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In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" (Lacey 286). In more technical terms it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive" (Bourke 263). Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position "that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge" to the radical position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge" (Audi 771). Given a pre-modern understanding of reason, "rationalism" is identical to philosophy, the Socratic life of inquiry, or the zetetic interpretation of authority (open to the underlying or essential cause of things as they appear to our sense of certainty). In recent decades, Leo Strauss sought to revive Classical Political Rationalism as a discipline that understands the task of reasoning, not as foundational, but as maieutic.



Since the Enlightenment, rationalism is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy, as in Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza (Bourke 263). This is commonly called continental rationalism, because it was predominant in the continental schools of Europe, whereas in Britain empiricism dominated.

Rationalism is often contrasted with empiricism. Taken very broadly these views are not mutually exclusive, since a philosopher can be both rationalist and empiricist (Lacey 286–287). Taken to extremes the empiricist view holds that all ideas come to us through experience, either through the five external senses or through such inner sensations as pain and pleasure, and thus that knowledge is essentially based on or derived from experience. At issue is the fundamental source of human knowledge, and the proper techniques for verifying what we think we know (see Epistemology).

Proponents of some varieties of rationalism argue that, starting with foundational basic principles, like the axioms of geometry, one could deductively derive the rest of all possible knowledge. The philosophers who held this view most clearly were Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, whose attempts to grapple with the epistemological and metaphysical problems raised by Descartes led to a development of the fundamental approach of rationalism. Both Spinoza and Leibniz asserted that, in principle, all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, could be gained through the use of reason alone, though they both observed that this was not possible in practice for human beings except in specific areas such as mathematics. On the other hand, Leibniz admitted that "we are all mere Empirics in three fourths of our actions" (Monadology § 28, cited in Audi 772). Rationalism is predicting and explaining behavior based on logics.

Philosophical usage

The distinction between rationalists and empiricists was drawn at a later period, and would not have been recognized by the philosophers involved. Also, the distinction was not as clear-cut as is sometimes suggested; for example, the three main rationalists were all committed to the importance of empirical science, and in many respects the empiricists were closer to Descartes in their methods and metaphysical theories than were Spinoza and Leibniz.

History of rationalism


Classical Greek rationalists

Socrates (ca 470–399B.C.E.)

Socrates firmly believed that, before humans can understand the world, they first need to understand themselves; the only way to accomplish that is with rational thought. In order to understand what this means, one needs first to appreciate the Greek understanding of the world. Man is composed of two parts, a body and a soul. The soul itself has two principal parts, an Irrational part, which is the emotions and desires, and a Rational part, which is our true self. In our everyday experience, the irrational soul is drawn down into the physical body by its desires and merged with it, so that our perception of the world is limited to that delivered by the physical senses. The rational soul is beyond our conscious knowledge, but sometimes communicates via images, dreams, and other means.

The task of the philosopher is to refine and eventually extract the irrational soul from its bondage, hence the need for moral development, and then to connect with the rational soul, and so become a complete person, manifesting the higher spiritual essence of the person whilst in the physical. True rationalism is therefore not simply an intellectual process, but a shift in perception and a shift in the qualitative nature of the person. The rational soul perceives the world in a spiritual manner - it sees the Platonic Forms - the essence of what things are. To know the world in this way requires that one first know oneself as a soul, hence the requirement to 'know thyself', i.e. to know who you truly are.

Socrates did not publish or write any of his thoughts, but he was constantly in discussion with others. He would usually start by asking a rhetorical (seemingly answerable) question, to which the other would give an answer. Socrates would then continue to ask questions until all conflicts were resolved, or until the other could do nothing else but admit to not knowing the answer (which was what most of his discussions ended with). Socrates did not claim to know the answers, but that did not take away the ability to critically and rationally approach problems. His goal was to show that ultimately our intellectual approach to the world is flawed, and we need to transcend this in order to obtain a true knowledge of what things are.

René Descartes (1596–1650)

Descartes thought that only knowledge of eternal truths – including the truths of mathematics, and the epistemological and metaphysical foundations of the sciences – could be attained by reason alone; other knowledge, the knowledge of physics, required experience of the world, aided by the scientific method. He also argued that although dreams appear as real as sense experience, these dreams cannot provide persons with knowledge. Also, since conscious sense experience can be the cause of illusions, then sense experience itself can be doubtable. As a result, Descartes deduced that a rational pursuit of truth should doubt every belief about reality. He elaborated these beliefs in such works as Discourse on Method, Meditations on First Philosophy, and Principles of Philosophy. Descartes developed a method to attain truths according to which nothing which cannot be recognised by the intellect (or reason) can be classified as knowledge. These truths are gained "without any sensory experience", according to Descartes. Truths that are attained by reason are to be broken down into elements which intuition can grasp, which, through a purely deductive process, will result in clear truths about reality.

Descartes therefore argued, as a result of his method, that reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses. For instance, his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, is a conclusion reached a priori and not through an inference from experience[citation needed]. This was, for Descartes, an irrefutable principle upon which to ground all forms of other knowledge. Descartes posited a metaphysical dualism, distinguishing between the substances of the human body ("res extensa") and the mind or soul ("res cogitans") . This crucial distinction would be left unresolved and lead to what is known as the mind-body problem, since the two substances in the Cartesian system are independent of each other and irreducible.

Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)

The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza is a systematic, logical, rational philosophy developed by him in the seventeenth century in Europe.[1][2][3] It's a system of ideas built from basic building blocks with an internal consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life's major questions and in which he proposed that "God exists only philosophically."[3][4] He was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Descartes[5] and Euclid[4] and Thomas Hobbes[5] as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition such as Maimonides,[5] but his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of Spinoza's ideas continue to vex thinkers today and many of his principles, particularly regarding the emotions, have implications for modern approaches to psychology. Even top thinkers have found Spinoza's "geometrical method"[3] difficult to comprehend. Goethe admitted that he "could not really understand what Spinoza was on about most of the time."[3] The Ethics contains unresolved obscurities and has a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid's geometry.[4] But his philosophy attracted believers such as Albert Einstein.[6] and much intellectual attention.[7][8][9][10][11]

Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716)

Leibniz was the last of the great Rationalists, who contributed heavily to other fields such as mathematics. His system however was not developed independently of these advances. Leibniz rejected Cartesian dualism, and denied the existence of a material world. In Leibniz's view there are infinitely many simple substances, which he called "monads" (possibly taking the term from the work of Anne Conway).

Leibniz developed his theory of monads in response to both Descartes and Spinoza. In rejecting this response he was forced to arrive at his own solution. Monads are the fundamental unit of reality, according to Leibniz, constituting both inanimate and animate things. These units of reality represent the universe, though they are not subject to the laws of causality or space (which he called "well-founded phenomena"). Leibniz therefore introduced his principle of pre-established harmony, in order to account for apparent causality in the world.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant started as a traditional rationalist, having studied the rationalists Leibniz and Wolff, but after studying David Hume's works, which "awoke [him] from [his] dogmatic slumbers", he developed a distinctive and very influential rationalism of his own which attempted to synthesise the traditional rationalist and empiricist traditions.

Kant named his branch of epistemology Transcendental Idealism, and he first laid out these views in his famous work The Critique of Pure Reason. In it he argued that there were fundamental problems with both rationalist and empiricist dogma. To the rationalists he argued, broadly, that pure reason is flawed when it goes beyond its limits and claims to know those things that are necessarily beyond the realm of all possible experience: the existence of God, free will, and the immortality of the human soul. Kant referred to these objects as "The Thing in Itself" and goes on to argue that their status as objects beyond all possible experience by definition means we cannot know them. To the empiricist he argued that while it is correct that experience is fundamentally necessary for human knowledge, reason is necessary for processing that experience into coherent thought. He therefore concludes that both reason and experience are necessary for human knowledge.


Rationalism taken to extremes has attracted critics. For example, Gandhi wrote:

Rationalists are admirable beings, but rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of a stick and stone believing it to be God. (Fisher 1997)

The 1864 Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX contains a famous series of 14 condemnations against absolute and moderate rationalism.

