Rationalism vs Empiricism

Rationalism vs Empiricism

Rationalism vs Empiricism Jonathan Poland

Rationalism and empiricism are two philosophical approaches to understanding the world and acquiring knowledge. While they share some similarities, they also have some important differences.

Rationalism is the philosophy that knowledge comes from the use of reason and logic. According to rationalists, the human mind is capable of generating knowledge on its own, without relying on sensory experience. In other words, rationalists believe that knowledge can be obtained through abstract thought and reasoning, without the need for sensory evidence.

Empiricism, on the other hand, is the philosophy that knowledge comes from sensory experience. Empiricists believe that knowledge is derived from observing and studying the world around us, rather than from abstract thought and reasoning. They argue that the senses are the primary source of knowledge, and that we can only truly know something if we have direct sensory evidence for it.

One key difference between these two approaches is their emphasis on the role of experience in acquiring knowledge. Rationalists place more emphasis on the power of the mind to generate knowledge, while empiricists place more emphasis on the role of sensory experience in acquiring knowledge.

Another important difference is their view of the nature of knowledge. Rationalists tend to believe that knowledge is certain and universal, while empiricists tend to believe that knowledge is always provisional and subject to revision based on new evidence.

Overall, while rationalism and empiricism are two different philosophical approaches to knowledge, they both have contributed to our understanding of the world and the way we acquire knowledge.


Both rationalism and empiricism seek robust evidence for knowledge and are used by science and other disciplines to discover what can reasonably be viewed as fact. Rationalism seeks observation and measurement where it is possible but is willing to go beyond this to develop theories and laws that are difficult to directly confirm with the senses.


In practice, both rationalism and empiricism play a complementary role. For example, a physicist may develop a model of the relationship between space and time using a thought experiment. With peer review and validation this may eventually be viewed by rationalists as a well-accepted theory. Many decades later, this theory may be confirmed with empirical evidence. It is unlikely such a theory could be developed without a thought experiment as it is a leap forward in thinking that is not obvious from the numbers. As such, many theories that are now accepted by empiricists were first identified by rationalists. Generally speaking, rationalism is a far more powerful tool of discovery and empiricism plays a role in creating greater certainty that knowledge is indeed correct.

Hypothetical Example

Imagine that you are a scientist who has been studying the effects of a new medication on the brain. You have conducted several experiments and observed that the medication appears to improve memory and cognitive function in mice. Based on these observations, you formulate the hypothesis that the medication will have the same effects in humans.

To test this hypothesis, you conduct a clinical trial in which a group of volunteers with age-related memory loss are given the medication and a control group is given a placebo. Over the course of several weeks, you measure the cognitive function of both groups and compare the results.

If the results of the clinical trial support your hypothesis, then you can conclude that the medication is likely to improve memory and cognitive function in humans. However, if the results do not support your hypothesis, then you must revise your hypothesis or conduct further research to better understand the effects of the medication.

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