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Rationalism vs. Empiricism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Aimie Carlson || Published on December 30, 2023
Rationalism asserts knowledge comes from reason and innate ideas, while empiricism believes knowledge stems from sensory experience.

Key Differences

Rationalism is a philosophical doctrine emphasizing the role of reason in understanding the world. It posits that significant knowledge about reality comes from intellectual deduction and innate ideas. Empiricism, in contrast, argues that knowledge is derived from sensory experience and empirical evidence.
Rationalists believe in the existence of inherent knowledge independent of experience, suggesting that certain concepts are innate. Empiricists reject this, maintaining that all knowledge originates from external stimuli and experiences.
Rationalism often employs deductive reasoning, starting with general principles to arrive at specific truths. Empiricism relies heavily on inductive reasoning, building general theories from specific observations.
In rationalism, mathematics and logic are viewed as paradigms of knowledge, highlighting the role of the mind in understanding. Empiricism, on the other hand, emphasizes observation and experimentation, placing trust in the senses and scientific methods.

Comparison Chart

Source of Knowledge

Reason and innate ideas
Sensory experience and evidence

Nature of Knowledge

Inherent and independent of experience
Derived from external experiences

Reasoning Method

Deductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning

Key Emphasis

Intellectual deduction and concepts
Observation and experimentation


Mathematics and logical truths
Scientific methods and observations

Rationalism and Empiricism Definitions


Rationalism emphasizes intellectual understanding.
In rationalism, logical deduction is crucial for learning.


Empiricism relies on empirical evidence.
Empiricism uses data from experiments to form theories.


Rationalism values innate concepts over sensory experience.
Rationalism posits mathematics as an innate understanding.


Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes from experience.
Empiricism values experimentation in understanding nature.


Rationalism is the belief in knowledge derived from reason.
Rationalism argues for the existence of innate ideas.


Empiricism builds knowledge from specific to general.
Empiricism develops laws of physics from observed phenomena.


Rationalism relies on deductive reasoning.
Rationalism leads to conclusions based on logical premises.


Empiricism involves inductive reasoning.
Empiricism generalizes principles from individual cases.


Rationalism involves deriving truths from general principles.
Rationalism sees ethical truths as products of reason.


Empiricism emphasizes sensory observation.
In empiricism, seeing and measuring are key to knowledge.


Reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action.


The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge.


(Philosophy) The theory that the exercise of reason, rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation, provides the primary basis for knowledge.


Employment of empirical methods, as in science.


(philosophy) The theory that the reason is a source of knowledge independent of and superior to sense perception.


An empirical conclusion.


(philosophy) The theory that knowledge may be derived by deductions from a priori concepts (such as axioms, postulates or earlier deductions).


The practice of medicine that disregards scientific theory and relies solely on practical experience.


A view that the fundamental method for problem solving is through reason and experience rather than faith, inspiration, revelation, intuition or authority.


Medicine as practised by an empiric, founded on mere experience, without the aid of science or a knowledge of principles; folk medicine, quackery.


Elaboration of theories by use of reason alone without appeal to experience, such as in mathematical systems.


(philosophy) A doctrine which holds that the only or, at least, the most reliable source of human knowledge is experience, especially perception by means of the physical senses. (Often contrasted with rationalism.)


The doctrine or system of those who deduce their religious opinions from reason or the understanding, as distinct from, or opposed to, revelation.


A pursuit of knowledge purely through experience, especially by means of observation and sometimes by experimentation.


The system that makes rational power the ultimate test of truth; - opposed to sensualism, or sensationalism, and empiricism.


Used to describe research based on methodology shaped from empirical philosophy (see above), e.g. surveys, statistics, etc.


(philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge is acquired by reason without resort to experience


The method or practice of an empiric; pursuit of knowledge by observation and experiment.


The theological doctrine that human reason rather than divine revelation establishes religious truth


Specifically, a practice of medicine founded on mere experience, without the aid of science or a knowledge of principles; ignorant and unscientific practice; charlatanry; quackery.


The doctrine that reason is the right basis for regulating conduct


The philosophical theory which attributes the origin of all our knowledge to experience.


(philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge derives from experience


The application of empirical methods in any art or science


Medical practice and advice based on observation and experience in ignorance of scientific findings


What is rationalism?

A philosophy valuing reason as the primary source of knowledge.

What does rationalism emphasize?

It emphasizes innate ideas and intellectual deduction.

Do rationalists believe in innate knowledge?

Yes, they believe some concepts are inherent.

What reasoning does rationalism use?

Deductive reasoning, from general to specific.

How does rationalism view mathematics?

As an innate, rational knowledge.

What reasoning does empiricism use?

Inductive reasoning, from specific to general.

What is empiricism?

A philosophy emphasizing knowledge from sensory experience.

Is rationalism subjective or objective?

It's more subjective, based on internal reasoning.

Do empiricists reject rational thought?

They don't reject it but prioritize empirical evidence.

What does empiricism emphasize?

Observation and empirical evidence.

How does empiricism approach science?

Through experimentation and observation.

Do empiricists believe in inherent knowledge?

No, they argue knowledge comes from experience.

Which is more scientific, rationalism or empiricism?

Empiricism is generally considered more aligned with scientific methods.

Which philosophers are known for rationalism?

René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz are notable rationalists.

Which philosophers are associated with empiricism?

John Locke and David Hume are famous empiricists.

Can rationalism and empiricism be combined?

Some philosophies, like Kantianism, attempt to merge them.

Is empiricism subjective or objective?

More objective, relying on observable data.

Do rationalists reject empirical evidence?

Not reject, but prioritize reason over it.

How does rationalism affect ethics?

It views ethical truths as discoverable through reason.

How does empiricism view ethics?

It sees ethical understanding as evolving from human experiences.
About Author
Written by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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