Rationalism, or a belief that we come to knowledge through the use of logic, and thus independently of sensory experience, was critical to the debates of the Enlightenment period, when most philosophers lauded the power of reason but insisted that knowledge comes from experience.
Define rationalism and its role in the ideas of the Enlightenment
- Rationalism—as an appeal to human reason as a way of obtaining knowledge—has a philosophical history dating from antiquity. While rationalism did not dominate the Enlightenment, it laid critical basis for the debates that developed over the course of the 18th century.
- René Descartes (1596-1650), the first of the modern rationalists, laid the groundwork for debates developed during the Enlightenment. He thought that the knowledge of eternal truths could be attained by reason alone (no experience was necessary).
- Since the Enlightenment, rationalism is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy as seen in the works of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. This is commonly called continental rationalism, because it was predominant in the continental schools of Europe, whereas in Britain empiricism dominated.
- 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.
- While empiricism (a theory that knowledge comes only or primarily from a sensory experience) dominated the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, attempted to combine the principles of empiricism and rationalism. He concluded that both reason and experience are necessary for human knowledge.
- Since the Enlightenment, rationalism in politics historically emphasized a “politics of reason” centered upon rational choice, utilitarianism, and secularism.
- cogito ergo sum
- A Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes, the first modern rationalist, usually translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.” This proposition became a fundamental element of western philosophy, as it purported to form a secure foundation for knowledge in the face of radical doubt. Descartes asserted that the very act of doubting one’s own existence served, at minimum, as proof of the reality of one’s own mind.
- A theory that states that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism and skepticism, it emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory experience, in the formation of ideas over the notion of innate ideas or traditions.
- A traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, it attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: “Ultimately, what is there?” and “What is it like?”
Rationalism—as an appeal to human reason as a way of obtaining knowledge—has a philosophical history dating from antiquity. While rationalism, as the view that reason is the main source of knowledge, did not dominate the Enlightenment, it laid critical basis for the debates that developed over the course of the 18th century. As the Enlightenment centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, many philosophers of the period drew from earlier philosophical contributions, most notably those of RenéDescartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Descartes was the first of the modern rationalists. He thought that only knowledge of eternal truths (including the truths of mathematics and the foundations of the sciences) could be attained by reason alone, while the knowledge of physics required experience of the world, aided by the scientific method. He argued that reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses. For instance, his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am,” is a conclusion reached a priori (i.e., prior to any kind of experience on the matter). The simple meaning is that doubting one’s existence, in and of itself, proves that an “I” exists to do the thinking.
Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes were all well-versed in mathematics, as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well.
Rationalism v. Empiricism
Since the Enlightenment, rationalism is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy, as seen in the works of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. This is commonly called continental rationalism, because it was predominant in the continental schools of Europe, whereas in Britain, empiricism, or a theory that knowledge comes only or primarily from a sensory experience, dominated. Although rationalism and empiricism are traditionally seen as opposing each other, the distinction between rationalists and empiricists was drawn at a later period, and would not have been recognized by philosophers involved in Enlightenment debates. Furthermore, the distinction between the two philosophies is not as clear-cut as is sometimes suggested. For example, Descartes and John Locke, one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers, have similar views about the nature of human ideas.
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 in his book, Monadology, that “we are all mere Empirics in three fourths of our actions.”
Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are usually credited for laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment. During the mature Enlightenment period, Immanuel Kant attempted to explain the relationship between reason and human experience, and to move beyond the failures of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He wanted to put an end to an era of futile and speculative theories of human experience, and regarded himself as ending and showing the way beyond the impasse between rationalists and empiricists. He is widely held to have synthesized these two early modern traditions in his thought.
Kant named his brand of epistemology (theory of knowledge) “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 (e.g., the existence of God, free will, or the immortality of the human soul). 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 concluded that both reason and experience are necessary for human knowledge. In the same way, Kant also argued that it was wrong to regard thought as mere analysis. In his views, a priori concepts do exist, but if they are to lead to the amplification of knowledge, they must be brought into relation with empirical data.
Since the Enlightenment, rationalism in politics historically emphasized a “politics of reason” centered upon rational choice, utilitarianism, and secularism (later, relationship between rationalism and religion was ameliorated by the adoption of pluralistic rationalist methods practicable regardless of religious or irreligious ideology). Some philosophers today, most notably John Cottingham, note that rationalism, a methodology, became socially conflated with atheism, a worldview. Cottingham writes,
In the past, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, the term ‘rationalist’ was often used to refer to free thinkers of an anti-clerical and anti-religious outlook, and for a time the word acquired a distinctly pejorative force (…). The use of the label ‘rationalist’ to characterize a world outlook which has no place for the supernatural is becoming less popular today; terms like ‘humanist’ or ‘materialist’ seem largely to have taken its place. But the old usage still survives.
“Age of Enlightenment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Kant_Portrait.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant#/media/File:Kant_Portrait.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.
“800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Descartes#/media/File:Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_Ren%C3%A9_Descartes.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.