Empiricists think that we should rely on our senses as a source of information but they also agree that using induction, and therefore reason as well, to make conclusions are reliable, whereas irrationalists think we can't use reason to make conclusions.

Empiricism: experience/senses vs reason Irrationalism: reason vs intuition/feeling...

I know that empiricism and irrationalism aren't direct opposites of each other. Nonetheless, is my understanding of the differences between these two epistemological approaches correct?

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    – J D
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 18:35
  • I'd say that's the right way of understanding the two and compare them. Empiricism reduces Reason to somewhat of a statistical tool, your induction does not grant you certainty but probability, so it uses Reason just as a mean of guiding the further effort of observation. Irrationalism is a full refutation of Reason. Rationalism is pure deduction from certain axioms which are self-evident.
    – Gloserio
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 20:12
  • Empiricists agree not only on using induction but also deduction, abduction and whatever other methods reason provides, however sophisticated. Their difference with rationalists is over whether there is some type of knowledge coming from reason alone, independently of sense experience, see Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Irrationalists also accept use of reason, they just believe that intuition, instinct, faith, etc., are superior sources of knowledge. An irrationalist can even be a rationalist in the above sense, or an empiricist.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 20:39
  • @Conifold 1. I wonder if the SEP is really 100% authoritative on this matter. Some like BonJour define “rationalism” differently (rationalism is a weaker claim, similar to the OP) as do many empiricists he quotes in his book “A Defense of Pure Reason”. 2. do simple truths about logic, if one already believes in deduction etc., already count as knowledge? Then it gets tough for empiricism if 3. we (like BonJour) can agree that all knowledge comes from sense experience (the mind needs sense experience to develop concepts of e. g. logic) but say rationalism is about justification.
    – viuser
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 23:34
  • If one of the answers below is enough for you, please accept it and we can "close" the post. Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 13:51

2 Answers 2


Empiricism and reason

'Empiricism' has as many meanings as there are empiricists. But if we take empiricism as the view that all knowledge derives ultimately from sense experience, which has some claims to be the standard view, there is no inconsistency in recognising a role for reason. We can reason about what we derive from experience. For instance, without experience we would not know what a colour is or know that red, green and blue are colours. However, given our experience of colours we can deduce that if X is red then X is coloured. We can recognise logical relations between concepts, in other words.

Whether induction is rational, non-rational or irrational is a matter of much dispute, not least among empiricists themselves, but we don't need to decide anything here. The red/ colour example is enough to show that the ultimate derivation of all knowledge from sense experience is perfectly consistent with the application of reason to what we derive from experience.

Empiricism and irrationalism

Different views may be taken about what irrationalism is but to help fix ideas:

'Irrationalism' often connotes a tendency toward or advocacy of arbitrariness in one's beliefs and decisions. The thought is that an irrationalist is someone who simply plumps for a particular belief or course of action without considering reasons for or against it. An irrationalist is a person prone to 'leaps' rather than to inferences. ... Another idea closely associated with arbitrariness is that 'irrationalism' is a view that substitutes private whim or wishful thinking for rational conviction. That is, an irrationalist cares more about what she wants to be true than what reason might warrant.

Irrationalism also suggests a sort of denigration of reason. The idea is that the deliverances of reason are irrelevant, immaterial, or worthless. Put in religious terms, the thought is that human reason is limited and corrupt and so has no rights over divine revelation. Allied with this denigration of reason is an aversion to critical enquiry, particularly when it is directed at one's cherished beliefs. This is often joined with a kind of counter-evidentialism. Counter-evidentialism goes beyond the claim that some beliefs or courses of action can be justified even when evidence is weak or absent to endorse the claim that they can justified even if the evidence against them is overwhelming. Another version of this counsels the adoption of beliefs or courses of action that are manifestly incoherent. This is captured by the famous misquote from Tertullian, credo quia absurdum ['I believe because it is absurd'].

(Benjamin D. Crowe, 'F. H. Jacobi on Faith, or What It Takes to Be an Irrationalist', Religious Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 309-324: 311.)

These characterisations fit well with your statement:

'...irrationalists think we can't use reason to make conclusions'.

Two comments to connect back to empiricism:

(1) If empiricism derives all knowledge ultimately from sense experience it seems to be at odds with irrationalism as 'simply plumping for a belief' from 'private whim or wishful thinking'. Empirical knowledge is controlled by experience; irrationalism pays no or little heed to experience.

(2) Empiricism has no truck with irrationalist counter-evidentialism. It precisely relies on evidence - evidence derived ultimately from experience.

Empiricism and intuition

You mention intuition, so you want some account, not given so far, of intuition. This term, like empiricism itself, is open to a broad variety of meanings. My own understanding of intuition is that if I know something intuitively, I know it by a direct intellectual awareness not derived from sense experience. It follows that intuition - intuitive knowledge - is not empirical knowledge. Empiricism excludes intuition.

