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Review of the rationalism-empiricism distinction in Latin America

Juan Gomez writes…

In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.

A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).

In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.

For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.

The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.

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