Rationalism vs. Empiricism

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Rationalism and empiricism were two philosophical schools in the 17th and 18th centuries, that were expressing opposite views on some subjects, including knowledge. While the debate between the rationalist and empiricist schools did not have any relationship to the study of psychology at the time, it has contributed greatly to facilitating the possibility of establishing the discipline of Psychology. This essay will describe the empiricist and rationalist debate, and will relate this debate to the history of psychology.

The debate between rationalist and empiricist philosophers looks at the nature of knowledge, and specifically, how we gain this knowledge. Rationalists and empiricists take opposite, and sometimes mutually exclusive, views on how knowledge is obtained.

Rationalism is based on the assumption that all human beings are innately rational. French and German rationalist philosophers, such as Decartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant believed that basic metaphysical questions can be answered by reason alone. In his work Discourse on the Method, Decartes attempted to arrive at a set of principles that are fundamental, and in this way to arrive at true knowledge; to do that he methodologically rejected everything that he can doubt. Decartes summarised his conclusion in saying “I think therefore I am” (Decartes, 1637); he concluded that only thought exists, and because thought could not be separated from him, he also concluded that he exists. This conclusion that only the existence of thought cannot be doubted led to the view that reason and thought are the nature of the soul, and that humans are basically rational, is the foundation for rationalist thought. According to rationalist philosophers, reason is what separates hum...

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