Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge is gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge. In this essay, I seek to argue that in the order of argument, rationalism precedes Ironism. In other words, Ironism is a conclusion of rationalism. However, Ironism can also be a conclusion of what I will call “radical empiricism”. Radical empiricism in this context has less consideration of a priori theory than a moderate empiricist. Both, in the realisation that their belief systems are not able to “underwrite the doubts” of other belief systems, will eventually begin to come to skeptical conclusions, which conduces towards the ironist point of view. Emerging from this skeptical challenge would be twofold; the rationalist grudgingly accepts the eventual acceptance that one’s moral vocabulary is incomprehensive enough, with “radical and continuing doubts” in their minds. The radical empiricist would suffer from a lack of criteria in choosing the best set of vocabulary, and would again reach an inconclusive ending to their search for the truth.
It is said that some aspects of the world may be within the limits of our belief but beyond the limits of our knowledge. Faced with competing descriptions of them, it’s difficult to know which description would be true. When one fulfills the writer’s three conditions for being an ironist, one can be a rationalist, whereby one “has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses”. A strong rationalist would emphasize the epistemological value of logic and reason. Truth is derived from clear rational perception. But there cannot be two equally valid systems of logic. Analogously, there cannot be two equally valid system of values. Therefore, rationalists must believe that there must be a singular true vocabulary that helps to explain the phenomena around the universe. He or She is prepared to reject any existing “final vocabulary” that they possess should they be challenged by new beliefs that they come across.
This rejection of their “incomplete” final vocabulary is thus why rationalists “see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal meta-vocabulary nor an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old”. Compared to the empiricist way of reasoning, final vocabularies are made to look as distinct building blocks of knowledge, which, instead of being moulded together from old conceptions of their vocabulary, are brought in to replace old “blocks” of vocabulary. When faced with the skeptical challenge of being unable to “underwrite or dissolve the doubts” of the others, rationalists transcend into a fatalistic conclusion, one whereby no vocabulary is reasonable enough to even pass off as a “final vocabulary”, much less a “truth”. Such reasoning may give rationalism a more direct correlation to ironism, which also faces the same problem when presented with the skeptical challenge.
A salient point to be brought out in this essay would be that while rationalists fulfill the conditions for being an ironist, it is still entirely possible for one satisfy those conditions even not as a rationalist. The radical empiricist is also able to derive, from his or her experiences and interactions with different value systems; that their own value system is unable to overwrite the doubts caused by differing value systems. Unlike the rationalists, who doubt themselves as much as they doubt others, the radical empiricist faces problems choosing from among the alternatives. She suffers from an embarrassment of riches; she lacks objective criteria with which to choose from among the many different and mutually inconsistent final vocabularies that confront her. In other words, rationalists cannot accept their own final vocabulary, while radical empiricists are more inclined to accept their own.
At this point, we have handled rationalism and empiricism distinct epistemologically, which is a false dichotomy to begin with. A more nuanced way of framing the two would be to view them as poles on a single spectrum; the empiricist relies purely on sensual experience, while the rationalist believes in knowledge independent of sense experience. To hold on to one’s final vocabulary is to be treated as a matter of seeking factual knowledge, “fighting past appearances to the real”, we can view the rationalist’s acquiring of a final vocabulary as being not too dissimilar from the way that same rationalist might go about acquiring everyday knowledge. The rationalist might be partial towards the Cartesian intuition/deduction analysis of knowledge, which means some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by intuition alone. Alternatively, she might believe in the innate knowledge analysis, the idea that we have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature, in which case we would consider her to be a sympathizer of the idea of innate knowledge. Either way, she is to be distinguished from the empiricist from their accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge, as well as the idea that one perspective must triumph, not coexist, when placed together. In other words, one should not insist that reasoning is superior to experience, as they can both aid an individual in arriving at their respective final vocabularies, accepting any inconsistencies in their thought throughout interactions with other people of differing value systems. Both reasoning and experience are distinct, and they should coexist in one’s quest for knowledge.
Another way to look at how these two standpoints complement one another could perhaps be to look at a child acquiring a new language. The child may have come to the world with limited vocabulary, with merely innate survival skills like screaming and breathing, coupled with some disjointed memories of its stimuli after birth. Noam Chomsky argues that during the course of human development, this invariably results in acquisition of the local language regardless of the child’s general intelligence and variations in the particular course of the child’s experience. He also notes that the child’s acquisition of language is very fast and follows a characteristic path, again despite variations in particularities of their experience. To Chomsky, experience primarily “selects from amongst the child’s innate repertoire the bits that would be operative in the competence that they come to employ”. As it is with the example of language, our experiences with a final vocabulary could actually also be drawn from some innate understanding of the world, which may be changed in our interactions with others. We may have come to the world with some sort of “initial vocabulary”, a biologically equipped natural capacity for language; a “universal grammar” based on perhaps what was learnt during our time in the foetus, and exponentially increased with further interactions with our environment, with various stimuli shaping our understanding. The complementary nature of rationalistic and empiricist understanding is best understood from the case of a child.
After such a stance is placed, it is then worth asking if the rational/empiricist standpoint contributes anything of value to Rorty’s discussion. Being a rationalist, or even an empiricist, does not actually matter in Rorty’s evaluation of what an ironist should be, or should do. Rorty’s distinction of an Ironist was partly meant to perhaps explain ongoing debate about whether or not there is a universal moral law, and how the moral empiricist’s or rationalist methods would best arrive at that conclusion.
The Ironist distinction is a conclusion of rationalist experiences, for in the ethical aspect, he seeks to discuss about the existence of vastly differing values systems in the world, a moral dilemma, with them unable to place a judgement based on any pre-existing moral principles that they may hold. For example, the abundance of different value systems to adopt, from conservative Islamic societies and liberal Western Intelligentsia, combined with the dearth in certification criterion, makes it difficult for the others to believe in what and how a set of vocabulary that an individual has is good enough to be considered “final”. The inability to answer those doubts, and also to select a more superior, all-encompassing vocabulary, causes the individual to plunge into a skeptical spiral. What makes Ironists distinct, is that when faced with these rationalist concerns, they are able to recognize the problems with their final vocabulary, but is unable to replace it, nor dissolve those doubts.
The moderate rationalist empiricist stance that I first put out earlier would perhaps change our view of what “best arrives at the Ironist conclusion”. The moderate would also be “impressed” by the dearth of other existing value systems in the world, aware that the argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve those doubts. However, unlike the rationalist, she does not “play the new off against the old”. Unfazed the number of choices made available to her, she formulates her own objective criteria with which to choose from among the many different and mutually inconsistent final vocabularies that confront her. In this case, she shows rationalist emphasis in the epistemological value of logic and reason, but is comfortable accepting the existence of the alternatives, which are radical empiricist tendencies. In such a case, the moderate fulfills the three conditions for becoming an Ironist, but is not exactly a rationalist with empiricist practices of accepting the existence of alternatives.
In conclusion, epistemological responses to Ironist system does unsettle us by inducing us to draw a skeptical conclusion, and while man’s search for a final vocabulary remains out of touch, rationalist principles has by far been better to explain the Ironist’s doubts, although the solution is to lower one’s criterion for accepting new entries to the “final vocabulary”, and to draw into one’s innate repertoire and bank of knowledge when deconstructing their own value systems as well as that of others. As it is with a child, this is not a tough ask.