This is the topic of my essay for a high school theory of knowledge class. I think that the question implies that all knowledge stems directly (in the case of passive observation) or indirectly (in experimentation) from sensory experience. Or in other words, empiricism is true. Based on that, I talk about reasons that credit or discredit empiricism in paper to reach a conclusion.

But, my teacher has a different interpretation which I can't seem to understand. This mostly stems from her different definition of 'active experimentation'. She claims that experiments here refer to the use of reason, and that they have nothing to do with experience. So, she seems to think that this is a reference to rationalism and to her, the question is asking us to consider if all knowledge stems from either from either experience or reason.

I am really confused by all this talk about rationalism and can't see how experiments imply not relying on experience...

  • 1
    You might look at weak measurement and interaction-free measurement. The idea of measurement greatly impacted people's concept of what 'passive' could mean in 'passive observation'.
    – labreuer
    Nov 16, 2014 at 3:13
  • 2
    This either-or question has always struck me as an obvious false dichotomy. In my view knowledge stems not from reason alone or experience alone, but from reasoning about experience. Knowledge stands on the two legs of experience and reason, and if you cut one out the whole thing comes crashing down.
    – David H
    Nov 16, 2014 at 4:10

2 Answers 2


This is really a linguistic exercise. The issue is not the question at hand; the issue is that the parties do not agree on the meaning of the terms but continue to use them.

To suggest a wording that may make sense to you, but is in the vein of what I interpret your teacher to be saying, let us consider the "discovery" of relativity.

Einstein developed relativity as a way to make sense of some real life test data observing strange behaviors in Maxwell's equations, which makes it sound like it was derived from active experimentation. However, consider that Einstein worked on the math for ten years, with little to no experimental input. The entire process of Einstein discovering relativity occurred without him doing any experiments (besides thought experiments).

Also consider that the data he was using was publicly available. Hundreds of scientists had access to all of the active experimentation done on the topic. None of them produced the knowledge of relativity, but they had the active experimental data.

This suggests that the attribution of relativity should be to Einstein and his rational thoughts, not the active or passive experiments. It would be valid to construct a counter-arugment and go back and forth, but I hope this example is enough to assist you in coming to agreement with your teacher.


There is such a thing as "synergy," were the total is greater than the sum of its parts. I think that reasoning is what "allows/causes" the synergy. Thus, reasoning also creates knowledge. So you have observation, experimentation, and reasoning, as the sources of knowledge.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .