In research related to education and learning theories, there are two major philosophies that influence almost the entire field of education. The name of these two philosophies are rationalism and empiricism. In this post, we will take a closer look at each of these philosophies and their impact on education.
Rationalism is a form of epistemology that states that knowledge grows from the process of reasoning without reliance on the senses. In this philosophy, there is a strong distinction between knowledge acquired by the senses and by reason. According to Plato, a major proponent of this philosophy, things a.k.a matter are revealed by the senses. Ideas, on the other hand, are revealed by reasoning. This reasoning process is a systematic reflection upon the ideas of the world, which leads to further ideas being developed.
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher of the 17th century. He extended the work of Plato by stating that the primary difference between man and beast was the former’s ability to reason. For Descartes, the external world was mechanical. In many ways, this idea paved the way for naturalism and materialism of the 19th century.
In summary, rationalism is focused upon the development of the mind through thinking processes. This philosophy is at the heart of such learning theories that related specifically to information processing. Rationalism has also influence educational philosophies such as perennialism and to a lesser extent essentialism.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of epistemology is empiricism. Empiricism states that experience through the senses is the only source of knowledge. Aristotle was the developer of this position. He stated that ideas cannot exist independent of the external world. It is the information one gathers not from thinking but from one’s senses that leads to knowledge.
This idea was taken a step further by John Locke in the 17th century. Locke is famous for proposing what he called the tabla rasa. This was a phrase for stating that a person is born a blank slate. As the grow and take in information through the senses does the person acquire ideas about their environment and self.
Empiricism is one of the dominating philosophies of modern time. The scientific method, various learning theories on associational learning, and educational philosophies focused on experiential learning are based on empiricism.
More could be said about these two philosophies. The point that is being made is that they have had a strong influence on education. Most major debates in education share positions stated by one of these philosophies. When people speak of critical thinking and the development of the mind they are pulling concepts from rationalism. When people speak of job skills and hands on training they are deriving arguments from empiricism. In reality, a combination of both will lead to well-rounded individuals.