Political rationalism

Main article: Rationalism (politics)

The term 'rationalism', in a political context, is used to define the political belief that is mid-way between realism and internationalism [12].


It is used to describe the political belief that the world political order is not as chaotic as suggested by realists, but maintains a certain degree of order, where nation-states do not violate others' sovereignty unless absolutely necessary. It also advocates the international organisations, such as the United Nations, have a role to play in international affairs, but not as great a role as held by internationalists.

Contradiction with other political philosophies

Rationalism is often seen as the mid-point between realism and internationalism. Whereas internationalism advocates a purely 'global' and orderly approach and realism a purely individual and chaotic approach to international affairs, rationalism appears to combine these two philosophies. Hence, the term 'rationalism'.

See also


  1. ^ Lisa Montanarelli (book reviewer) (January 8, 2006). "Spinoza stymies 'God's attorney' -- Stewart argues the secular world was at stake in Leibniz face off". San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/01/08/RVGO9GEOKH1.DTL. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  2. ^ Kelley L. Ross (1999). "Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)". History of Philosophy As I See It. http://www.friesian.com/spinoza.htm. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "While for Spinoza all is God and all is Nature, the active/passive dualism enables us to restore, if we wish, something more like the traditional terms. Natura Naturans is the most God-like side of God, eternal, unchanging, and invisible, while Natura Naturata is the most Nature-like side of God, transient, changing, and visible." 
  3. ^ a b c d Anthony Gottlieb (July 18, 1999). "God Exists, Philosophically". The New York Times: Books. http://www.times.com/books/99/07/18/reviews/990718.18gottlit.html. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "Spinoza, a Dutch Jewish thinker of the 17th century, not only preached a philosophy of tolerance and benevolence but actually succeeded in living it. He was reviled in his own day and long afterward for his supposed atheism, yet even his enemies were forced to admit that he lived a saintly life." 
  4. ^ a b c ANTHONY GOTTLIEB (2009-09-07). "God Exists, Philosophically (review of "Spinoza: A Life" by Steven Nadler)". The New York Times -- Books. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/18/reviews/990718.18gottlit.html. Retrieved 2009-09-07. 
  5. ^ a b c Michael LeBuffe (book reviewer) (2006-11-05). "Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction, by Steven Nadler". University of Notre Dame. http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=8004. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "Spinoza's Ethics is a recent addition to Cambridge's Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts, a series developed for the purpose of helping readers with no specific background knowledge to begin the study of important works of Western philosophy..." 
  6. ^ "EINSTEIN BELIEVES IN "SPINOZA'S GOD"; Scientist Defines His Faith in Reply, to Cablegram From Rabbi Here. SEES A DIVINE ORDER But Says Its Ruler Is Not Concerned "Wit Fates and Actions of Human Beings."". The New York Times. April 25, 1929. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10B1EFC3E54167A93C7AB178FD85F4D8285F9. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  7. ^ "Spinoza, "God-Intoxicated Man"; Three Books Which Mark the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Philosopher's Birth BLESSED SPINOZA. A Biography. By Lewis Browne. 319 pp. New York: The Macmillan Com- pany. $4. SPINOZA. Liberator of God and Man. By Benjamin De Casseres, 145pp. New York: E.Wickham Sweetland. $2. SPINOZA THE BIOSOPHER. By Frederick Kettner. Introduc- tion by Nicholas Roerich, New Era Library. 255 pp. New York: Roerich Museum Press. $2.50. Spinoza". The New York Times. November 20, 1932. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40A14F83A5513738DDDA90A94D9415B828FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  8. ^ "Spinoza's First Biography Is Recovered; THE OLDEST BIOGRAPHY OF SPINOZA. Edited with Translations, Introduction, Annotations, &c., by A. Wolf. 196 pp. New York: Lincoln Macveagh. The Dial Press.". The New York Times. December 11, 1927. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60D1EFF395C147A93C3A81789D95F438285F9. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  9. ^ IRWIN EDMAN (July 22, 1934). "The Unique and Powerful Vision of Baruch Spinoza; Professor Wolfson's Long-Awaited Book Is a Work of Illuminating Scholarship. (Book review) THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPINOZA. By Henry Austryn Wolfson". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0610FC395D13728DDDAB0A94DF405B848FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  10. ^ "ROTH EVALUATES SPINOZA". Los Angeles Times. Sep 8, 1929. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/370934682.html?dids=370934682:370934682&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:AI&type=historic&date=Sep+08%2C+1929&author=&pub=Los+Angeles+Times&desc=ROTH+EVALUATES+SPINOZA&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  11. ^ SOCIAL NEWS BOOKS (November 25, 1932). "TRIBUTE TO SPINOZA PAID BY EDUCATORS; Dr. Robinson Extols Character of Philosopher, 'True to the Eternal Light Within Him.' HAILED AS 'GREAT REBEL'; De Casseres Stresses Individualism of Man Whose Tercentenary Is Celebrated at Meeting.". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30D13F6355516738DDDAC0A94D9415B828FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  12. ^ "Rationalism Definition". http://www.yourdictionary.com/rationalism. Retrieved 2009-05-01. 
Primary sources
Secondary sources
  • Audi, Robert (ed., 1999), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1995. 2nd edition, 1999.
  • Blackburn, Simon (1996), The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1994. Paperback edition with new Chronology, 1996.
  • Bourke, Vernon J. (1962), "Rationalism", p. 263 in Runes (1962).
  • Fischer, Louis (1997). The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Harper Collins. pp. 306–307. ISBN 0006388876. 
  • Lacey, A.R. (1996), A Dictionary of Philosophy, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. 2nd edition, 1986. 3rd edition, Routledge, London, UK, 1996.
  • Runes, Dagobert D. (ed., 1962), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ.
  • Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. 

