Knowing through senses vs. knowing rationally


I’m preparing for a short essay I have to write on one of John Locke’s texts on tolerance. I find myself asking ‘Why am I typing on my blog instead of typing my essay?’ A good question no doubt but I’m just going to ignore the answer, which is that I am procrastinating!

The question requires that I know what the two theories of knowledge ‘Rationalism’ and ‘Empiricism’ are. Basically, when they are applied together to a given subject, they seem to be polar opposites. Rationalism says that our minds are superior in coming to the truths of reality and that we are even born with pre-conceived (a priori) notions of the world. In this sense, we already know something before learning all the rest. Bizarre, but maybe true and certainly interesting.

Empiricism, on the other hand, says we are born with minds that are like ‘tabulae rasae’ (blank slates, John Locke) and all our knowledge comes through the senses (a posteriori). We know nothing apart from the primacy of the senses. Certainly interesting too!

I am going to take the road down the middle, the one which seems to be the road of common sense. Sure, we sense the world through our senses (forgive the repetition), but that would be insufficient for learning and ‘humaning’ without our mental processors. We wouldn’t be able to rationalise and store knowledge (at a level that animals cannot) without our minds and the thoughts that inhere therein.  Conversely, were we to be deprived all five external senses, I really have to ask ‘What in the name of God could we actually learn?’ There would be no ‘data’ to grasp at. We couldn’t see to form mental images, couldn’t hear to memorise sounds, couldn’t taste, touch or smell to even know we had physical bodies. Isn’t this what that would be like? With only our pure mental faculties, our world would be a darkness of seemingly incoherent thoughts that would be more like mental babbling, because we would never have been able to learn anything, including language. So, it would seem to me we need our senses as much as our mental faculties to come to knowledge.

I am now going to form my own philosophical school of thought called ‘Ratemp’ as I am sure I am the first one to come with this amazing observation. I marvel at myself sometimes! (All said jokingly, just in case!)

Anyway, to finish I’ll share this Metallica video, which tells the story of a soldier who is deprived of all sense faculties after being caught in a mortar strike. The above debate reminded me of it. He becomes someone who only has his mind. He cannot communicate, hear, feel etc. He is perfectly isolated from the world. It is actually quite frightening and sad. Heavy Metal fans will of course be familiar with Metallica! Here is the video. Enjoy!

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Ian Clifton says:

    From my own reading in philosophy I know you’re not the first one to come up with the idea that we need both our senses and thoughts to know, but it is a worthy and profound thought. I would go even further to say that it is only through the combination of our perceptions and concepts that it is possible to know anything at all.

    1. ajshannon2014 says:

      Thank you for that, Ian. You have rightly pointed out that I did not indeed come up with that. Thankfully, I didn’t think I had haha! Thanks for the compliment 🙂 So, by perceptions and concepts do you mean particularly to each individual?

  2. As Uar Iam says:

    Hey AJ, I think you’re on the right track. Only thing is we think too small to see the big picture. I suggest we stop looking for our beginnings, & search for a Genesis of ALL. #NOTHINGMatters

    1. ajshannon2014 says:

      Hey As Uar Iam, thanks for reading and commenting. I don’t know if there is anything very profound in what I said, I often try to go for the common sense approach, as I said 🙂 But thanks for the encouragement. You have an interesting blog, I’m not quite sure I understand your theory yet but I’m looking forward to seeing more 🙂

      1. As Uar Iam says:

        AJ, that’s why I liked it so much. Common sense can explain a lot we currently don’t understand. In the end, that’s what my blog is all about. Hope you enjoy the ride

  3. dj says:

    Nice post… now what do you think about Kant!

    1. ajshannon2014 says:

      Thanks DJ, leave that one with me, as I am not familiar enough with him. From what I know, though, I don’t think I do agree with him. Humans are too separated from reality on his view, it would seem, as we cannot know anything essentially.

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