Does Truth Begin in the Senses or in the Mind? - A Few Personal Thoughts

I normally do not write many opinion pieces here. Mostly I try to make readings from great philosophical works more accessible for people, in hopes that it might inspire them to look more into these thinkers. However, sometimes certain ideas stand out to me that seem interesting and I like to try to get them down in words. Here is an insight that I have recently had about the history of philosophy. It is not a finished thought, but I wanted to at least get a rough draft down. I will probably revisit this idea later on. 

The Fundamental Dichotomy Between the Senses and the Mind

When one looks at the history of Western philosophy as a whole a clear pattern seems emerge from the chaos of the details. This pattern is centered around a fundamental dichotomy which every philosophical school ends up responding to and taking a central position on. This dichotomy is the two fold nature of man, one as objective entity and the other as conscious knower. Man is both a physical animal who uses his senses to perceive the physical world, and a self-conscious mind which interacts with the world on a different plane. The different schools in the history of philosophy can be characterized by how they understand where the truth of reality originates from. Should the pursuit of truth begin with the world or with the mind? That's the fundamental question. 

Tracking the Two Strands of Empiricism and Rationalism

Beginning with the Pre-Socratics there is an emphasis on the nature of the reality around us. What are things made up of? What is the ultimate substance which explains the process of both change and identity in things? Philosophy starts out with a focus on the empirical world around us. With the Pythagoreans and with Plato, philosophy takes on the other side of this dichotomy, the mental. For Plato, that which is most real is the world of the mind, the universal forms. The body, senses, and the physical world are less real version of the intellectual. In the work of Aristotle there is an attempt to reconcile both of these positions into one and create a sort of synthesis which incorporates insights from both the empirical and the intellectual. For Aristotle, the universal form is in the material thing. Everything has a form, or soul, which is the reason for the identity in things while matter is that which is the principle of change. Here the empirical and the rational are united into one. In the Medieval Scholastic world, this synthesis continues in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. 

In the Modern Period beginning with the Renaissance, this synthesis splits once again into two separate schools. This is the beginning of the Scientific Method and the Empiricist school, as well as the Rationalist strand of philosophy started by Descartes. Descartes idea that was truth, and its verification, begins in the subjective experience of consciousness, not in sensual or empirical verification. The Rationalism of Descartes leads to the development of full blown Idealism, with the mind completely being that through which reality is generated. One could argue that the Rationalist school comes to an abrupt stop with the skepticism generated by Kantian Critical theory, possibly with Hegel being the last remnants of this strand of philosophy in the which the mind is dominant over the physical. In the 20th Century, Phenomenology was a sort of attempt to recover the Rationalist tradition in that once again the method towards finding truth begins in the structures of the conscious experience of the knower, with a very tentative view towards the reality of the metaphysical world. 

On the other hand you have the empirical school which was led by the development of the Scientific Method into investigating the working of the physical world through inductive experimentation. This school of thinking eventually morphed into Naturalism as many of the 19th Century scientists espoused atheism and rejected the possibility of knowledge of anything except the empirical. In the 20th Century we see the emergence of Scientism, which held that science was the arbiter of all truth, whether that be about the physical world or about the social human world. Social Darwinism is a good example of Scientism rearing its ideas into the world. Pragmatism also followed from the American school of philosophers. Pragmatism too holds that the scientific method is the arbiter of truth, with an emphasis on moving forward by attaining what works here and now to meet one's goals. This is still and open and current question where science can take the place of traditional philosophy in today's world. Can science answer political, moral, or ethical questions? Some argue yes, but it seems as though there's been a bit of a push back with this vis-à-vis Jordan Peterson. 

Interesting there is a third strand, a type of middle way that emerges with the philosophy of David Hume. Hume borrows ideas from both the Rationalist school and the Empirical schools, but begins a larger skepticism towards the metaphysical world of essences. Combine this with Kant's similar critique of reason and its abilities and Hegel's overemphasis on reason, and a third strand forms which rejects reason altogether. Existentialism, instead of pursuing the rational, pursues the experience of meaning and personal feeling. Positivism tries to mathematize the world and find some type of logical coherence within a given system, even if we cannot say anything more about its validity. Then there are the truly anti-rationalists like Nietzsche, who thought reason was a tool of power for the physically weak historically. Marx too, continues in this vain introducing a new view of history as the power struggle between the classes. Critical theory and Post Modernism take up this idea of relativism and power struggle, applying them in other social ways to explain what's happening in society. 


This is a rough sketch and surely imperfect in many ways. I hope, though, that one can see how philosophy has teetered back and forth in its idea over this debate regarding where the starting place of truth is. Should we begin seeking truth from the senses, or should we begin in the mind? Or maybe neither is possible and we should just find some other way to explain reality. Not included here was the 20th Century revival of Scholasticism and Thomism which again tried to incorporate the advances in both schools in order to achieve a synthesis of Realism. My own philosophical thinking I would say is most formed by this modern revival of St. Thomas Aquinas' thought, but I can post more on that later. 

Thanks for reading,