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RATIONALISM, EMPIRICISM, AND KANT

The virtues and dangers of rationalism versus empiricism have been debated for centuries. Rationalism is the idea that human beings achieve knowledge because of their capacity to reason. From the rationalist perspective, there are a priori truths, which, if we just prepare our minds adequately, will become evident to us. From this perspective, progress of the human intellect over the centuries has resulted from reason. Many great thinkers, from Plato (428-327 все) to Leibnitz (Gottfried Wilhelm Baron von Leibniz, 1646-1716) subscribed to the rationalist principle of knowledge. ‘‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’’ is an example of assuming a priori truths.

The competing epistemology is empiricism. For empiricists, like John Locke (16321704), human beings are born tabula rasa—with a ‘‘clean slate.’’ What we come to know is the result of our experience written on that slate. David Hume (1711-1776) elaborated the empiricist philosophy of knowledge: We see and hear and taste things, and, as we accumulate experience, we make generalizations. We come, in other words, to understand what is true from what we are exposed to.

This means, Hume held, that we can never be absolutely sure that what we know is true. (By contrast, if we reason our way to a priori truths, we can be certain of whatever knowledge we have gained.) Hume’s brand of skepticism is a fundamental principle of modern science. The scientific method, as it’s understood today, involves making incremental improvements in what we know, edging toward truth but never quite getting there—and always being ready to have yesterday’s truths overturned by today’s empirical findings.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed a way out, an alternative to either rationalism or empiricism. A priori truths exist, he said, but if we see those truths it’s because of the way our brains are structured. The human mind, said Kant, has a built-in capacity for ordering and organizing sensory experience. This was a powerful idea that led many scholars to look to the human mind itself for clues about how human behavior is ordered.

Noam Chomsky, for example, proposed that any human can learn any language because we have a universal grammar already built into our minds. This would account, he said, for the fact that material from one language can be translated into any other language. A competing theory was proposed by B. F. Skinner, a radical behaviorist. Humans learn their language, Skinner said, the way all animals learn everything, by operant conditioning, or reinforced learning. Babies learn the sounds of their language, for example, because people who speak the language reward babies for making the ‘‘right’’ sounds. A famous debate between Chomsky (1957, 1959) and Skinner (1957) that began over 50 years ago has been a hot topic for partisans on both sides ever since (Further Reading: the Chomsky-Skinner debate).

 
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