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

RATIONALISM (from Lat. rationalis, pertaining to reason, ratio), a term employed both in philosophy and in theology for any system which sets up human reason as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge. Such systems are opposed to all doctrines which rest solely or ultimately upon external authority; the individual must investigate everything for himself and abandon any position the validity of which cannot be rationally demonstrated. The rationalist spirit is, of course, coeval with human evolution; religion itself began with a rational attempt to maintain amicable relations with unknown powers, and each one of the dead religions succumbed before the development of rationalist inquiry into its premises.

But the term has acquired more special connotations in modern thought. In its commonest use it is applied to all who decline to accept the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of a divine revelation, and is practically synonymous with freethinking. This type. of rationalism is based largely upon the results of modern historical and archaeological investigation. The story of the Creation in the book of Genesis is shown, from the point of view of chronology, to be a poetic or symbolic account by the discovery of civilizations of much greater antiguity. Again, the study of comparative religion (e. g. the study of the Deluge, showing as it does that similar stories are to be found in primitive literature, both oriental and other) has placed the Bible in close relation with other ancient literature.

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is thus regarded even by orthodox Christians from a rationalist standpoint, very different from that of the early and medieval Church. Rationalism within the Christian Church differs, however, from that which is commonly understood by the term, inasmuch as it accepts as revealed the fundamental facts of its creed. Thoroughgoing rationalism, on the other hand, either categorically denies that the supernatural or the infinite - whether it exist or not - can be the object of human knowledge (see Agnosticism), or else, in the mouth of a single person, states that he at least has no such knowledge.

In addition to the difficulties presented by the Bible as an historical record, and the literary problems which textual and other critics have investigated, the modern freethinker denies that the Christianity of the New Testament or its interpretation by modern theologians affords a coherent theory of human life and duty. Apart from the general use of the term for a particular attitude towards religion, two more technical uses require notice: (i) the purely philosophical, (ii) the theological.

(i) Philosophical rationalism is that theory of knowledge which maintains that reason is in and by itself a source of knowledge, and that knowledge so derived has superior authority over knowledge acquired through sensation. This view is opposed to the various systems which regard the mind as a tabula rasa (blank tablet) in which the outside world as it were imprints itself through the senses. The opposition between rationalism and sensationalism is, however, rarely so simple and direct, inasmuch as many thinkers (e.g. Locke) have admitted both sensation and reflection. Such philosophies are called rationalist or sensationalist according as they lay emphasis specially on the function of reason or that of the senses.

