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MRX Lab Podcast

Exploring new & novel conversations from the fringes of the insights industry.

Episode 15 - Rationalism, Empiricism and Other -Isms

In this episode of the MRX Lab podcast from FlexMR, we take an in-depth look at philosophical constructs of knowledge, and how our beliefs about the nature of information shape the very work we do. In particular, we discuss the ideas of rationalism, empiricism and pragmatism through the unique lens of the insights sector.

Throughout the course of this episode, we investigate the theses that define each of these systems of thought, the key differences between them and identify how we can use each to deliver better, more impactful research reports to decision makers.

We first consider rationalism. To be a rationalist means adopting at least one of three major claims. First, the Intuition-Deduction thesis posits that some concepts in a given subject area are known to us through intuition alone, while a broader set can be deduced from intuited propositions. While there is much more outside of these two concentric domains, the claim suggests that intuition and reasonable deductions are important aspects of the mind.

The second claim is that of Innate Knowledge. Going somewhat further than Intuition-Deduction, the Innate Knowledge thesis states that even without deductive reasoning – all humans know some basic truths in any given domain. Finally, the Innate Concept thesis simply states that some of the concepts we apply to a given subject area are part of our rational nature.

In short, rationalism favours a view of knowledge as innately built-in to human capacity, placing it over experience. Even deductive reasoning and unknown concepts seek to draw on the existing knowledge that we might have – whether we are aware of it or not.

Next, we discuss empiricism. This represents a near total rejection of the rationalist worldview. There is only one thesis for empiricists to ascribe to, which is that we have no source of knowledge and no source of concepts other than sense experience. What does this mean? Put simply, it means that the entirety of the knowledge we hold has been gained from our lived experience. Note though, that in this sense, experience should be understood in a broad sense; it is what has happened to us throughout our lives, including that which we’ve read, studied and has happened to us. It is the equivalent of the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate in psychology.

Finally, we talk pragmatism. This is the branch of philosophy that rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes. This does not so much aim to describe the nature of knowledge rather than classify it – in a broad sense of whether it is useful in a practical sense or not. It is given meaning and value through this classification. If it is useful, then it should be accepted. If it is not useful, then it should be rejected (or at the very least, ignored).

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