Empiricism vs. Rationalism
The Debate Continues
(Revised December 22, 1996)


The First Cognitive Revolution, developing as an aspect of the broader Scientific Revolution, stretches roughly from Galileo to Kant. In the eyes of many of its participants, the pivotal issue was whether or not all knowledge is acquired from the senses--empiricism pitted against rationalism. Since the current tendency in cultural studies is resolutely empiricist by this admittedly restrictive definition, and critical practice characterized by the continued tracing of human capacities and qualities to cultural causes, the early British Empiricists provide a particularly appropriate starting point for situating Cognitive Culture Theory, with its rationalist claims about the relevance of human universals in the understanding of cultural forms.

Innate ideas

Early on in the first cognitive revolution, the debate between rationalists and empiricists was phrased simply in terms of whether or not knowledge was acquired from the senses. On the rationalist side, lord Herbert argued in De Veritate (1645) that certain moral propositions are innate; on the empiricist side, Locke maintained the mind is a blank slate at birth (see Locke's arguments against innate ideas). Locke's position that the understanding is a set of propositions present to consciousness, however, misses the central point: what is innate is faculties, not conscious propositional knowledge.

Innate faculties

The commonsense assumption of cognitive transparancy is not challenged until Hume, whose introspective experiments led him to posit cognitive faculties with characteristics that cannot be traced back to experience. This undermined the notion that the understanding is a product, consisting in propositions; rather, it is a process, where the power of making inferences (Hume’s celebrated Problem of Induction) requires an explanation.

It is the search for this explanation that leads Kant to a formulation of transcendental categories, which represents a partial resolution to the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy. According to Kant, empiricism is enabled by faculties that cannot themselves be derived from experience.

Not until genetic theory is well established is Kant's solution seen to be compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution, that triumph of practical empiricism. Lorenz (1977) points out that what Kant could only place in a transcendental realm, in the tradition of rationalism, can now be placed in natural history. Pace Lorenz, however, genes do not directly control behavior; for a discussion of this early misunderstanding, see The Sociobiological Fallacy. The relation between innate structures and the environment remains a highly complex issue that show no signs of going away.

Erasing the boundaries

To pose the empiricist question again, we might put it this way: What is the evidence that cognitive processing is not wholly dependent on information acquired from the senses? If it is not from the senses, where is it from?

The proposal of evolutionary psychology is that no sharp line can be drawn between information that originates in the environment--including that acquired from the senses--and information that is conveyed through the genes. This gives us a very different overall picture of cognitive development.

In the genetic model, the environment is paradoxically all-important. The information in the genes cannot express itself in bodily structures unless they are in a complexly specified suitable environment--so much so that 99% of the information for building an organism may be thought of as located in the environment and only 1% in the genes themselves (the proportion is not strictly quantifiable). The environment acts as a trigger for selective gene transcription, which in turn has an effect upon the immediate environment. As the information in the gene expresses itself in response to the structure of the environment, and the environment in turn responds to the action of the genes, the organism slowly begins to materialize. It is as if matter itself contains most of the information for life; it just needs a little extra hint.

In terms of cognitive development, this means that genetic and environmental information act concurrently to construct cognitive structures. Some of the environmental information that activates certain genes may come through the senses; for instance, cats are unable to perceive vertical lines if they are not exposed to them before a certain age, and children who have not heard a language before the age of ten will no longer retain the capacity to acquire one. More complex scenarios with intermediate control structures are also possible, as an alternative to a continued role for the genes.

While the rationalist argument agrees with the genetic model in that both affirm that cognition is dependent on structures that do not derive from experience, the genetic model has historicized rationalism, playing the part of empiricism in undermining its claims to transcendental universals. Thus, the distinction between empiricism and rationalism has become largely meaningless, like two aspects of the same coin that have fused into a sphere.

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© 1996 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles