Reasons without Rationalism


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Adventitious ideas, such as a sensation of heat, are gained directly through sense experience. Ideas invented by us, such as our idea of a hippogriff, are created by us from other ideas we possess. Innate ideas, such as our ideas of God, of extended matter, of substance and of a perfect triangle, are placed in our minds by God at creation. Our concept of God is not directly gained in experience, as particular tastes, sensations and mental images might be.

Its content is beyond what we could ever construct by applying available mental operations to what experience directly provides. From experience, we can gain the concept of a being with finite amounts of various perfections, one, for example, that is finitely knowledgeable, powerful and good.

We cannot however move from these empirical concepts to the concept of a being of infinite perfection. Descartes supplements this argument by another. Not only is the content of our concept of God beyond what experience can provide, the concept is a prerequisite for our employment of the concept of finite perfection gained from experience. First, there is the problem of explaining what it is for someone to have an innate concept.

Reasons without Rationalism

Young children and people from other cultures do not consciously entertain the concept of God and have not done so. Second, there is the objection that we have no need to appeal to innate concepts in the first place. Leibniz offers a rationalist reply to the first concern. Where Locke puts forth the image of the mind as a blank tablet on which experience writes, Leibniz offers us the image of a block of marble, the veins of which determine what sculpted figures it will accept.

The mind plays a role in determining the nature of its contents. This point does not, however, require the adoption of the Innate Concept thesis. According to Locke, experience consists in external sensation and inner reflection. All our ideas are either simple or complex, with the former being received by us passively in sensation or reflection and the latter being built by the mind from simple materials through various mental operations.

Right at the start, the account of how simple ideas are gained is open to an obvious counterexample acknowledged, but then set aside, by Hume in presenting his own empiricist theory. Consider the mental image of a particular shade of blue.

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If Locke is right, the idea is a simple one and should be passively received by the mind through experience. Hume points out otherwise. Even when it comes to such simple ideas as the image of a particular shade of blue, the mind is more than a blank slate on which experience writes. Consider too our concept of a particular color, say red. For one thing, it makes the incorrect assumption that various instances of a particular concept share a common feature.

Carruthers puts the objection as follows. We get our concept of causation from our observation that some things receive their existence from the application and operation of some other things. Yet, we cannot make this observation unless we already have the concept of causation. We come by the idea of power though considering the possibility of changes in our ideas made by experiences and our own choices. Yet, to consider this possibility—of some things making a change in others—we must already have a concept of power.

One way to meet at least some of these challenges to an empiricist account of the origin of our concepts is to revise our understanding of the content of our concepts so as to bring them more in line with what experience will clearly provide. Hume famously takes this approach. Impressions are the contents of our current experiences: our sensations, feelings, emotions, desires, and so on. Ideas are mental contents derived from impressions.

Given that all our ideas are thus gained from experience, Hume offers us the following method for determining the content of any idea and thereby the meaning of any term taken to express it. If experience is indeed the source of all ideas, then our experiences also determine the content of our ideas. Our ideas of causation, of substance, of right and wrong have their content determined by the experiences that provide them. Those experiences, Hume argues, are unable to support the content that many rationalists and some empiricists, such as Locke, attribute to the corresponding ideas.

Our inability to explain how some concepts, with the contents the rationalists attribute to them, are gained from experience should not lead us to adopt the Innate Concept thesis. It should lead us to accept a more limited view of the contents for those concepts, and thereby a more limited view of our ability to describe and understand the world. Consider, for example, our idea of causation. Descartes takes it to be innate. Locke offers an apparently circular account of how it is gained from experience. Our idea of causation is derived from a feeling of expectation rooted in our experiences of the constant conjunction of similar causes and effects.

Our claims, and any knowledge we may have, about causal connections in the world turn out, given the limited content of our empirically based concept of causation, to be claims and knowledge about the constant conjunction of events and our own feelings of expectation. Thus, the initial disagreement between rationalists and empiricists about the source of our ideas leads to one about their content and thereby the content of our descriptions and knowledge of the world.

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Introduction 1. The Innate Knowledge Thesis 4. Introduction The dispute between rationalism and empiricism takes place within epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge. How can we gain knowledge? What are the limits of our knowledge? The second thesis associated with rationalism is the Innate Knowledge thesis. The Innate Knowledge Thesis : We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

The third important thesis of rationalism is the Innate Concept thesis. The Innate Concept Thesis : We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

The Indispensability of Reason Thesis : The knowledge we gain in subject area, S, by intuition and deduction, as well as the ideas and instances of knowledge in S that are innate to us, could not have been gained by us through sense experience. The second is that reason is superior to experience as a source of knowledge. The Superiority of Reason Thesis : The knowledge we gain in subject area S by intuition and deduction or have innately is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience. The Empiricism Thesis : We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.


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The senses, although they are necessary for all our actual knowledge, are not sufficient to give us the whole of it, since the senses never give anything but instances, that is to say particular or individual truths. Now all the instances which confirm a general truth, however numerous they may be, are not sufficient to establish the universal necessity of this same truth, for it does not follow that what happened before will happen in the same way again.

That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures. That three times five is equal to half of thirty expresses a relation between these numbers. Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would forever retain their certainty and evidence.

Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner, nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible, because it can never imply a contradiction and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness as if ever so conformable to reality.

Hume , Section IV, Part 1, p. Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt more properly than perceived. Or if we reason concerning it and endeavor to fix the standard, we regard a new fact, to wit, the general taste of mankind, or some other fact which may be the object of reasoning and inquiry.

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If we take in our hand any volume--of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance--let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. There can be no a priori knowledge of reality. For … the truths of pure reason, the propositions which we know to be valid independently of all experience, are so only in virtue of their lack of factual content … [By contrast] empirical propositions are one and all hypotheses which may be confirmed or discredited in actual sense experience.

1. Introduction

We have noted that while one form of nativism claims somewhat implausibly that knowledge is innate in the sense of being present as such or at least in propositional form from birth, it might also be maintained that knowledge is innate in the sense of being innately determined to make its appearance at some stage in childhood. This latter thesis is surely the most plausible version of nativism. The Innate Concept Thesis According to the Innate Concept thesis, some of our concepts have not been gained from experience.

This is why I have taken as an illustration a block of veined marble, rather than a wholly uniform block or blank tablets, that is to say what is called tabula rasa in the language of the philosophers. For if the soul were like those blank tablets, truths would be in us in the same way as the figure of Hercules is in a block of marble, when the marble is completely indifferent whether it receives this or some other figure.

But if there were veins in the stone which marked out the figure of Hercules rather than other figures, this stone would be more determined thereto, and Hercules would be as it were in some manner innate in it, although labour would be needed to uncover the veins, and to clear them by polishing, and by cutting away what prevents them from appearing.

It is in this way that ideas and truths are innate in us, like natural inclinations and dispositions, natural habits or potentialities, and not like activities, although these potentialities are always accompanied by some activities which correspond to them, though they are often imperceptible.

Suppose therefore a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years and to have become perfectly acquainted with colors of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with; let all the different shades of that color, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest, it is plain that he will perceive a blank where that shade is wanting and will be sensible that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colors than in any other.

Now I ask whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are but few will be of the opinion that he can… , Section II, pp. In fact problems arise for empiricists even in connection with the very simplest concepts, such as those of colour.

For it is false that all instances of a given colour share some common feature. In which case we cannot acquire the concept of that colour by abstracting the common feature of our experience. Thus consider the concept red.

Do all shades of red have something in common?

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