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The Real Campus Debate: ‘Facts Over Feelings’ Versus ‘My Lived Experience’

Or rationalism versus empiricism. But which one makes more sense?
College debate

One of the many debates dividing college students today is between what we might (rather cheekily) call empiricism and rationalism.

Contemporary campus empiricists emphasize the importance of knowledge acquired by one’s lived experience. They make statements such as “I can speak only from personal experience” and “I can say this only because I’ve lived it.” They are wary of anyone who tries to make universalizing statements from the confines of their narrow experiences. They react with hostility whenever those who enjoy privilege analyze the social structures from which that privilege arose—hence the existence of such words as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining.” In keeping with their principles, therefore, empiricists defer to women when discussing matters of gender, to blacks when discussing questions of race, and so forth.

By contrast, campus rationalists insist that the search for truth should be conducted with unaided reason and that lived experience ought not figure prominently in the quest for understanding. Rationalists say they believe in “facts over feelings” and “logic over emotions.” They do not hold that humans are purely rational creatures; they just think that reason alone should be used to answer moral and political questions. Rationalists tend to identify as conservative or libertarian, but not always.

Both theories have much to recommend them, but neither pure empiricism nor pure rationalism should be accepted on its own. First, one obviously cannot hold opinions only on those things that one has personally experienced. An individual is capable of experiencing only a small range of all that is humanly possible, so if we formed our worldviews merely on that which we have lived, we would have very little to think about. (And we certainly couldn’t write any fiction.) Pure rationalism fails in turn because our lived experience actually does provide us with a great source of particular types of knowledge. For instance, listening to the testimony of those who have suffered terrible injustices can create empathetic responses in us and alert us to the magnitude of the atrocities in question, thus helping us to fix them more rapidly. Pure rationalism does not have the same empathy-generating power.

If we can agree that radical empiricism and radical rationalism fail, we are still left with the challenge of privileging one epistemic method over the other. Here things become decidedly more difficult. I will return to this problem in a moment.

What got me thinking about student rationalists and empiricists was an exchange between Jeffrey A. Sachs and Matt Yglesias, on the one hand, and Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens, on the other. Sachs and Yglesias wanted to debunk the idea that there is a free speech crisis on America’s universities. (Yglesias also felt, and continues to feel, that conservatives’ grievances about colleges are largely baseless.) To make their case, they pointed to data that demonstrated widespread support for free expression among the college-age population. They further suggested that incidents where speakers have been shut down at colleges are actually quite rare. Against such criticisms, Haidt and Stevens marshaled a formidable body of data to argue that students’ attitudes toward free speech really have turned more authoritarian in recent years, so much so as to warrant concerns about speech suppression.

I confess that I was annoyed and even frustrated when I first read Sachs’ contention that campus conservatives have little to complain about. Such an argument, I thought, could only be expressed by someone who has never tried to voice a conservative opinion in an institution of higher learning. I study at a left-leaning university, and despite my thick skin, I have often felt extremely uncomfortable stating certain conservative positions in the classroom and at club meetings. For instance, I know that I could never make arguments critical of certain aspects of feminism without 1) engendering an angry backlash from some of the other students and 2) suffering the social consequences of being deemed a cultural conservative. I know, moreover, that my student peers on the Left probably do not feel any equivalent social pressure, given the openness and casualness with which they articulate their views.

So my immediate reaction to Yglesias’s articles was to say, “Are you kidding me? You’re obviously wrong. I would know.”

Which takes us back to the rationalist/empiricist debate. My lived experience tells me that being a conservative on an overwhelmingly progressive campus can be tough. Nevertheless, Sachs and Yglesias mustered compelling data that forced me to reconsider whether my experience is representative of a much broader social phenomenon. (Maybe my university is an anomaly; maybe I’ve had bad luck with my classes.) To counter their claims, it would not suffice to, say, write an article about all the ways I have personally experienced subtle pressures not to express myself. Such a plea would be founded on evidence that is by definition anecdotal, and would sound convincing only to those who already agreed with me.

But if there is a free speech crisis on campus, the data will bear out its existence, and I will be able to draw upon it in order to settle the dispute. Using my personal experience to make arguments about societal conditions requires me to appeal to hard evidence. In other words, to truly contextualize and make sense of one’s experiences, one must turn to rationalism.

Campus debates surrounding issues of identity, privilege, and oppression would be greatly improved if everyone made a concerted effort to employ data to supplement experiential claims. Many conservative students say their intellectual expression is being stifled by social pressure; many minority students say they feel slighted because of their race or ethnicity. Are they right that their experiences are (statistically) significant? There is only one way to find out: emphasizing rationalism over empiricism. This is the sole means we have of resolving contested truth statements, and without it we will have nothing left but to scream at each other.

Christian Gonzalez is originally from Venezuela, but was raised in Miami, Florida. He now studies political science at Columbia University. He can be reached at cag2240@columbia.edu.



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