Each of us possesses a great deal of knowledge. We know about ourselves; we know about the world around us; we know about abstract concepts and ideas. Philosophers have often wondered where this knowledge ultimately comes from.

Of course, we learn a lot of things from books, from the media, and from other people. To process information from these sources, however, we must already know many things: how to read, how to reason, who to trust. To learn these things requires yet more knowledge. What, then, is the most fundamental way of acquiring knowledge?

There are two competing traditions concerning the ultimate source of our knowledge: empiricism and rationalism.

Empiricism

Empiricists hold that all of our knowledge is ultimately derived from our senses or our experiences. They therefore deny the existence of innate knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we possess from birth. Empiricism fits well with the scientific world-view that places an emphasis on experimentation and observation. It struggles, however, to account for certain types of knowledge, e.g. knowledge of pure mathematics or ethics.

Rationalism

Rationalists hold that at least some of our knowledge is derived from reason alone, and that reason plays an important role in the acquisition of all of our knowledge. There is clearly a limit to what we can learn through abstract thought, but the rationalist’s claim is that reason play a role in observation, and so that the mind is more fundamental than the senses in the process of knowledge-acquisition.