Instructional Design

Writing Sample


Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium

Jeffrey W. Bulger, Ph.D.



Be able to describe and distinguish: 

1. Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism.

2. Analytic statements and synthetic statements.

3. A priori statements and a posteriori statements.

4. Definitional truths, and contingent truths.

5. Strengths and weaknesses of rationalism and empiricism.

6. Primary qualities and secondary qualities.

7. How the scientific method relates to rationalism and empiricism.

8. How and why instructional design can be thought of as a scientific enterprise.

9. Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium Model approach and the scientific method.





Historically there has been two very broad and general approaches to knowledge acquisition, or what is known to philosophers as epistemology:

Continental Rationalism, (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant), and British Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Reid, and J. S. Mill). 

With Continental Rationalism the emphasis is that knowledge (T)ruths are gained not by the perceiver’s various “deceptive” senses such as seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching, rather knowledge (T)ruths are gained through the process of analytic thought, independent of the senses. The French philosopher René Descartes thought that an individual could simply sit in a chair, and rationally think through all knowledge claims, i.e., a priori thought that is totally independent of physical sense data (t)ruths. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in like fashion, claimed that all (T)ruths that are not contingent (t)ruths, could only be based on a priori analytic statements. A priori, meaning independent of the physical senses and analytic meaning that, grammatically, the predicate is contained in the subject, such as is the case with definitions.

Example of the predicate being contained in the subject:

“All bachelors are unmarried men”.

Unmarried man = bachelor by definition. No empirical proof or sense data needs to be used as the source of verification, as “unmarried man” is a definitional (T)ruth of “bachelor”, and as such, it is an a priori (T)ruth independent of any sense data (t)ruths, and is therefore absolutely (T)rue by definition.

Some knowledge problems with rationalism is the determination or justifications of the analytic statements, definitions, and axioms, that are the bases of the analytic truths. This approach would demand the axiomatic assumptions of truths, usually based on clear and distinct ideas.

WATCH: Achilles and the Tortoise (60 seconds): 

Pure rationality, independent of experimental observations of sense data, can lead to conclusions that are paradoxical, and false.

For example, to get to the wall you need to travel half the distance, then another half distance, then another half distance, ad infinitum. However, since a discrete amount of distance is being traveled each time … no matter how small, it will always take a discrete amount of time to travel each of the the half distances no matter how small. Since there are an infinite amount of half distances that need to be traveled, multiply any number, no matter how small, with infinity, and it equals infinity, i.e., you can never make it to the wall. Conclusion, either all sense data of reaching the wall is false, or there is a problem with a priori rationality. 

Rationality by itself, without any checks and balances, such a experiential sense data, can and does result in false conclusions.


In contrast British Empiricism emphasized the claim that knowledge claims are based on the perceiver’s sense data, and are therefore contingent (t)ruths at best. The foundation is that the perceiver starts out with absolutely no knowledge, (tabala rasa: blank slate) then the perceiver through the use of their senses experiences knowledge acquisition, i.e., a posteriori thought meaning totally dependent on the physical senses. The British philosophers therefore claimed that knowledge acquisitions were based on a posteriori synthetic statements. A posteriori, meaning dependent on the physical senses and synthetic meaning that, grammatically, the predicate is not contained in the subject, such as is the case with experiential knowledge.

Example of the predicate not being contained in the subject:

Green light means go.

“Go” does not definitionally mean “green light”. Empirical proof or sense data needs to be used to establish the truth or falsehood of the statement, and the statement is only contingently (t)rue as based on the context of the experience, as green light could mean insert the computer diskette, or it could mean that a driver of a car has the right of way through an intersection.

Some knowledge problems with empiricism is the determination as to what extent do our senses perceive what is actually the case and to what extent are perceptions simply a sense product that may have little if any resemblance at all to what stimulates such perceptions. Example, certain frequencies of light cause certain perceptions of color for bichromatic and trichromatic beings such as ourselves. In other words, color is a mental perception, caused by the physical stimulation by various frequencies of light, meaning that color is only a mental interpretation of perception, not a physical reality independent of perception. In other words, grass is not physically green, rather green is a mental interpretation of the sense data of grass. It would be epistemologically naive to conclude that green is a primary quality that exists even when not perceived, as green is a secondary quality that exists only when perceived much like morality, that exists only as a mental cognitive construct.  The naive realist is someone who mistakenly concludes that secondary qualities, which are qualities that only exist when experienced, are primary qualities, or qualities that exist independently of any perceiving mind.

Sense data by itself, without any checks and balances, such a rationality, can and does result in false beliefs, just as pure rationality can and does result in false beliefs.


Color: vSauce (9 min)



The scientific method uses both rationalism and empiricism as “checks and balances” against each other. If the rational axiomatic assumptions are empirically shown to be experimentally unverifiable then there is a process for reevaluation of the definitional truths or axioms. Likewise, if the experimental data are rationally shown to be in contradiction, then there is a process for reevaluation of the experimental data and/or the experimental method being used.

Continental rationalism emphasizes definitional/absolute (T)ruths, whereas, British empiricism emphasizes experimental and contingent (t)ruths. The scientific method puts the two competing approached together in an attempt to minimize each of their respective knowledge acquisition weaknesses, and promotes the strengths of each approach as well. An analogy of this tension is the wave particle debate on the nature of light where both descriptions seem to be true under various conditions. One solution is to conceive light as being both particles and waves, i.e., particles that are propagated through space in waves. In like fashion epistemology can be conceived of as consisting of both rational and empirical determinations, e.g., empirical observations that are propagated through the use of rationality. 

Instructional Design and the Scientific Method:

The scientific method, that uses both rationalism and empiricism, needs to be used in the proper construction and implementation of onLine and blended instruction.

The excessive use of empiricism can result in an over emphasis of the “ends” justifying the “means” approach, without regard to the “human nature” or the “human condition.”

Example: any “means” is justifiable or “right” as long as it accomplishes the desired “ends.”

The excessive use of rationalism can result in an over emphasis in definitional (T)ruths that are independent of, and sometimes even contradictory to, the “ends” or “goals” as empirically determined. Example: do the “right action” regardless of the consequences.

Instructional design using the scientific method can be approached in a number of ways:

1. One approach would be to first rationally define the “human condition”, as verified by empirical evidence, then create a rational instructional process that reflects “the human condition” and empirically accomplishes the desired ends.

2. Another approach would be to first determine the empirical ends desired, then create an instructional process that results in such ends, while rationally addressing the human condition.

3. A balanced approach would be to use both the rational and empirical approach in a Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium Model approach. This method augments both approaches with rational and empirical checks and balances and “blends” both of the approaches above.


Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium

Model for Instructional Design


The difficulty with using the Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium Model approach in course design and instruction is that it is not a simple linear decision-tree approach as being reflective and balancing seems to require a circular process. However, this circularity is not a viscous circle in that the scientific method has resulted in progressive knowledge acquisition. An example of a viscous circle is the hermeneutical circle in which: to understand the parts you must understand the whole, but to understand the whole you must understand the parts. If this were completely true then knowledge acquisition would be impossible because of the vicious circle. However, we do know that we do in fact acquire knowledge so although the hermeneutical circle is rationally true, empirically we also know that knowledge acquisition does occur thus establishing the need for empirical and rational checks and balances, i.e., a Synergistic Reflective-Equilibrium Model approach for Instructional Design.



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