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10.9 Empiricism

Philosophy day, part two, a little late, but it has been a rather busy day.

Anyway, last time, a quick introduction to Rationalism, to the idea that nothing can be trusted outside of our own minds, and that all has to be deduced logically. the Empiricists, the name being related to the study of how knowledge and understanding works, directly opposed that. Their theory was that though there was no evidence that the information from our senses was accurate, given that we have nothing to back up that one source, they are really all we have to understand the world, and we might as well work to consider the world as it seems to us, rather than wasting time reminding ourselves that reality might be different to what we think it is.
From this, they developed theories regarding the importance of senses, and also regarding how the mind works. As well as leading to the developing importance of such things as gardening, creating aesthetically pleasing and sensorially exciting scenes of trees and rivers and waterfalls and birds and so on, they also revolutionised our ideas of what people were.

If, as they suggested, everything we knew of the world came from our senses, and where else might it come from? then surely everything we knew must come to us during our lives, rather than before. That is, everyone is born with no knowledge, and all they learn is picked up through experience. If that is the case, then, why are children treated differently based on who their parents are? why is it that the children of wealthy and successful parents get to go to good schools and get taught, whilst the children of less well off families get sent to work at a young age? In fact, if all people are equal other than the experiences live throws at them and that their parents can buy for them, why should any one person be considered any more important than any other, outside of their own personal achievements and abilities?
This proved to be one of the most radical and influential ideas of the 18th century, revolutionising both education and politics. It was this more than anything else that started the new trend towards republicanism in the Americas, Corsica, France, and elsewhere, and towards liberal politics in other, less radical countries.

The major part of this theory was put forwards by John Locke, who also proposed that everything had to be worked out through study and obersavtion, rather than just thought out entirely in the mind, and that, following Rationalism’s view on the unreliablility of senses, that there could be no absolute certainty that what we saw was real, and thus that what we thought was true, and that therefore we should always be ready to listen to new arguments and to change our mind if they seemed more right, indeed, the more different arguments we allow ourselves to be exposed to, the closer we can come to understanding the real truth.
He was followed by such men as David Hume, who studied the ideas of cause and effect, how do we know that one thing causes another, when we can see no physical connection between them. Sure, one always happens after another, so far, but how can we know what will happen next time? Science, another keen interest of the Empiricists, can never prove anything, indeed, the only certainty with science is that it will be proven wrong by some later theory, (as may have happened recently with this faster than light stuff). The human mind creates patterns from what we see around us, even without absolute proof that these things are connected, whilst at the same time, any rational thoughts we might have are overpowered by instinct and emotion, which are what control most of our actions, as in the famous phrase, ‘Reason is a slave to passion’.
Finally, meanwhile, Edmund Burke, working at the time of the American and French revolutions, looked at these Empiricist theories, and at the Rationalist, Utopian ideals of the revolutionaries and came up with an argument against such action. The unimaginable complexity of society, he claimed, was something that no single mind could replace, that a full revolution to remove all of the past and start again could never work in practice. All of society has had to build up layer on layer over thousands of years, an evolutionary rather than revolutionary system, where common sense prevails over logic and nothing can ever be absolutely perfect. He argued, then, that what really mattered was each person making their own slight difference in their turn, and that people should listen to each other and consider all opinions and arguments, whilst ignoring anyone that claimed to be absolutely right, to never absolutely believe any ideologies, dogma, theories, or other supposed experts.

In this, Burke may have slightly foreshadowed the later theories of Hegel, but first, a major problem appears in philosophy, there are two directly opposing theories, both of which seem in many ways to be right, but which are mutually exclusive, so how can they possibly be reconciled? Can a world exist in which both Rationalism and Empiricism are right, as they seem to be to those that follow their separate arguments?

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