Intuition or intuitive knowledge is not rational knowledge either. Intuition involves 'instantaneous insight' (B. Williams, Descartes, London: Routledge, 2005: 73) not preceded by rational processes.

This does not connect intuition with the irrational, however. Intuition by its nature - inherently - delivers truth. It is 'instantaneous insight' into the truth. Irrationalism by contrast involves - endorses or promotes - intellectual arbitrariness, private whim and wishful thinking, none of which can deliver truth, an essential element in knowledge, other than accidentally.

Whether we actually have any intuitive knowledge as defined I cannot say.

I have not defended empiricism here and would not call myself an empiricist. I have simply answered your question on lines which I believe are open to an empiricist on what I have called the standard view.

  • What if we acquire knowledge about or psyche by introspection? This is experience, but not sense experience.
    – viuser
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 2:07
  • @wolf-revo-cats - Some folks call all experience 'empirical', some only experience derived from sense-data. The difference is a source of confusion. .
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 12:02
  • I think that empiricism entails a bit of “denigration of reason”. Sense experience trumps reason. Like in the way of Lawrence Krauss wearing an “2 + 2 = 5” t-shirt.
    – viuser
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 12:30

Disclaimer: This is an feuilletonistic, opinionated answer.

What rationalism and empiricism mean is extremely difficult to describe. The terms most important to their ‘precise’ characterization, like “sense experience” (or simply “experience”) and “analytic”, and the phrase “knowledge comes from”, are very difficult to pin down.

  1. What about experience that is not sense experience? A person may find out by introspection a “psychological law” that governs her mind. Like: “If I try to suppress an unwanted thought, it results in an even more increased return of the unwanted thought”. This knowledge does very clearly not come from sense experience, but it is also not what we would describe as a rational insight. Still there may be cases where it is not at all clear what kind of mental processes are at work: maybe it is misguided that there is a sharp distinction between psychological processes like introspection and rationality (reason).

  2. “sense experience” is not at all a simple term. Few empiricists would promote uncritical acceptance of sense experience. There are, for example, optical, tactile or auditory illusions. Water of 20° C feels cool if your hand was immersed in water of 50° C, but feels warm if your hand was immersed in water of 1 °C. But how do we even suspect such illusions are indeed illusions? There must be some sort of conflict, a contradiction. It seems impossible to recognize such a conflict based on sense experience. In empirical science, very refined measurement devices (which remove the influence of those illusions) are used. Is this really still sense experience? Where do those measurement devices come from? Ho do we know they work? It can’t be strictly speaking sense experience telling us they work, can it? If people as Dawkins say that they obviously work – because otherwise how could we achieve the successes of science – and call that a kind of “experience”, we’re talking about a very, very different kind of experience.

  3. “Analytic” is used to describe empty tautological inferences from what is already entailed in the definition of a term. “Red is a color” therefore “A red object is colored object” is presumably analytic. Few empiricists claim that such simple inferences “come” from experience – but they regard this kind of rational inference (“entailment”) as unproblematic. But what on earth does “entail” really mean? And is “term” = “concept” and “definition” = “meaning”? That we can get knowledge by thinking about what is “entailed” in the meaning of concepts sounds like a very powerful faculty. We could state that we get to the most advanced mathematical theorems this way without sounding in any way ridiculous. In short, a precise definition of analytic seems as futile as trying to precisely define “platitude”.

  4. “knowledge comes from” is a most mysterious phrase. A child who grew up in a very deprived environment does likely not develop the ability to count. The child cannot achieve the knowledge of 1 + 1 = 2. So does this mean mathematics comes from sense experience or at least some sort of experience? Well, maybe we just meant that 1 + 1 = 2 cannot be justified by experience. Looking beyond 1 + 1 = 2, there are certainly mathematical theorems about the infinity of numbers. And what in our finite world of experience can justify statements about infinite sets? This sounds very intuitive. But why are we justified to talk about infinite numbers? That might be just a fiction of the human mind, so not even be knowledge. Therefore let’s go back to 1 + 1 = 2. In cases where one thing and another thing put together do not yield two things (like a rabbit and a python put together yields one thing, a python … that has eaten the rabbit) we recognize that some peculiar process must have happened. We don’t simply ‘correct’ our belief that 1 + 1 = 2. But why might this not be simply a conflict between one experience and another more entrenched experience?

In short, I don’t think that a precise definition of rationalism and empiricism can be given. It seems to be about vague attitudes concerning human reason.

And the empirical attitude has a kind of “irrationalist” vibe to it. It means to be, roughly speaking, skeptical about what human reason can achieve.

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