Knowledge, empiricism and all that

by Neil Rickert

As previously indicated, I intend giving an outline of my own non-typical views of philosophical topics.  I’ll start by indicating in broad outline, how I look at knowledge.

There’s a traditional division between rationalism (roughly, knowledge is innate but perhaps requires reasoning to uncover it) and empiricism (knowledge is acquired through experience).  Between those alternatives, I clearly select empiricism.  It seems rather obvious that we acquire our knowledge through experience, and I suppose I find it a bit of a puzzle that there are rationalists who deny this.

When I get into the details, however, there is much in the literature on empiricism that is inconsistent with how I am looking at knowledge and learning.  The empiricism of John Locke seems about right.  At least as I read him, Locke is equating knowledge with concepts, and learning with acquiring concepts.  Locke’s empiricism appears to be all about the aquiring of concepts through experience.  But when I look at more recent literature, perhaps even starting with Hume, there seems to have been a switch to equating knowledge with beliefs.  You might say that I favor Locke’s version of empiricism, but am troubled by more recent versions.

Let’s take a brief detour to Jerry Fodor’s rationalism.  Fodor argues that our basic concepts are innate.  Perhaps his 1975 book “The Language of Thought” is one of his earlier writings on this.  Fodor argues that we cannot have representations (description, for example) unless we first have concepts.  And, Fodor argues, the literature of empiricism has very little about acquiring concepts.  I disagree with Fodor on his innateness thesis, as do many philosophers.  However, Fodor is correct that the literature of empiricism is mostly about acquiring beliefs and has little to say about acquiring concepts.  Curiously, science provides us with many new concepts, but the philosophy of science is mostly about acquiring beliefs, and says little about acquiring concepts.

Given the evident importance of new concepts in the growth of science, an empiricism based primarily on acquiring beliefs seems to be a misfit.

There’s another oddity in the literature.  In “Computer Models of Mind: Computational approaches in theoretical psychology”, Margaret Boden criticizes empiricism, and says “babies have more inbuilt psychological structure than empiricism allows.”  I am mystified on that reaction.  To me, it seems obvious that if the baby is going to be able to learn about the world that it finds itself in, then that baby will require a lot of motivation and curiosity to explore that world.  And the innate motivation and curiosity will show up as psychological structure.  Evidently, the way I think about knowledge and learning is very different from the way that Boden thinks about it.

At around page 150 of his book “Intentionality: an essay in the philosophy of mind”, John Searle writes about learning to ski.  He suggest that we begin with representations (beliefs about how to ski), but as we learn to ski, those beliefs become superfluous.  That’s consistent with how I see learning.  I see most of our knowledge as being in what Searle refers to as the background.  The idea of knowledge as beliefs strikes me as backwards.  If anything, I see beliefs as a poor substitute for knowledge, something that might allow us to get by without the knowledge.  But it is better to develop that background of abilities that constitute the knowledge, and then we won’t have to rely on beliefs as a crutch.

4 Comments to “Knowledge, empiricism and all that”

  1. Isn’t it true that nearly everything that philosophers have written about the mind is wrong? After all, most of them were writing before we knew anything about computation, or knowledge representation, or neurophysiology. How could they possibly have had anything valid to say, based on folk models of the brain?


    • Isn’t it true that nearly everything that philosophers have written about the mind is wrong?

      Yes, that is very likely.

      What I find strange, is that many (perhaps most) argue against dualism. Yet they build philosophical theories out of abstract propositions which would seem to constitute an immaterial substance. I don’t think they can escape from the problems of dualism, until they junk all of that tradition and start over.


  2. Abstract propositions have no existence in the abstract. They are material in the sense they are electromagnetic patterns in the brain. I don’t know what it means for an immaterial thing to “exist”. What does it mean, for example, to say that the number Pi exists?


    • Some philosophers seem to talk of propositions which have never been contemplated by a mind. Those would seem to be Platonic ideals, rather than electromagnetic patterns. There is some controversy as to whether there are such things.

      What does it mean, for example, to say that the number Pi exists?

      I suppose it is similar to saying that Sherlock Holmes exists as a fictional character.

      It sometimes seems to me that “x exists” is often just a linguistic convenience which licenses particular ways of referring to x in linguistic expression.


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