More generally, philosophic rationalism is opposed to empirical theories of knowledge, inasmuch as it regards all true knowledge as deriving deductively from fundamental elementary concepts. This attitude may be studied in Descartes, Leibnitz and Wolff. It is based on Descartes' fundamental principle that knowledge must be clear, and seeks to give to philosophy the certainty and demonstrative character of mathematics, from the a priori principle of which all its claims are derived. The attack made by David Hume on the causal relation led directly to the new rationalism of Kant, who argued that it was wrong to regard thought as mere analysis. A priori concepts there are, but if they are to lead to the amplification of knowledge, they must be brought into relation with empirical data.

(ii) The term "rationalism" in the narrow theological sense is specially used of the doctrines held by a school of German theologians and Biblical scholars which was prominent roughly between 1740 and 1836. This rationalism within the Church was a theological manifestation of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment (Aufklarung), and must be studied in close connexion with the purely philosophical rationalism already discussed. It owed much to the English deists, to the Pietistic movement, and to the French esprits forts who had already made a vigorous attack on the supernatural origin of the Scriptures. The crux of the difficulty was the doctrine of the supernatural, the relation between revealed and natural religion.

The first great rationalist leader was J. S. Semler (q.v.), who held that true religion springs from the individual soul, and attacked the authority of the Bible in a comprehensive spirit of criticism. He ultimately reached a point at which the Bible became for him simply one of many ancient documents. At the same time he did not impugn the authority of the Church, which he regarded as useful in maintaining external unity. Among those who followed in Semler's path were Gruner Ernesti, J. D. Michaelis, Griesbach, J. G. Eichhorn. This spirit was exhibited on the philosophical side by Kant who in his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793) set forth his doctrine of rational morality (Vernunftglauben) as the only true religion.

These two great rationalist movements, the critical and the philosophical, ultimately led to, or were accompanied by, the gradual reduction of religion to a system of morals based at the most on two or three fundamental religious principles. This is the rationalism known as rationalismus vulgaris, the period of which is practically from 1800 to 1833. Among its exponents were Wegscheider, Bretschneider and H. E. G. Paulus (qq.v.). The general attitude of German theology, however, became gradually more and more hostile, and the works of Schleiermacher, though in a sense themselves rationalist, renewed the general desire for a positive Christianity.

Hase's Hutterus Redivivus, an exposition of orthodoxy in the light of modern development, called forth a final exposition of the rationalist position by Rohr. From that time the school as such ceased to have a real existence, though the results of its work are traceable more or less in all modern Biblical criticism, and its influence upon the attitude of modern theologians and Biblical critics can scarcely be overestimated.

See Standlin, Geschichte des Rationalismus (Gottingen, 1826); Hase, Theologische Streitschriften in Gesammelte Werke, viii. (1892); Ruckert, Der Rationalismus (1859); Tholuck, Vorgeschichte des Rat. (1853-1861) and Geschichte des Rat. (1865); Ritschl, Christ. Lehre von der Rechtfertigung, &c. (1870), vol. i.; Benn, History of Rationalism (1906). See also histories of philosophy and theology in the 19th century, and the valuable article s.v. by O. Kirn in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyk. xvi. (1905).

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Simple English

File:Frans Hals - Portret van René
René Descartes was a rationalist

Rationalism is a branch of philosophy where the validity of an idea is determined by logic, rather than religious means such as revelations, meditation, emotions or observations.

Rationalist philosophers believe that all knowledge can be understood through a process of reasoning, without any external sources. They do not believe that human beings can understand everything this way, but that it is theoretically possible. Rationalist philosophers attempt to understand ideas like God and the Soul in this manner.

The first people to talk about rationalism were Marin Mersenne and René Descartes, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Other philosophers who are seen as rationalist today include Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. Famous people opposed to this idea were David Hume and John Locke.

Rationalism also influenced natural law. Natural law is a theory that says that there are laws given by nature, valid everywhere. Deism was also influenced by rationalism. According to deism, a supreme being created the universe. This being, and other religious truths can be determined by observing nature, and finding natural laws. This would make religions that are based on revelation unnecessary.


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