Seven men have come to stand out from all their counterparts in what has come to be known as the ‘modern’ period in the history of philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant.” Essentially these modern philosophers, with perhaps the exception of Kant, have been classified into two distinctive streams of philosophical thought rationalism and empiricism. The following discussion will focus on understanding the division between these streams of philosophy. The focus will primarily concentrate on understanding the contrasting views relating to the origin of ideas, with particular emphasis on Descartes’s theory of innate ideas. The report will argue that Descartes provided not only a more optimistic and encouraging understanding of the faculties of the mind but in relation to the empirical response, also a more plausible one.
Undoubtedly the father of modern philosophy, but more specifically of rationalism, Rene Descartes approached philosophical dilemmas influenced predominately by the progress and success of science and mathematics. Descartes attempted to answer epistemological issues with the assurity of math and science. Similarly, Spinoza and Leibniz, inspired by Descartes developed his philosophical arguments with the same level of exactness in mathematics. The rationalists set out to formulate clear rational principles that could be organized into a system of truths from which accurate information about the world could be deduced. Fundamentally their emphasis was upon the rational capacity of the human mind, which employed the principle of reason which had precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge.
Contrastingly developed the school of philosophical thought of empiricism, which John Locke has been attributed with being the founder of this style of thought. Empiricism evolved with a more modest objective, “clearing the ground a little and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.” However, Locke developed a bold and original interpretation of how the mind works and one that challenged rationalist understanding. The scope of our knowledge according to Locke, “is limited to and by our experience.”
Locke called into question the assumptions of Descartes that there was no problem that human reason could not solve if the correct method was employed. Locke developed a resistance “to the assumption that the human mind has capabilities that enable it to discover the true nature of the universe.” Descartes and other rationalists contrastingly viewed the workings of the mind more optimistically, arguing the mind has the ability to uncover the truth about the world without dependence on experiences.
One of the deep and fundamental distinctions between rationalism and empiricism relates to the origin of ideas. Inherently man’s source of ideas for both philosophical doctrines underpinned their entire concepts of the mind’s ability to understand the universe and its ability to uncover the nature of truth within it. Essentially rationalism questioned the empirical view that all knowledge and ideas are generated through experiences and sensory awareness. Descartes argued that “among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious and others have been invented by me. My understanding of what a thing is, what truth is and what thought is, seems to derive simply from my own nature.” At the heart of Descartes lied the concept that man can understand the true nature of the universe innately from our own rational mind.
In his third meditation, Descartes asserted that man develops ideas from the external world through experiences and sensations, “my hearing a noise, as I do now, or seeing the sun… comes from things which are located outside me or so I have hitherto judgment.” Defined as adventitious ideas, this class of ideas evolves from external impressions, which are perceived through sensations; moreover, these ideas resemble the sensation experienced. The point is that essentially we get our ideas of certain things through sensory experiences. Descartes made the crucial point that we know that the ideas that develop are not dependent on our own rationality. “Frequently I notice them even when I do not want to, now for example, I feel the heat whether I want to or not. And this is why I think that this sensation or idea of heat comes to me from something other than myself… thing in question transmits to me its own likeness rather than something else.” This is a similar concept held by empirical philosophers, that our ideas stem essentially from our sensory experience.
Locke for example argued, “in that all knowledge is founded and from that, it ultimately derives itself.” Similarly, both Locke and Descartes asserted that whilst adventitious ideas are externally derived, they can also develop internally without external assistance. Descartes held “so there may be some other faculty not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from external things; this is…how I have always thought ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming.” Is this the Descartean answer for the subconscious?
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