Epistemology Theories of Knowledge Rationalism & Empiricism

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 11:00 -- Umar Farooq

What is Epistemology or Theories of Knowledge

“Epistemology” or “Theory of knowledge” as described by the Encyclopedia of Britannica, are similar words. The study of the nature and validity of human knowledge is called epistemology or theory of knowledge.  A brief treatment of epistemology follows (For theory of knowledge earlier, the term epistemology was used. The term epistemology was first used in the 19th century, as a synonym for the “theory of knowledge” but Western philosophical thought on the subject has a history reaching back to Plato and Aristotle. Traditionally, the range of its problems has served to contrast it on the one hand with metaphysics, related with the nature of reality, and on the other hand with logic, related with the forms of valid arguments.

With modem recognition that much, that had actually, previously been regarded as philosophy’s function, properly belonged to the natural sciences, what was left of metaphysics tended to be absorbed into epistemology. This process began with Descartes and was carried on by Locke and the British empiricists and above all, by Kant, whose investigations into the extent and conditions of the possibility of knowledge by the same understanding were intended to determine the boundaries between knowledge and rational beliefs on the one hand and what he regarded as the illusions of metaphysics on the other.

Typically, experiments examine the ‘degrees of certainty and probability in knowing (with certainty) and believing (without being certain). The epistemologist seeks to provide knowledge about knowledge. Two competing epistemological orientations are Rationalism, which stresses the role of reason in providing certainty, and empiricism, which stresses that of sensory perception. From all this statement, it could be derived that there are only two theories of knowledge are Rationalism and Empiricism.


What is “rationalism”? Rationalism, in Philosophy, is a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge and in contrast to “empiricism” tends to “discountenance” sensory experience. It holds that because reality itself has an inherently rational structure, there are especially logic and mathematics but also in ethics and metaphysics.... that the intellect can grasp directly. In ethics, rationalism relies on “natural light” and in theology it places supernatural revelation with reason.

As per the rationalist doctrine the truth of physical science and even history could in principle be discovered by pure thinking and set forth as of consequences of self-evident premises. In this theory, stress is made to utilize reason and intellect. Its followers consider reason to be superior to anything else. Most of the exponents of this theory are in favor of the use of only mind and nothing else Aristotle, therefore, seeks within the objective facts of nature and social life. He used inductive and deductive method for finding out knowledge. He was the first to formulate the logic of these subjects. Aristotle is recognized as the greatest of all other theorists.


It means believing in experimentation/learning by experiences. “Try and error” has been one of the oldest methods regarding learning and attaining knowledge. In this theory, stress is made on using all the sense organs to achieve knowledge. The latest and modern educationists especially the scientists have supported this theory. All the later developments have supported this theory. All the later developments have occurred due to the propagation of this theory. This theory, as presumed by all thinkers, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, was mostly advocated by Aristotle. Aristotle was always in search of truth and truth could be achieved only through sensory method. But the religious bodies are quite against this theory.

They say that it is defective in its metaphysic and limited to the earthly life in its ethics; and. they have accused its followers of being Rationalists or Empiricists. Basically, both of the above mentioned theories are correlated and they are the two sides of a coin. They are named differently, only to identify the nature of the activity being carried out for attaining knowledge while the objective of both the theories is one and the same.