with the constructivist’s compromise between empiricism and rationalism, sometimes the best solutions to our problems do not involve a compromise. Rather, sometimes the best solutions are the simpler ones. So the challenge here is to decide whether or not a hybrid theory of knowledge really is more plausible than its more simple counterparts.

Essay Question: Choose ONE of the above three theories of knowledge covered in this module (i.e., empiricism, rationalism, constructivism) and ONE particular philosopher’s account of this same theory (e.g., Descartes’ rationalism, Locke’s empiricism or Kant’s constructivism) and explain why it is the strongest, most plausible theory of knowledge. Also, as a part of your essay, explain why the theory that you are defending is more plausible than what you regard as the second best alternative. For example, if you believe that constructivism is the most plausible theory of knowledge and that empiricism is a close second, carefully explain why.


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