Modernism: Continental Rationalism vs British Empiricism

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)The world of ancient philosophy was dominated by the dialectical struggle between Aristotle and Plato. In particular, the differences in their respective theories of universals and epistemology. In summary: according to Plato universals are real in a world distinct from physical things and are one over them. Knowledge of Platonic forms is before birth and  comes through recollection (i.e. deductive reasoning). For Aristotle, universals are real in their instantiations and knowledge of them is obtained through studying their instances (i.e. inductive reasoning). Once knowledge of the universal is induced, one may reason deductively.

During early Modernity, a new generation of philosophers was attempting to provide answers to timeless philosophical problems in a new spirit. In short, this involved a rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy painstakingly developed in the Medieval period. For early Moderns like Descartes, the thought that sensation could provide any knowledge of the real world was absurd. In this way, Descartes is stringently Platonic – truth was known a priori and man reasons deductively from what he knows innately. Philosophers of the European continent (i.e. Continental) such as Spinoza and Leibniz would continue to work in the rationalist tradition through the 17th century.

However (not unlike the arrival of Aristotle), across the sea on the British Isles there arose a school of empiricists. This movement was led by philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Locke and Hume. Their thesis was that while deductive reasoning is useful for deducing the various logical connections between things, knowledge is fundamentally a posteriori and developed through sensory experience and inductive reasoning. The empiricists placed a special emphasis on the burgeoning modern scientific method.

While there are philosophers that buck the trend, many of the philosophers of the early Modern period can be classified as either Continental Rationalist or British Empiricist. In the same vein, many philosophers of the post-Socratic period could be regarded as Platonic or Aristotelian.


12 responses to this post.

  1. […] He also served as Lord Chancellor until 1621 when his career ended in disgrace. In terms of the dichotomy of early modern thinking between empiricism and rationalism, Bacon should be considered as a British […]


  2. […] – writing on a broad range of topics including ethics, the self and monism. In terms of the Empiricist-Rationalist dichotomy of early modernism, Spinoza is usually considered to be a continental rationalist due to his denigration of sense data […]


  3. […] Locke (1632 – 1704) is a largely influential early modern philosopher of the British Empiricist type. His two areas of most significant contribution include political philosophy and epistemology. As a […]


  4. […] Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716) was a German polymath particularly well known for his contributions to the fields of mathematics and modern philosophy. Along with Descartes and Spinoza, he is considered amongst the most influential Continental Rationalists. […]


  5. […] the Continental Rationalists of the early modern period formulated their own principle of causality, commonly referred to as the […]


  6. […] the world is mental as opposed to physical, i.e. of ideas rather than matter. Yet, he is also a staunch empiricist. Because of this mixture of empiricism and idealism Berkeley is an exceeding unique philosopher. […]


  7. […] a Scottish philosopher renowned for his empiricism and skepticism. He is one of the most prominent British Empiricists, along with John Locke and George Berkeley. Hume is unarguably among the most influential of modern […]


  8. […] and their context. In the time of Kant’s major works, the dialectical struggle of the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists had reached its nadir with the skepticism of Hume and the rationalist optimism of Leibniz and his […]


  9. […] discussed was Kant’s critique of the rationalists and empiricists, as well as his solution of transcendental idealism and empirical realism. So Kant has offered a […]


  10. […] such as substance, being, object-subject and etc. that were generally taken for granted by both modern empiricists and rationalists […]


  11. […] Heidegger phenomenlogy is methodological rather than metaphysical. One may also note the modern and especially Kierkegaardian emphasis on the subject as the starting point of philosophy. […]


  12. […] Chomsky begins with a criticism of the proponents of the behaviorist school of linguistics, such as B.F. Skinner and Quine. According to this school, the human mind begins as a blank slate and language is a completely learned behavior of each individual. One may notice the correlation to the modern empiricism. […]


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