Within the tunnel of Epistemology, I’m somewhere in there spinning sporadically in every direction, caught in a whirlwind of confusion, bewilderment and jet lag. These past weeks of dissecting the very nature of knowing have really taken me on a very exciting, very puzzling path. Engaging in epistemological questions usually ended up taking me further away from where I thought I was on the road of clarity. So to pull me somewhat into the lights of the tunnel, I needed some sort of vehicle to bring me closer to where I was trying to get too. Being really interested in all the different types of ways that we could gain knowledge, I quickly became aware of many different schools of thought in epistemology. One that really interested me was Empiricism. From the beginning of talking about Epistemology, I was really interested in the subjectivity of knowledge and peoples’ different ways of receiving information. So the Empiricist way of gaining knowledge through sensory experience really appealed to me from the first time I took a look at it. Through the lens of Empiricism, I will try to steer myself through by trying to answer some of the big epistemological questions. So to somehow de-fog the tunnel in my mind, let’s take a ride in this car of Empiricism, and see just where it can take us.
The main idea of Empiricism is that the primary way that we gain knowledge is through sensory experience. So the things that we know can only come from the way that we’ve experienced things, its impossible for us to just sit down and be able to know things. Empiricists believe that this a posterior knowledge comes through experiencing daily life and they also stress the importance of using scientific research and experiments to cement knowledge as well. All in all Empiricism is about gaining knowledge by experiencing it through our senses. An Empiricist would also say that what we know is what we’ve experienced. Since the only way we can know things is through experience, what we know is limited to the things that we can learn through our senses. John Locke’s essay An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was a major foothold in terms of adding to the Empiricist way of thinking, and would be a shoulder for many Empiricist thinkers to come. The big idea that was in this essay was the idea of tabula rasa (which also sounds like a fantastic name for a German thrash metal band) The tabula rasa, was an idea can be found originating in works as far back as Aristotle, though neither Locke nor Aristotle called it that at the times that they wrote about it. Even though it may have been under a different name Locke was definitely influenced by Aristotle’s writings about this subject. The idea is that when we are born, our brain is a blank slate, a white page, for which information is to be recorded on. And it is only recorded on through sensory experience. This became a basis for Empiricism because it states we never know things until our senses experience them.
Sometimes to know something better, and to help me try to answer those big Epistemological questions, it’s good to know somethings opposite. If we were name Empiricism’s moral enemy it would have to be Rationalism. The feud between Empiricism and Rationalism is actually quite a famous feud in the world of epistemology, and has been going ever since the two first started to exist together. Look, it even has its own poster.
Really though, the arguments between Rationalist and Empiricists are really great to examine to help you kind of figure out where you lie on the spectrum of your beliefs in how knowledge is constructed. Rationalists, unlike Empiricists, say that there are significant ways that knowledge is constructed that is independent of sensory experience. They say that there is some knowledge that we already know at birth. For that reason they completely reject the Empiricist’s idea of the Tabula rasa. As Empiricists believe that knowledge is primarily gained a posterior, Rationalists believe that it is gained a priori. Analytical philosopher and writer Galen Strawson has been quite frequently quoted summing up Rationalism with the quote which he once wrote saying “You can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.” If there was ever a way to sum up Rationalism in one sentence, I feel that that is the best way of doing it.
So now that we have both of the groups set up and introduced, lets bring in an example and see how both of these groups would dissect how we know what we know. Let’s use this statement that I found: a king who has reigned for four days has reigned for more than three days. A Rationalist would that we don’t need any evidence to know this. We know without having to do any research that four is more than three, it’s something that we just know. In response to that, an Empiricist would say that we would have to experience what three is, in terms of days and numbers, to know that it is less than four. We would have to taught how to measure three days, or even one day. We would have to feel what one day feels like to be able to know what three is. And in terms of numbers, we would also have to know that four is more than three. We would have to experience both three and four, either individually and together, and make the conclusion that yes, four is indeed more than three. They would state that that isn’t just something that we can think and then know, we have to learn it through experience.
Now, as we’ve finished examining each of the two schools of thought and even pitted them against each other in the Epistemological boxing ring, complete with fight posters and everything, we must leave the guide of both of them and try and make sense of what is going on for ourselves. A sad moment, I know. I’m getting flashbacks from the end of the Metaphysics unit where I had to separate myself from the ever so watchful gaze of Arthur Schopenhauer. Of course if I had no desire to happy, then I would never be sad. Oh Arthur…
Taking a look at what I’ve from learned Empiricism, and Rationalism as well, I must say that I do have a bit of a clearer image of what I think I know about knowing. I can’t say that I can totally call myself a either Empiricist or a Rationalist purist. I can say though, that my gut instinct to pick Empiricism as a school of thought to begin as a place to start wasn’t totally wrong. If I had to put myself on the spectrum that I was talking about between the two, I would be much closer to the Empiricism side. I do agree that a lot of the knowledge we receive does come from our sensory experience. And in terms of the king example, I do agree with the fact that we first have to experience both three and four, in terms of numbers and days, to be able to say that we know that four is more than three. But I feel that through learning about Empiricism, I’ve been able to pinpoint what I spot is the difference between what I think about knowledge and what it thinks about it. I feel like I take a little bit of what I think from the Rationalist side, in that I feel that there are some things that we know by instinct. Some things that we do automatically such as breathing, or our survival instincts are things that we haven’t totally learned by experience. Most importantly though, I also feel that there is a more social aspect of learning. I think what it comes to for me is that what we know are things that we experience through our senses, and but how know it is through our own individual sensory experiences, and our shared experiences. I think that learning both from one another, and together with others are an important part of how we know things. Through sharing knowledge that we’ve experience through books and other forms of spreading knowledge, we are able to learn from one another what the other has experience. And we can also learn things together, through discussing things and just general learning as a community. And what the implications of this are and what this means for all of this, is that we are constantly learning individually through experience, but it is important for us to come together and be able to spread that knowledge and learn together in a more social way as well.
So now where do I sit in my metaphorical tunnel? I think that in terms of Epistemology I do have a much clearer view than I did before, but I don’t think that being in the fog itself is actually something that we should try and avoid at all costs. I think that in terms of learning and growth and life in general, being spiraling aimlessly in the fog isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think that you do have times where you’re out of the fog and where you’re in patches of clear spaces. But it’s important to allow yourself to be lost in the fog, because that’s where you’re able to find out what you really think about things. Whether it’s questioning the nature of reality, or trying examine knowledge, it’s useful to blindly kind of stumble around with an open mind every once in a while so that you may have a clearer understanding of where you want to end up, even if you may never get there. I think that the point of learning isn’t necessarily to help us reach an end quicker or more efficiently, it’s so that we can make the experience of getting there a much richer and more enjoyable one.